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Dan Ryan says Safe Rest Villages remain a priority

The commissioner is no longer in charge of developing the transitional housing sites, but he says he still wants to help the project succeed.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler reshuffled some of the city's biggest bureaus at the start of the year in what he described as an effort to consolidate groups related bureaus together under the same commissioners in preparation for the city's transition to a new form of government.

One of those changes was to give control of the city's Housing Bureau to Commissioner Carmen Rubio. The previous housing director, Commissioner Dan Ryan, now heads up Portland Parks & Recreation, the Office of Community and Civic Life, the Office of Equity and Human Rights and serves as the city's Arts Liaison under a "culture and livability" unbrella.

Ryan was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk, and he said while he's eager to take on his new role, he still wants to make sure the projects he was overseeing at the housing bureau can come to fruition — especially the Safe Rest Villages project.

Safe Rest Villages

Asked to reflect on his first two years as a city commissioner, Ryan highlighted his work to try to streamline and speed up Portland's permitting system. Red tape issues played a role in the slow rollout of the Safe Rest Villages, he said, along with zoning issues and supply chain crunches.

The establishment of new village sites also had to be preceded by decommissioning three sites that had been set up early in the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said "weren't getting results" and had become dangerous.

The villages that have opened so far have helped 70 people transition out of homelessness, a number that Ryan enthusiastically called "a start." He said he would rate himself as a D grade for the speed of the rollout, but a B grade for overall management of the Housing Bureau.

"You've got to see this through," he said, pledging to keep working on the rollout. "The mayor wanted me to see this through, and the good news is we have others in permitting or they're already beginning construction."

Homeless camps

Even as the Safe Rest Village rollout has dragged on, the city is now looking at sites for a much more ambitious plan from Mayor Ted Wheeler to build six large-scale sanctioned campsites and then ban camping elsewhere in the city.

Ryan expressed confidence in that plan, saying that the Safe Rest Village program has "been the trailblazing work" and given the city a playbook for how to get the larger campsites open. 

He also praised a plan from Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson called Housing Multnomah Now, stressing the need to also make sure people can stay housed rather than slipping into homelessness.

Taking over parks

Ryan said he learned early in his term that homelessness, economic development and community safety impact every part of the city's governance, so he said switching to parks isn't a complete change of focus. Portland's parks are a big part of what draws people to the city, he added.

"That's a precious asset that we can't squander," he said. "We have over $500 million in deferred maintenance with our parks, and if we don't get on that soon, then we'll lose those assets."

He also addressed frustration among Portland parents over the current difficulty in getting kids signed up for limited slots in swimming lessons, and said he's aiming to have more swimming instructors on staff by the summer.

"A lot of systems had workforce challenges coming out of COVID, and parks was a part of that when it came to swimming teachers," he said. "There's a lot more incentives now for someone to be a swim coach, we've looked at that and we're also doing heavy recruitment.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7pm, Saturday and Sunday at 6:30pm. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast. 

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