PORTLAND, Ore. — One of Portland's homeless villages could be in jeopardy because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says the city is violating deed restrictions when it comes to how the land is meant to be used.
The village, which consists of 30 tiny homes for those formerly living on the streets in the back of a large parking lot off Southwest Multnomah Boulevard, is Portland’s first of six Safe Rest Villages. The villages are organized camps where those experiencing homelessness can live for about six months before, ideally, transitioning into permanent housing. The project has been championed by housing commissioner Dan Ryan but has faced significant hurdles and delays.
The village is located at the former SFC Jerome F. Sears Army Reserve Center in Southwest Portland. Crews just finished building the village site. About 16 people live there, but that could all change.
“It’s been nice,” said one man who moved into the village on June 13.
“It's obviously out of the downtown setting, so it's a lot less chaotic then being surrounded by people yelling all day.”
He previously stayed at the temporary outdoor shelter in Old Town, which shut down earlier this month due to increased gun violence in the area.
“Having access to laundry and restroom services and clean clothes and food, it has all the basis covered for which you normally worry about when you're living on the streets, so with those covered you can have time to do other things.” He explained not all the tiny homes are filled.
“It's only half full right now, which I don't understand. There’s people downtown that need a house.”
The Joint Office of Homeless Services did not respond to KGW's questions about why the village is only operating half-full.
In 2012, the federal government allowed the city of Portland to use the property under the agreement that the city would use it only for “emergency management services.” According to Oregon law, that includes emergency response prevention training, mitigation and recovery activities. Since then, the city has used the site for storing emergency response equipment and as a training ground for police practicing emergency response drills. Back in 2015, it was used as a temporary homeless shelter.
Now, part of the parking lot is an organized camp, where those experiencing homelessness can live for about six months at a time. In a recent property assessment, requested by the General Services Administration (GSA), FEMA said they didn’t recognize the Safe Rest Village as emergency use.
The city told KGW they don't have the capacity to talk on camera.
The Office of Management and Finances said in a statement: "We have declared a housing emergency and are moving forward with the development of the safe rest village at this site in good faith to address this emergency…we are working with FEMA on their suggestion to ensure compliance and meet this critical need."
FEMA responded to KGW’s request for comment with the following statement:
“FEMA has no direct involvement with the oversight, inspection, and enforcement of the Sears property deed. GSA asked FEMA to advise if the proposed additional use for this property was consistent with emergency management purposes as required by the surplus properties disposal requirements found within the current deed. FEMA provided GSA its assessment. GSA is responsible for enforcement of compliance with the terms and conditions of the transfer of surplus properties such as the Sears property. Any questions should be directed to GSA.”
GSA did not immediately return requests for comment. All Good Northwest, the nonprofit running the village, also declined an interview, but said through text message that they will "simply continue to do the work they're contracted to do… to shelter, support and house individuals."
The city is now working on ways to ensure they're in compliance with the federal government. Those living at the village can stay while the city works with the federal government to resolve these issues.
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