PORTLAND, Ore. -- Though Kenton Women’s Village is Portland’s first homeless village founded with the city’s full backing and permission, it took momentum from an act of social protest.
Last May, tensions over public camping neared a breaking point in Portland, as residents witnessed the effects of an escalating housing crisis and local government’s response.
Reacting to a rising tide of evictions, displacement and homelessness threatening Portland’s increasingly rent-burdened low-income residents, then-Mayor Charlie Hales had declared a housing and homelessness “state of emergency” the previous fall.
That declaration had enabled the city and county to nearly double their collective funding for homeless services, pumping an additional $30 million into the system that, by December 2016, w doulwoudwould help provide rental assistance and eviction prevention services to 25,000 people and fund 600 new shelter beds.
But in February 2016, the mayor also had enacted a more immediate strategy for alleviating the homelessness crisis: a controversial “Safe Sleep” camping policy that allowed homeless people to sleep, in groups of fewer than six people, in public spaces at night.
Within a few months, camping in some parts of the city quickly grew to numbers no one had predicted, especially along the Springwater Creek Trail corridor, where nearly 500 people had pitched tents, making it, according to estimates, the largest homeless camp in the country.
Neighbors and businesses along the corridor complained loudly that the camps were a dangerous nuisance that damaged the natural habitat in the corridor. Bikers and pedestrians who used the walking paths and the bicycle-transit path felt intimidated and threatened.
By May, Hales faced mounting pressure to end the Safe Sleep policy and sweep the camps.
A group of female homeless activists, some of whom would later help found the homeless-village advocacy organization the Village Coalition, saw an opportunity to influence the public policy discussion on public camping. Lisa Lake, president and CEO of grassroots homeless advocacy nonprofit Advocacy 5, along with members of the advocacy group Boots on the Ground PDX and other activists, planned an act of civil disobedience.
The group erected a set of low wooden platforms on a piece of city-owned property in the Lents neighborhood, where a small group of homeless women, all with histories of sexual assault, had been camping. With dexterous use of social media, Vahid Brown, an activist who is now housing coordinator for Clackamas County, and Lake rallied volunteers to donate tents and pitch them on the platforms, clear of potential rain puddles. The women lived there for four days, until the city evicted the camp.
"We wanted to do something to get some safety for a group of women," Cindy Hines, one of the activists involved in the planning, said. "We did get people listening - that we need more places for women and that we can do this easily. It doesn't have to be an expensive thing."
Hales ended the Safe Sleep policy in August and, a month later, ordered the Springwater Creek Trail corridor swept. But Hales, having made homelessness a priority for his last year in office and eager to leave his mark on the issue, promised to find a site for a small village for homeless women. Hales didn't deliver right away, but activists from various quarters held the mayor's office to his promise, and eventually Kenton Women’s Village was the result.
Correction: This article previously misidentified Vahid Brown as a primary organizer of the pop-up shelter. In fact, Brown contributed to installing the shelter but was not a primary organizer. It also misstated the length of time the women camped on the property as one month; in fact, they camped there for approximately four days.
This story is part of “Giving Ground,” an investigative series exploring the rise of the homeless village movement. It is produced by the Open: Housing Journalism Collaborative, a joint project of Open: Housing, Pamplin Media Group and KGW. Look for other stories in this and related series at OpenHousing.net.
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