Story by Pete Shaw
Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo), the rest area for people without housing currently located at the corner of Burnside and NW 4th, must wait until Wednesday to find out if it will have a new home in Southeast Portland. After four hours of deliberation on February 18 the City Council appeared ready to vote on a resolution to affirm R2DToo’s move. Instead, Commissioner Steve Novick, who was silent throughout the meeting, asked to delay the vote at the last moment, saying there were “some conversations” he wanted to have “with staff.”
Founded in 2011, R2DToo has helped hundreds of houseless people–from providing a safe place to spend the night to assisting them in finding jobs and permanent housing. In 2013, just as it was poised to move a spot under the northwest side of the Broadway Bridge, Pearl District residents and developers pushed back, and the plan was scuttled.
One key difference between then and now is that Mayor Charlie Hales is not seeking re-election. Perhaps since he is no longer beholden to the fundraising and glad-handing that accompany political campaigning, Hales has been free to pursue a more aggressive agenda. While he has hardly offered the systemic solutions required to meaningfully attack the problem of houselessness, his efforts have yielded some temporary solutions that may point the way toward more permanent ones. The SE Harrison and 3rd Avenue plot that the City recently bought from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)–the land that Hales (and Commissioner Amanda Fritz) intend to be R2DToo’s new home–is part of that plan.
The council session was essentially divided into two parts, both surrounding R2DToo’s move. The first order of business concerned vacating a portion of Harrison Street that abuts both the plot and East Side Plating (ESP), a metal finishing company–a move Hales called necessary whether R2DToo’s move was approved or not. That vacation would permanently close Harrison Street where it intersects with SE 3rd Avenue.
While testimony was supposed to be on the street vacancy issue, opponents were already eager to explain why R2DToo should not be allowed to provide its services. Andrew James of WYSE Real Estate Advisors had to be reminded by both Fritz and Hales to stay on topic and quickly pivoted to safety issues, a topic that consumed most of the 11 people who spoke against the change. Debbie Kitchen, a property and business owner in the area, also said the vacation would cause “irreparable harm” to various companies in the area.
In particular, representatives (including the owner) of ESP testified that changes to the street would result in a drastic loss to their business, focusing in particular on potential issues with the trucks that deliver chemicals (many of which are corrosive) to East Side Plating. Their arguments were difficult to follow at times, largely because they were often contradictory. For example, ESP president Gary Rehnberg began by chastising the council for pursuing the vacancy despite the opposition of the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC). Commissioner Nick Fish noted that the City had responded to the PSC’s opposition and asked Rehnberg how the new proposal would affect ESP. Though Rehnberg said he had not seen the new proposal, he stood by his opposition.
After city facilities manager Bob Keita came forward and explained the current proposal, Rehnberg noted that delivery trucks servicing ESP would, if the vacancy passed, be required to back up to transfer their contents to the factory–something he asserted the drivers would be unwilling to do. The alternative, which involved using barrels instead of bulk delivery, would be vastly inefficient and would harm business.
Scott Hendrickson, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at ESP then presented a short video showing the difficulties trucks already had making deliveries. Navigating through a parking lot, the truck made a hairpin turn on to Harrison as well as some of the City-owned parcel, and then–despite what Rehnberg had just stated–easily backed up to make its delivery. When Fish noted the discrepancy, Hendrickson stated the problem was a matter of poor visibility of oncoming traffic.
Hales found interest in the video, particularly the truck’s use of Harrison Street and the City-owned plot. “Your business has been relying on the use of this piece of real estate and this public right of way to conduct the truck maneuver that you just described,” he told Hendrickson. “The video you just showed us shows you are relying on the free, available use of a piece of real estate plus the free, available use of this city right of way.”
