A Mass Shelter: Full of Hope or Concern

By  Don MacGillivray

The public does not seem to know about the extensive work being done to address the homeless situation in Portland.

Media coverage with their short articles, sixty second television news spots, and their sensational photos and film clips exacerbate the ugliness and fear brought on by the situation.

There are many people working to solve homelessness, but even after 30 years they don’t have the tools and resources to deal with the increasing number of people that need help.

Homeless that are not in shelters do not have any good options other than camping on Portland’s streets.

Those that provide care know what works, but the challenge is too great to help everyone.

In fact Portland’s social services have helped 4,350 people to get off the streets over the last year. Children, families, and women are prioritized to receive care because they are the most vulnerable and they have the greatest incentive to end the period of homelessness.

One success story is in finding housing for local veterans. This is because there is a federal program that supports this activity.

Higher rents are just one more reason people become homeless. However social services are working with some landlords willing to rent to the homeless referred to them. In addition there are retention workers that work to help the homeless stay housed.

On the horizon a possible improvement is a new mass homeless shelter for 400 to 1,200 people located at the Terminal One warehouse site on Portland’s NW waterfront.

Homer Williams, one of Portland’s most successful developers, suggested this idea after visiting a large mass shelter in San Antonio, Texas. It was welcome by some, but it also has many critics.

If successful, the new shelter will be developed as campus and a multi-service center providing accommodations and services for a large number of the homeless population.

The initial early cost estimate went down from $100 million to $60 million, but this may be further reduced as plans become more definite.

Initially there won’t be any permanent changes to the 96,000 square foot warehouse or the 14.5-acre property. It will become a temporary shelter through the addition of portable toilets, sinks, showers and waste removal services.

Portable propane heaters will heat the building during the winter months. Security will be required as needed as well as onsite medical services, a kennel for pets, and donated storage lockers. Critics say that this site will result in the warehousing of the homeless while its supporters deny it.

Williams, the project’s founder, believes the new shelter can be privately financed with minimal public funding. He has received positive responses from a number of his associates and local area businesses. It holds the potential of being another fine example of Portland’s can-do spirit and inventiveness although nothing is on paper yet.

On August 10, Mayor Hales, Commissioners Saltzman, and Novick voted in favor of leasing Terminal One for six months as a temporary shelter while the future of a larger facility is considered.

If it were not for the housing emergency declared last fall by Mayor Hales, it is doubtful it could withstand the controversial attacks made by its opponents. If this Terminal One experiment is unsuccessful, the mayor will pull the plug on it.

Not only does this idea violate Portland’s zoning code and the newly-adopted Comprehensive Plan, but the city is working on policy that will limit mass shelters to accommodate no more than 200 people.

This project blindsided the Bureau of Environment Service (BES), under the direction of Commissioner Nick Fish this spring. BES has been working to sell the property as an industrial site for a significant profit over the last few years.

Portland Utility Board is concerned the property will not return its fair market value to Portland’s utility ratepayers and has recommended against the decision or at least to postpone it. A local critic has filed a lawsuit to prevent the property from being used as a shelter to keep BES from subsidizing a shelter.

There is also a considerable disagreement over the value of the property. The Housing Bureau believes that the rent should be the current $10,000 per month that Nike is paying for an indoor track on the site.

The BES who owns the property and is selling it believes it should rent for $100,000 per month. The 14.5-acre property is valued at $8 million and offers of up to $10 million have been received for it.

Another problem with Terminal One is that it was previously an industrial site that is known to be contaminated with hazardous waste. It is approved for industrial use, but housing is held to a much higher standard.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality may require an expensive cleanup of this shelter site as was required for the adjacent medium density residential apartments under construction.

Mayor Hales and Commission Saltzman believe any cleanup of the temporary shelter site can be waived because of the homeless and housing emergency that the city imposed last October.

The Portland Business Alliance (PBA) earlier supported Terminal One for a temporary shelter as long as it reverted to industrial use later. Now they are against it because it can be sold for an appropriate price allowing it to provide the city with good paying industrial jobs.

Northwest neighborhoods are ardently against it. The new apartment residents nearby are upset because a homeless shelter will cause untold problems. They fear the worst and, if history is a guide they might be right.

Environmentalists are concerned that with the loss of the Terminal One site, the city will push the development of the remainder of Hayden Island due to Portland’s lack of industrial land.

In addition to Homer Williams and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, the homeless shelter proposal is supported, by Don Mazziotti, former Director of the Portland Development Commission, and Rich Rodgers, a former housing policy staffer at City Hall.

Absent were the voices of Multnomah County, A Home for Everyone, and the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Opening the vacant Wapato county jail as a homeless shelter has often been suggested as an alternative site. It is estimated that the cost to open it will be $10 million and $3.5 million annually to operate it.

A clause in the state loan for the facility prevents the county from using this building for anything but a jail. This may be why Multnomah County does not believe it to be a practical solution. It was built in 2004 for $58 million and it annually costs $300,000 to maintain unused. Its capacity as a jail is 525 inmates and it is 13 miles from downtown Portland.

There are additional shelters and low income housing being developed. The city and county have promised 650 new shelter beds before July 2017. This would provide a total of about 1,100 shelter beds.

Money has been allocated to build affordable housing and shelters for the very low income homeless and when the housing bond passes in November more can be built.

The Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico is helping the homeless by providing them with jobs. For the last year on two days each week, a van picks up ten volunteer panhandlers who are willing to work beautifying the city at slightly more than the minimum wage. Over the last year 70,000 pounds of litter and weeds were removed from 196 city blocks. Portland has a successful program that is similar that hires the homeless to care for downtown Portland.

If the federal government would modify the residential homeowner tax deductions by about 20%, about $20 billion could available to be used to help solve the homeless problem. It seems a little unfair that the largest housing tax expenditure goes to the middle class while the funding for affordable housing remains less than needed.

The bottom line is that a place or places must be found for Portland’s 2,000 homeless street people, hopefully before winter begins. To date there has been little or no funding, no public process, and no due diligence in addressing the issue. This will need to change before any idea is realized, but all solutions are likely to be controversial.

Solving homelessness is one of the things more complicated than rocket science. We would not have been able to go to the moon without generous government funding.

With the appropriate resources solving homelessness can be equally successful, but the past thirty years have taught us that it won’t be easy.

A Mass Shelter: Full of Hope or Concern

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