Portlanders Are Furious at the Prospect of City Parks Being Used as Temporary Homes

Sanctioning people sleeping in parks, with supervision, is a detail of a larger plan. But the idea has drawn remarkable outcry, including from leaders who helped build the city’s park system.

Amanda Fritz was supposed to be retired. On Jan. 1, she completed her third and final term on the Portland City Council, her 12 years distinguished by her efforts to expand the city's parks system into eastside neighborhoods with little greenspace.

But last Wednesday, she was back—alarmed that a new city policy could turn her beloved parks into outdoor homes.

"The city has invested millions in development, maintenance and restoration of parks and open spaces," she warned. "Allowing people to live there and harm the resources will waste taxpayers' money."

Her concern: a line of regulatory language, buried in an overhaul of the city's zoning code, that would allow people to erect "temporary shelter" in any open space in Portland—including parks, wetlands and trails. The shelter would have to be managed by a public or non-profit agency and gain prior city approval.

The sentence is a small part of the Shelter to Housing Continuum, an ambitious plan to ease the creation of homeless shelters across the city. Sanctioning people sleeping in parks, with supervision, is a detail of the larger plan, crafted by staff at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. But the idea has drawn remarkable outcry, including from leaders who helped build the city's park system.

Fritz has been joined in her opposition by two former directors of Portland Parks & Recreation, the founder of the private foundation that funds park improvements, and Mike Lindberg, a onetime city commissioner who, like Fritz, once oversaw the parks bureau.

The return of Fritz to testify before her former colleagues displayed how upset parks advocates are.

"[Fritz] put all of her personal capital on the line," says Mary Anne Cassin, a former bond program manager for Portland Parks & Recreation who has led opposition to the zoning change. "She doesn't like doing these things, but it's personal to her. In a way, it's her legacy, and she sees the train wreck coming."

After Fritz's March 17 testimony, and after WW asked questions about the plan, all five city commissioners released a joint statement to the newspaper, saying they were discussing a way to rewrite the code change. They declined to give details.

"As the commissioners and mayor indicated last Wednesday, they intend to be responsive to the testimony they heard last week, and to the written testimony that they continue to receive—including regarding open spaces," the commissioners' offices wrote. "They have been working to find common ground on how best to incorporate the public feedback. That is ongoing and between the commissioners, but you're welcome to check back with our offices closer to the end of the week after Wednesday's council hearing."

Portland: Neighbors Welcome, the housing nonprofit that has championed the zoning changes, tells WW it wants to use appropriate outdoor spaces to create permanent organized shelters while low-income housing is built.

"I don't just want people to go camping on Mount Tabor. That's not what we're advocating for," says Trisha Patterson, a board member of Portland: Neighbors Welcome. "We're saying remove that blanket ban so that the city isn't taking potential good sites off the table and limiting our ability to respond."

Portland is nearly as divided on homeless camping as it is united in its belief that verdant, fir-dappled parks are a civic crown jewel. That makes the idea of turning Mount Tabor into a homeless shelter as galvanizing as it is far-fetched.

But in fact, the uproar over parks illuminates a reality that already exists at the edges of the city, in North and East Portland, where large-scale camps regularly grow along sloughs and in woods. Those campsites are a symbol of the city's repeated failure to address a housing and addiction crisis. And the idea of erecting temporary shelters, even for six months, struck some Portlanders as giving up, shoveling desperate people out of sight—and into nature that City Hall has also pledged to protect.

Parks advocate Mike Houck, a retired PP&R board member, says what is already happening in out-of-the-way parks is devastating to everyone involved.

"They are totally removed from social services and medical access—it's inhumane," Houck says. "[Mayor Ted] Wheeler says our intention is not to have shelters in natural areas. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If your intention is not to do something, then state it."

Brookside Wetlands is home to many houseless Portlanders, but not by choice.

Blue and gray tents are tucked away in brush along muddy Johnson Creek, where drenched clothes, teddy bears and litter lie. One of those places, along Southeast Foster Road near its intersection with 110th Avenue, is where Veronica lives with her partner and a few other Portlanders who are like family to her.

Veronica, 32, hadn't heard of the proposed zoning change until she spoke with WW, but for her, if it meant that park rangers wouldn't kick her out of the wetlands every couple of weeks, it would be worth it. She and her neighbors were sitting around a fire with their dog Boltz, eating dinner when WW dropped by. They had a deep blue tarp draped over their home, held up by an old fireworks box, to shield their tents and fire from the rain.

What Veronica ultimately wants is to be indoors after three years of being shuffled around Brookside Wetlands.

"It gets hard to pack up every two weeks or every three weeks all the time. Being homeless, it destroys everybody," she says. "It's shitty being out here. I'd rather be inside."

In 1997, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services spent millions of dollars to restore the Johnson Creek floodplain at Brookside Wetlands, reducing the number of floods that inundated residential properties and creating an ecosystem for waterfowl that students can tour.

"It's amazing work they've done," Houck says, "and that's the sort of work being undone by all this illegal, unsanctioned camping that's not being addressed. It's an incredibly difficult issue we need to do something about, and providing alternatives is a moral step."

For housed people living in East Portland, the city's plan to allow six months of temporary shelters on parkland was a signal that camping in places like Brookside Wetlands was permissible—and probably permanent.

"It will be a disaster. It just opens up every park space," says East Portland parks advocate Linda Robinson, who lives in Hazelwood. "[The city] will probably end up in a court case. Park advocates will push for a change. We can't stand the way it is."

For evidence of impending disaster, parks advocates point to Minneapolis, where the city council changed policy last summer to allow people to camp in parks. The city reversed the policy three months later because camps grew too large and officials received complaints about drug use, sex work and untreated mental illness.

Minneapolis park board commissioner Londel French tells WW that allowing camping in park space did not work well.

"A lot of that stuff that happened in that park, it happened all the time and no one gave a shit, but when it's in your face, they don't want to see it," French says. "There's no way to do it in a long-term way that can handle the type of issues [homeless people] face. We didn't know how this would work, we tried to deal with it as best we could, some people got hurt, some crimes were committed."

Opponents of the Portland plan fear that, unlike the Minneapolis experiment, a zoning code change would be difficult to reverse.

"These people did it in a softer way. In this case, if this happens the way it could, it is a permanent zone change," says Cassin, the former parks official. "In this case, we're really setting ourselves up: We haven't tried this, but were making a permanent zone change. That's scary."

City officials say residents are conflating what's happening now in parks with a safer, more regulated system being proposed.

Housing advocates backing the Shelter to Housing Continuum are focused on passing the larger plan—among the biggest victories for creating shelter space in city history—and appear to mostly be in agreement with parks advocates. The City Council is now huddled, looking to placate the residents who complained.

For Fritz, the mere consideration of the idea was baffling. She points to Portland voters' overwhelming approval in November of Measure 26-213—a $45 million annual property tax levy to maintain the city parks system—as a signal of what citizens want, and a promise City Hall made.

"To pass a levy promising to provide better maintenance to parks and natural areas and then to allow an activity that is going to be more challenging for maintenance, that doesn't make any sense at all," Fritz says. "It's now up to the planning staff and the council to figure out a more carefully crafted solution, and I am confident they will be able to do so."

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the temporary outdoor and mass shelters in the zoning proposal would require management by a public or nonprofit agency and would have to obtain city approval before erecting a temporary site in parks or natural areas. WW regrets the error.