A downtown Portland encampment of homeless people now has union sponsorship. Laborers Local 483, Painters Local 10, and IATSE Local 28 contributed at least $100 each as part of a “paint-a-door” fundraiser for Right 2 Dream Too, a self-regulated camp at NW Fourth and Burnside. Then as part of the fundraiser, union members visited on June 2 and painted union logos on the salvaged doors that have been repurposed as the camp’s south-facing wall.
“Housing should be a human right for everybody,” said Painters Local 10 vice president Wyatt McMinn just outside the camp. “Any of us could be in this position at any time.”
Its organizers call their camp a “rest area.” But whatever it’s called, a tour given to union volunteers gives the impression of a well-organized operation. Right 2 Dream Too has port-a-potties, trash service, a communal kitchen, a clothing closet, bike storage, and a designated smoking area. Tents are neatly lined up on platforms constructed of shipping pallets to keep them dry. Computers — donated by Free Geek — are being set up in a shed so residents can look for jobs. Unlike other shelters, Right 2 Dream Too allows pets, and lets couples stay together. The camp has tents designated for couples, and a large group tent for single women. From 40 to 90 people sleep there each night.
Sleep and safety are major concerns when you live outdoors, says camp co-founder Ibrahim Mubarak. So residents have prioritized keeping the camp safe and restful. No one may enter after 10 p.m. so that those staying can get to sleep. Visitors sign in and agree to camp rules prohibiting drugs, alcohol or violence of any kind. After three days, they’re expected to volunteer. Weekly meetings are mandatory. The camp’s southern and western perimeters are protected by walls made of doors donated by the Rebuilding Center, and the camp’s entrance is guarded 24-hours a day by volunteers.
The camp has been under way since “World Homeless Day,” Oct. 10, 2011. It’s on a vacant lot, and was set up with the permission of landowner Michael Wright.
But the City of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) has begun fining the owners, saying the camp is in violation of state law and administrative rules, as well as the Portland Zoning Code. BDS spokesperson Ross Caron says the bureau received a citizen complaint, investigated, and determined late last year that a recreational campground was being operated at the site without a campground permit.
“There’s nothing recreational about being homeless,” counters camp leader Claudia Long, aka “Mama Chewy.”
Long and Mubarak say the group hasn’t applied for a permit because to obtain one, they’d have to make changes that aren’t feasible, like a functioning restroom that’s hooked up to the city sewer system — Mubarak says the needed excavation would be prohibitively expensive because the lot is considered to be of archeological interest, with artifacts from its Chinatown past buried beneath it. Also, he says, there would have to be a driveway, and tents would have to be 10’ apart, drastically reducing the camp’s capacity.
BDS also says the doors which make up the camp walls violate city code because they are over 6’ high and the property owner has not applied for a building permit or Historic Design Review approval.
Fines of $641 a month began Jan. 1, and doubled after three months. Caron said the property owners owe $1,335.51, and have paid $3,907 so far.
But Mubarak said it’s Right 2 Dream Too that’s paying the fines, under its agreement with the owners, and the money is coming out of the camp’s food fund. Hence a sign that went up recently on the corner: In bold red letters, it says “Commissioner Dan Saltzman is effectively taking the food out of the mouths of the homeless.” [BDS is one of the bureaus assigned to Commissioner Saltzman.]
“Everyone has a right to express their opinion,” was Saltzman’s reply, relayed by his advisor Matt Grumm. Brendan Finn, Saltzman’s chief of staff, said the commissioner’s office is supportive of Right 2 Dream Too, but the city’s complaint is against the landowner, who has had other disputes with the City dating back to operation of Cindy’s Adult Bookstore at the same site, now demolished. Finn said the City can’t treat the landowner differently than anyone else, where enforcement is concerned.
Right 2 Dream Too supporters are calling on Saltzman and Portland City Council to drop the fines and let the camp remain. They point to other cases where the city relaxes the rules: Portland has a camping ban, but waives it once a year for people who camp out the night before the Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade.
“When our union was fighting budget cuts at the City of Portland, Right 2 Dream Too showed up to every action to help save our members’ jobs,” said Wesley Buchholz, Executive Board member of Laborers’ Local 483. “When I learned that the City fines them every month for violating the camping rules, I knew it was our turn to support them.”