In 2013, Portland Public Schools found a new use for the former Washington High School campus, 32 years after classes were last in session.
Real estate developer Venerable Properties paid $2 million for the building and spent more than $17 million to renovate it. The company found archetypal creative-class businesses as tenants: the corporate headquarters of local grocery chain New Seasons and the city's hippest performance venue, Revolution Hall.
Now the building is getting a neighbor—one that also epitomizes the changing face of Portland. A new kind of homeless shelter may be moving in two blocks south to share a piece of the campus.
Mayor Charlie Hales made the announcement at his final state of the city address March 25.
"The city is partnering with Portland Public Schools to use a now-empty building for a Portland Homeless Navigation Center—an innovation in how shelters operate in a way that builds on people's inherent dignity," Hales said in the speech.
He didn't say where the center would be located. But WW reported that afternoon that the city had cut a deal with the school district to lease an outbuilding at the Washington High campus in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Buckman.
Behind the scenes, Hales and PPS Superintendent Carole Smith had been negotiating over the property for at least a month.
The plan helps fulfill Hales' promise to bring more homeless services to neighborhoods across Portland. But it also comes as a surprise to neighbors and nearby businesses.
Here are five things to know about the plan:
1. What is a Homeless Navigation Center?
It's a homeless shelter that tries to be very welcoming to homeless people to gain them quick access to services and a path out of camps and toward permanent housing. At a San Francisco homeless navigation center, officials allow people to come into the shelter as couples or in groups—a non-starter at most shelters. They can bring in their dogs and get help obtaining drug treatment or finding their families.
Earlier this year, Hales toured the San Francisco center with City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury. "We were impressed with the humanity it provided people, and the data show this innovation really works," Hales said in his speech. "Forty-six percent of clients come from homeless camps, and nearly 60 percent have left to permanent housing in the San Francisco area or back in their hometowns."
Hales' chief of staff, Josh Alpert, says the building may first open as a traditional shelter while the city finalizes plans for the navigation center.
2. Where will it be located?
At the south end of the Washington High campus, where PPS still owns a one-floor brick building. That's the opposite end from the main building, where Revolution Hall and the New Seasons corporate headquarters are located. "The school district told us numerous times they wanted to tear it down," says Buckman Community Association board member Susan Lindsay.
3. What did Superintendent Carole Smith get in return for loaning the property
Smith reached a tentative agreement with Hales on last week, says PPS spokesman Jon Isaacs. The school district won't charge the city rent. Instead, Hales' office pledged to pay for bus passes for PPS—a perennial target of budget cuts—and fund police officers to guard school buildings. (The city eliminated the police officer for the Cleveland High School cluster this school year, and reduced the number of police officers for the Franklin High School cluster from two to one, angering parents.) The school district is also asking that PPS students and their families get priority for services, an idea first floated by School Board member Steve Buel.
4. What do tenants at Washington High think?
"We need to learn more about this specific proposal," says New Seasons spokeswoman Claudia Knotek, "but appreciate the city's efforts to explore new ways of supporting homeless people." Jim Brunberg, co-owner of Revolution Hall, says he doesn't know anything yet about the project. Venerable Properties president Craig Kelly says he met with Hales last week, and has asked the city for more information. "I'm concerned that it could harm us financially and socially," he says. "Do I need to add more security to my building so I can sleep at night?"
5. How will this change the neighborhood?
San Francisco saw heavy use of its navigation center. City supervisor David Campos told the San Francisco Chronicle in September the shelter attracted more homeless people to the Mission neighborhood. "Other parts of the city need to step up," Campos said.
The Buckman neighborhood had for nearly three decades been the site of St. Francis Park, a swath of hills and fountains owned by the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. The church allowed homeless people to spend their days there, but in 2014 sold the property for affordable housing.
"There's so much need in this area," says Susan Unger of St. Francis, which serves meals to about 100 people a day. "It will clean up the streets. People will find a place to be and be safer."