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City eyes former Whitaker Middle School property for Safe Rest Village site for the homeless

With two months left until the city's self-imposed deadline to get the villages up and running, only two of six locations have been finalized.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland city officials are eyeing the former Whitaker Middle School campus in Northeast Portland as a possible site for one of the city's six planned Safe Rest Villages, which will provide shelter and access to basic services for homeless Portland residents.

The city has promised to get the villages up and running by the end of the year, but officials are still struggling to find suitable sites. Commissioner Dan Ryan's office has only announced three locations so far, one of which was later nixed when it was discovered that the land sat in a floodplain.

More recently, Ryan's office contacted Portland Public Schools (PPS) about the Whitaker site. The school was shut down in 2005 due to high levels of radon and other environmental hazards and the building was eventually demolished.

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PPS board member Amy Kohnstamm said the city submitted its proposal very recently, so the PPS board and staff have not yet had a chance to review the particulars.

"That said, we have a humanitarian crisis in our city, and so we absolutely feel a responsibility to evaluate this and see if there's some way that we can help with the problem."

Board member Julia Brim-Edwards noted that the city's proposal comes at a time when the board is already looking at two other proposals for the future of the site: an internal plan to build a regional athletic center and an external proposal from Albina Youth Sports for a sports facility.

"We'll need to take a look at how that property can best serve our students," she said. "And then second, one thing that is concerning is that at the time the city sent their proposal over, they haven't yet had any engagement with the neighboring community."

The board and district have received a few emails in the days since the proposal surfaced, Kohnstamm said, most of which have been opposed to the idea of using the site for a village, but communication has been minimal because the district and city both still need to conduct public outreach.

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The board members both pointed to the site's proximity to the adjacent Fernhill Park as a potential source of concern from neighbors. The park is already frequently used for youth sports.

There hasn't been an analysis performed to see if a Safe Rest Village and athletics center could co-exist, Brim-Edwards said, although Kohnstamm said they might not need to — the city's request is for a 2-3 year lease, and an athletics facility likely wouldn't finish with planning and begin construction until after that timeframe.

Brim-Edwards and Kohnstamm both said they also didn't know if the radon problems on the property had been resolved, so that would be another issue the city would need to study.

The school board expects to meet in mid-November to talk about the village proposal, and will likely have a recommendation from their staff on which way to go.