Portland City Council members, back in March, directed city planners to search for ways to simplify and shorten the process of opening homeless shelters in certain parts of the city.
This week, they got their wish.
In a 60-page report, titled “Mass Shelters and Housing Zoning Code Update”, directors with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability laid out their recommendations, which could go up for a vote as soon as next week.
In short, the report recommends allowing larger shelters in commercial zones to increase their overall capacities. That means facilities in the Pearl District or Old Town, for instance, would be able to accommodate up to 200 people. Currently, that cap stands at 100.
Second, the new recommendations would allow religious institutions and schools to operate small shelters, holding up to 50 people, in some residential parts of the city.
In certain cases, approval for such sites would be downgraded from a complex Type III process, to the shorter, simpler Type II.
“In certain residential zones, they could potentially house 15 people within their basement or something along those lines,” said city planner Phil Nameny. “If it's in a single dwelling zone, they'd have to go through a conditional use review, regardless.”
Those tasked with running shelters at Portland nonprofit Transition Projects say opening one is a nightmare.
“It’s pretty challenging,” said Tony Bernal. “There are strict limits on the number of people who can be in shelters the zones in which shelters can operate.”
Many of the shelters run by TP sit in commercial zones. Currently, those facilities have to be at least 1,300 feet apart.
The report recommends cutting that distance down to 600 feet.
“It's already costly to operate shelters. We really need to make it easy as possible to open them for people who want to do that,” he said.
But homeowners are not convinced, especially those living near some of the city’s newest shelters.
Northeast Portland’s Hansen shelter opened over the summer, despite neighbors objections.
Months later, they say they’re still dealing with more instances of theft, littering and other issues not present before the shelter’s opening.
City and county officials have maintained shelter staff enforce a strict code of conduct among residents.
Still, Novella Crane, who lives about a mile from the facility, worries making it easier for shelters to open is a scary thought.
“It bothers me because I can imagine them opening up just everywhere,” she said. “And the thing is, it's not that I don’t have sympathy for homeless people. I do, but when you've been homeless for five years, that's a career. That's not 'down on my luck.’”
Nameny said council members are expected to vote on the recommendations next Wednesday.
If approved, he said the laws would go into effect as soon as December but likely wouldn’t be put to use for nearly a year after that.
That’s because the city, currently, is still in its state of emergency, which is scheduled to continue through October, 2017.
For now, said Nameny, the process of opening a shelter is easier than it’s ever been.
This report, he said, is more representative of Portland’s long term strategy.