Tim Lamb, an owner of ESP, stressed that his feelings had nothing to do with people without housing, but the simple reality that there was no way to close off Harrison Street without hurting his business by limiting the services ESP could offer to customers. “It’s pretty hard for me to credit a situation in which you’ve made major investment in the reliance on trespassing on an adjacent property,” Hales told Lamb, who responded by saying ODOT had allowed for the land’s use by East Side Plating. When Hales asked if Lamb had this in writing, Lamb replied he did not.
Hales then offered a solution whereby the City would build a driveway to the plant that would also prove a better angle for trucks and, allowing East Side Plating to lease the required land for $1. Lamb saw no reason why that could not work.
Linda, who has been working for 43 years near the site of R2DToo’s new home, parks her car at ESP. She expressed worry about houseless people getting in the way of deliveries and also that she will have a hard time finding parking, should the City vacate the street and allow R2DToo to relocate. Susan Kiel, Chair of the Board of OMSI, saw it as her mission to “defend our community from harmful actions by the City,” and worried about the burden local businesses would bear should that portion of Harrison be vacated.
Following the testimony of two supporters of the vacancy, one of whom, Robert Jackson, accused opponents of taking a “Not In My Backyard” attitude, the council added an amendment to the resolution, saying it would work in good faith with ESP to make truck access to its plant easier. The resolution passed unanimously.
In 2013, opposition testimony at City Council regarding R2DToo’s possible move to a site under the Broadway Bridge, ranged between sudden concern for the well-being of people without housing (who, for example, might get ill from bird droppings) to outright hatred toward them. In fact, the way houseless people were being described bore more than a passing resemblance to the kind of verbal abuse seen at recent Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rallies.
During the second portion of Thursday’s City Council session, which dealt with both the zoning of the land to which R2DToo would move and approval for that move, opponents’ language rarely seemed to reach the same fevered pitch. Or maybe it did, but after years of hearing demeaning language relentlessly used toward people without housing, it failed to register as painfully.
Hales introduced the two resolutions by noting the state of emergency regarding housing and how R2DToo’s move would be just one of many attempts to deal with the problem, with Fish adding that “nobody here thinks that living in a tent is an ideal solution.” Hales, no doubt aware that opponents of the move would play the crime card, noted that the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct Commander, Sara Westbrook described calls to the rest area as “non-existent.”
After Matt Wickstrom of the Bureau of Development Services’ Land Use Division explained how the new R2Dtoo site would fit zoning regulations, the council heard invited testimony. Trish Reed an R2DToo board member recapped many of the organization’s achievements, including helping 297 people find housing, 286 people find work, 35 people get off drugs, 17 women keep their children, and 35 people complete online education degrees. “We cater to everyone who comes to our gates,” Reed said. “We do our best to provide safety, support, and love to our family. And these people are our family.”
Brad Maisil, President of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, opposed the move saying it would do “irreparable harm” to business. Maisil, like many others, took pains to note that he had nothing against R2DToo, a line often repeated during the session. Andrew James came back for a second round to express worry for the safety of people without housing. “We owe all people a restful, peaceful place to rest their heads,” James said, while maintaining an apparent imperviousness to the feelings houseless people might actually have in relation to their own safety.
Mr. Parker, who volunteers at the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, asked the commissioners to consider the great harm people without housing might cause to the historic trains lying just below where R2DToo would stay. And Debbie Kitchen returned to expressed fear that the Good Neighbor Agreement that R2DToo would sign would not be worth the paper it was written on, because the organization would be lying about anything it said.
Gary Rehnberg kicked off his second appearance by obsequiously thanking Hales for “the privilege of using your property,” as a person in the gallery suggested the commissioners collect back-fees from him for parking. Rehnberg then said that his primary concern as president of ESP is the safety of the 129 employees he serves.
In an effort to prove he is not against the houseless, but instead for a safe truck turnaround, ESP owner Tim Lamb let it be known that his sister was houseless, but then went on to say he would he not want her to be “forced to camp” at the new location. Lamb’s comments evoked some quiet jeering from the crowd to the effect that if he cares so much why would he be opposed to her finding refuge with a group that has done so much to assist people without housing?
