Neighbors lobby against city plan to allow park ‘camping’

See some of concerns raised about how the Portland ‘Shelter to Housing Continuum Project’ zoning code changes could affect outer East Portland open spaces. It’s not too late to testify …

The Portland City Council will soon decide if encampments, like this one in the Wilkes neighborhood, will be moving into city parks and open space.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

On  the surface, the “Shelter to Housing Continuum” (S2HC) Project being developed by the City of Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BES), and the Joint City-County Office of Homeless Services to “retool City codes to better address the homelessness crisis”, doesn’t seem objectionable.

“The project will further fair housing, expand shelter and housing options, and improve city code to aid shelter and housing providers,” BES officials insist.

While the current proposal does not allow for shelters to be permanently located in open space zones, part of the package would allow the “temporary siting” of shelters in parks and open spaces for no more than 180 days.

By the way, “outdoor shelters” are defined as “organized groups of accommodations that are not buildings” – such as tents, yurts, tiny houses on wheels, or recreational vehicles, for example.

This part of the S2HC project has raised the hackles of several “Parks Friends” group leaders, as well as longtime outer East Portland Parks advocate Linda Robinson, who spoke with East Portland News about the issue.

Public spaces, such as this one in the Gateway District, might soon be zoned for “temporary siting” of shelters.

Stands up for ‘parks for all’
“As we’ve seen during the pandemic, parks play a very significant role in maintaining the physical and emotional health of urban residents,” Robinson stated. “Parks provide a place where one can exercise, connect with nature, escape the isolation of their home, and more safely interact with other people; in short, public parks are important community-gathering places.

“The functions provided by parks can be especially important for those with limited access – for financial or travel reasons – to enjoy other, more-costly venues,” Robinson maintained. “Many of these people already feel vulnerable – physically and emotionally – due to the infirmities of age or disabilities, racism, language barriers, and more.

Those without an indoor home need to live somewhere; elected officials may permit sidewalk camps, like this on in the Hazelwood neighborhood, to move into a nearby park.

Keeping public spaces for all to use
“In order for these people to benefit from parks, they need to feel both welcome and safe when using them,” contended Robinson. “When there are groups of houseless people living in a public park, whether it be ‘managed’ or ‘ad hoc’, the houseless people feel vulnerable to taunts, theft, cold, violence, etc. – and, at the same time – housed people in the community feel vulnerable, too.

“Parks are public spaces, purchased and maintained with public funds,” Robinson pointed out. “Our parks are intended for use by all; so, if a small group becomes dominant within the space, the space is no longer available for use by everyone.”

The parks advocate told East Portland News that while she realizes that elected officials need to “have extra flexibility” when an emergency of any kind exists, “to build that open-ended flexibility – such as siting outdoor homeless shelters in parks – into the permanent Zoning Code, even when there is no declared emergency, makes no sense.

“There would likely be numerous unintended consequences,” Robinson stressed.

Camps of houseless people, such as this one in the Lents neighborhood, could move into city parks – for up to six months at a time – if proposed zoning changes are approved.

On March 31, 2021, when it was obvious that they would not be able to approve all the new code changes by April 4 – the end of the current housing emergency – members of the Portland City Council elected to extend the emergency for another year; thus the “new” emergency declaration will expire April 4, 2022.

Vote delayed until April 14
The Portland City Council delayed the vote until April 14, so there can be an opportunity for the public to comment on some of the more-recent proposed amendments.

So, while it would be legal for City Council to approve siting shelters in parks, they are not likely to do so, Robinson believes. “They have heard the voices of city residents who overwhelmingly oppose having shelters in our parks, and they’ve responded.

“At this point, it appears there is nothing we can do to place restrictions on the ‘emergency powers’ of the City Council,” Robinson contended. “However, we must be diligent, keeping our eyes on the process, and expressing our concerns if and when needed.

“We can also encourage Commissioner Carmen Rubio and Portland Parks & Recreation to partner with the community, and keep us informed if specific park properties are being considered for shelter locations – transparency, and open lines of communication, are going to be critical for this program to succeed,” concluded Robinson.

Sign up by April 13 to testify now
Before you submit your written testimony, be sure to check out the S2HC documents. Then, register to testify by please register by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 13.

CLICK HERE to open the BES webpage. Scroll down to the “Featured Content” section, and click on the box: EXTERNAL RESOURCE | Submit testimony on S2HC through the Map App. From there, you can access relevant documents, and the “Testify” link.

© 2021 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™


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