Portland’s longtime homeless camp is moving, but underlying problems persist

Portland officials have announced plans to relocate a longtime homeless encampment known as Right 2 Dream Too. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

Depending on the point of view, Portland’s most visible homeless encampment has become either a terrible eyesore, or an innovative way to house the unsheltered, with nonprofit status, a board of directors and even a makeshift computer lab.

But now, after 5½ years of controversy that have tested the patience of even this famously progressive city, the encampment known as Right 2 Dream Too is moving.

Portland officials announced Thursday that it reached an agreement with board members to move the camp inhabitants onto land near the Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers play basketball.

R2DToo, as the camp is known, is a funky amalgam of tents, pieces of wood and plastic sheeting, with about 80 or 90 people sleeping there each night. It’s survived partly with aid from local charities and restaurants that donate food and other services.

The agreement brings to a close R2DToo’s stay on a 7,762-square-foot plot of vacant, private land across the street from a “boutique” hotel development. Three times, a relocation site was identified but opposition prevented a move. Details are still being worked out, but the move is to occur within 60 days.

Yet the announcement doesn’t change the thorny underlying issues for which the group has become a lightning rod. The West Coast has seen an uptick in homelessness even as national levels have declined slightly, a report released in November shows. Portland declared a homeless “state of emergency” a few days after Los Angeles in 2015, and last year extended it through October 2017.

“We think that homelessness and housing is far and away the No. 1 issue for people in Portland,” Portland Business Alliance President Sandra McDonough said.

At its core, the question posed by extra-official entities like R2DToo is: When there’s never enough money for shelters and affordable housing, should cities work more closely with self-governing grass-roots encampments?

Around 3,800 are unsheltered in Portland, according to the most recent official numbers — almost certain to grow when the results of the January 2017 count are released.

Detractors — including Mayor Ted Wheeler and McDonough — say self-organized “off the grid” communities like R2DToo are illegal and unhealthy, and distract from the difficult work of developing shelter space and affordable housing.

Supporters — including two members of the city council — see R2DToo as a “replicable” model: low-cost and a way to connect and motivate unsheltered people.

It even caught the eye of Tam Nguyen, a councilman from San Jose, who spent a night at R2DToo in 2016. He said he doesn’t see such camps as a permanent solution, but a way “to help release the huge pressure of the homeless people intruding into the neighborhood homes, streets, parks and curbsides.”

“I’ve been pushing very hard for this in San Jose,” Nguyen said. “I think we should explore that option everywhere.” He said that two years ago a large, unorganized camp known as the Jungle closed in San Jose. “Now people are swarming all over my neighborhood,” he said.

This story was first published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the rest of the story at latimes.com.