Linda said she realized people without housing need a place to stay, but she was concerned about drug use as well as “our safety, especially after dark.”, followed by hand wringing about garbage and drug needles and all sorts of other horrors that doubtless would deter customers from doing business in the area, though in point of fact none of these concerns apply to R2DToo. “Please help us protect East Side Plating jobs,” she begged the council.
Jeremy Horn, a chemical engineer who works at ESP, expressed worry that in the event of a toxic spill, the people at R2DToo’s rest area would not know how to react. A bit later Mike Summers of R2DToo, said he had worked a job similar to the workers at ESP and that he could easily teach people at the rest area how to respond in the event of an emergency.
In a way, Horn and Summers showed one of the glaring differences between opponents of the move and people without housing, as well as their advocates. Opponents’ language is heavily laden with assumptions about houseless people, and–despite numerous assurances of care and compassion for people without housing–appears to be rooted in fear, greed, and ignorance that come together to form the central question, “What can we do to make them go away?”
More often than not, the people without housing used the language of uplift to describe what they want, or more accurately, what they need. They understandably see R2DToo for what it has done and what it will continue to do for those it serves.
Sarah credits the organization for helping she and her husband stick together, saying R2DToo “is great when you don’t have other options.” Lisa Fay noted that despite the fears of opponents, R2DToo would be enticing others without housing to the area. Fay implored opponents to ask R2DToo’s current neighbors about how it has enhanced the neighborhood.
Wade Varner talked about R2DToo’s value in providing humane solutions such as those noted earlier by Trish Reed. Pork Chop, who has stage 4 cancer and a partially amputated leg, lives in Bud Clark Commons, which he described as a “heroin house.” R2DToo has helped him “keep clean and sober, noting that the rest area, “let me be safe. Right 2 Dream Too has saved my life”. Pork Chop also told Tim Lamb that he would be willing to help his sister get back on her feet by taking her to R2DToo, to which Lamb made no reply.
Tammy Moody came to R2DToo 3 years ago. She credited it with saving her marriage and helping her get off drugs. Another man described arriving at R2DToo four years ago with a methamphetamine addiction and a failing marriage. He said the rest area helped him turn his life around. Later on he moved to Idaho and started a business, but soon fell back into old problems, so he has returned to R2DToo, noting–with his wife beside him–that as of the coming Sunday, he will have been clean for 5 weeks.
A few people provided additional constructive testimony. Dan Yates suggested allowing camping in McCall Park as well as the City buying old boats and refurbishing them for people to live on along the Willamette River, while Joe Lobesque offered to provide the council with his expertise on building affordable homes, an offer Commissioner Fritz took up. Tim McCormick promoted the use of “houslets” and noted that while the new site may not be ideal, every site would have its battles. “In the meantime,” he said, “if you don’t do something, you keep people on the street.”
R2DToo co-founder Ibrahim Mubarrak noted that none of the people who were speaking out against the move appeared to have shown any concern for R2DToo, and ostensibly people without housing, before the City proposed this move.
After the council session, Commissioner Novick declined to elaborate on his reasons for a postponement, which is his prerogative; however, as he is normally a stalwart defender of progressive values, his delay has registered as odd.
So once again, the fate of Right 2 Dream Too lies in abeyance, which really is another way of saying that at least by some, the lives and dignity of people without housing are again being ignored.
Take action: Call the City commissioners and tell them you support Right 2 Dream Too’s move to its new location. Then show up at the City Council meeting at 2:00 PM this Wednesday, February 24 in support of R2DToo and people without housing.
City commissioners’ phone numbers:
Nick Fish (503) 823-3589
Amanda Fritz (503) 823-3008
Charlie Hales (503) 823-4120
Steve Novick (503) 823-4682
Dan Saltzman (503) 823-4151