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A North Portland Church Offered to Host a Pod Village for Homeless People. Then Campers Arrived Unannounced.

The congregation of St. Johns Christian Church agreed to provide space for homeless residents of Hazelnut Grove, but aren't happy about the new arrivals.

Last month, the congregation of St. Johns Christian Church in North Portland voted to donate an empty lot on church property to host a pod village for homeless people. Parishioners were in discussions with local government to bring a sanctioned homeless village—called Hazelnut Grove—to church property.

That won't happen until 2020 at earliest.

But since Monday, about 10 people have set up camp unannounced in a grassy lot across from the church. Homeless advocate Mimi German initiated the move to the church after the village was swept out of their old location on a bike trail in St. Johns yesterday.

"[The] church sanctioned a village to come here," says German. "So what's the matter with this?"

The impromptu camp calls itself the Jason Barnes Village. The group is named after Jason Barnes, a member of the group who died last summer when he was hit by a drunk driver while out collecting cans.

"It became all the more important for us to get this village going," says German.

Pastor David Libby, the senior pastor at St. Johns Christian Church, has not responded to multiple calls and a text from WW. But in text messages provided by German, Libby said that the camp had already drawn quite a few complaints from neighbors, and that it needs to leave.

"We simply can't have them camping on the property," Libby wrote to German, in response to her pleas to let the group stay for at least two weeks to get some rest. "I've spoken with them and told them this. They stayed last night, but they need to stop camping on the property today."

Complicating matters is that the Jason Barnes Village was not actually camping on church property for the first two days, but rather, in a vacant lot behind a school, the Wayfinding Academy. (German says the school has been supportive of the Jason Barnes Village.)

But by Wednesday, the group had firmly relocated onto church property.

German told WW that the pastor came by this morning with coffee and wants to speak with folks from the Jason Barnes Village. A port-a-potty was dropped off earlier in the afternoon.

Laterice Brown, a houseless resident of the Jason Barnes Village, surmises that the reticence in letting people from Jason Barnes Village stay on church property is predicated on past interactions with homeless people who have camped in the area and not respected the space.

Brown says she understands where the parishioners are coming from.

"I can understand that. No one wants to have to deal with that. But me, my husband and my friends, we're not like that. We're way different from that," says Brown. "We're not trying to be here forever, this is not a lifetime thing. This is only temporary."

The church recently offered its property to a city-sanctioned homeless camp seeking a new home.

That camp, called Hazelnut Grove, is currently located in the Overlook neighborhood in North Portland. In the fall of 2017, Mayor Ted Wheeler said the village residents needed to move after the Overlook neighborhood association had been pushing for their departure.

German says she's in favor of Hazelnut Grove coming to the area as long as houseless folks already living in St. John's also have a place to be.

"For Hazelnut Grove to come here, not a problem," says German. "For our folks in St. Johns to have nothing is a problem."

Denis Theriault, the spokesperson for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, says that while the St. Johns Christian Church is being considered as a site for the residents of Hazelnut Grove to relocate to, nothing is finalized, and that they are considering another location in St. Johns as well. He acknowledges the church site does present fewer challenges than any other site, and that site construction could start as early as September and could be built by Spring 2020.

"It's a discussion. We haven't formally negotiated a lease yet. The joint office does not have any legal control yet over that property," says Theriault. "There is a real need for services in St. Johns, where many people are camping now, or doubling up with friends and family, because of how expensive housing in the neighborhood has become. That's why a village with tiny homes and real bathrooms, a kitchen and social services, near community amenities, can be such an asset here."

Theriault says that the majority of the tents remain on school property and outreach workers went to the camp today along with the pastor and school officials. The school officials also asked the campers to move, he says.

At 5:30 pm today, German says, the pastor gave the Jason Barnes Village a 24 hour notice to vacate the premises.

The group, German says, has no intention of moving.