Advocates Say the Village of Hope is a Sanctuary, But the City’s Planning a Crackdown
PORTLAND’S NEWEST unsanctioned houseless community popped up on Sunday morning, on city-owned land in a woodsy corner of deep Northeast Portland.
Led by veteran homeless activists Lisa Lake, Steve Kimes, and Ibrahim Mubarak, a dozen volunteers arranged tents on heavy wooden platforms and erected carports for makeshift communal spaces amidst groves of cottonwoods along the Columbia River Slough. The “Village of Hope” was born.
How long city officials will allow it to exist is an open question.
The new community is similar to established self-managed homeless villages like Right 2 Dream Too and Hazelnut Grove, which also sprang up against the wishes of city officials. But it’s the first such encampment to emerge under Mayor Ted Wheeler—who has presided over an increase in sweeps of the homeless population and campsite cleanups.
The new village also appears to be the first located on a piece of land owned by Portland Parks and Recreation: the 115-acre Big Four Corners Natural Area, at the city’s far northeast corner, contains the slough’s meandering waters and wetland meadows and is home to deer, coyotes, river otters, and 175 bird species. (It’s zoned for industrial use.)
The encampment has emerged as city and county officials dump millions of dollars into creating new homeless shelters and deeply affordable housing, and as advocates complain that progress is too slow. In a statement, village organizers argued that officials “are making progress, but many people continue to fall between the cracks. Their shelter development processes have engendered intense neighborhood conflicts and come with huge price tags.”
“Let’s prove how stabilization, for not a lot of money, can work wonders,” Lake said at a January 16 meeting where organizers planned the camp.
On Monday, city officials’ responses to the village included stern language, but few specifics.
“The outright appropriation of environmentally sensitive public lands, intended for the use of everyone, is unacceptable,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement. “Rigid structures should not be constructed on lands the public has invested in heavily to preserve…. We will work with the Parks Bureau to quickly address this situation.”
Asked whether that meant the city would post a notice of its intention to clear the camp, the mayor’s office deferred to parks officials. By Tuesday afternoon, the parks bureau had told the camp to clear out, advocates said.
As of Monday, Village of Hope consisted of 10 tents on wooden platforms, two communal areas (a kitchen and a community center), and muddy paths strewn with woodchips. Five people slept there on Monday night, Kimes said, and four more planned to move in this week. Central City Concern is picking up trash, and a portable toilet was scheduled for delivery Tuesday afternoon.
For its first three residents—managers Robert Aquino, Kerry Wheeler, and John “Thumper” Boggs—Village of Hope is about stability and safety.
“This camp is like everything to me right now,” said Kerry Wheeler, who, like Aquino and Boggs, has been homeless for years. “I just need a place to be, and I can’t be alone—it’s scary out here.”
The Big Four Corners Natural Area is surrounded by warehouses and industry, but honeycombed with paths. It’s a surprisingly remote urban wilderness, and Aquino, Boggs, and Wheeler know its secrets as well as anyone.
“I actually camped right over there,” Aquino said on Sunday, pointing to a nearby patch of woods. Wheeler says she recently lived for nearly a year on the exact spot where the village now sits.
Part of what the Village of Hope intends to remedy is the continual displacement of houseless camps throughout Portland. Aquino said he’s been forced to move 20 times in the last two months. Kerry Wheeler said she’s had to relocate eight times within the same period.
“Lance would follow a chipmunk trail to find you,” said Aquino, referring to Lance Hamel, owner of Rapid Response Bio Clean, a city subcontractor that clears camps around town.
Village of Hope’s advocates say their project won’t be introducing a new homeless population into Big Four Corners. And Kimes insists the village will actually protect local ecology by providing structure and regular cleaning. On Sunday, volunteers laid down wood chips to protect paths, and cleaned up nearly a dumpster’s worth of garbage.
Still, positioning platforms necessitated cutting undergrowth and breaking small limbs, and the prospect of harm to the natural area will likely be the new village’s biggest obstacle.
“Encampments are not sustainable in a park or natural area,” says Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the parks bureau and emphasized the land’s “fragile wetlands and streams.”
The village’s location choice is part of a citywide trend. Last year’s “point in time” count of homelessness in Multnomah County suggested the unsheltered homeless population is generally spreading out from downtown and more expensive and closer-in neighborhoods.
“[The site choice] was deliberate,” says Boggs. “Nobody wants this in their neighborhood.”
That includes some in the Wilkes neighborhood around the natural area.
Jess Ordower, a partner at nearby manufacturer Udoxi Scientific, showed up at the village on Monday for a frank back-and-forth with village co-founder Lake. He described the camp as a “middle finger in the face of society.”
In the past, Ordower said, campers left “hundreds” of latrine holes in the natural area. He blamed previous residents for a propane tank explosion, vandalism, electricity theft, and more. He doesn’t think his new neighbors will be different.
“People should not just be living right there,” Ordower said. “I have empathy for them, but I don’t feel that’s the proper way to shelter them and bring them back into society.”
The Village of Hope marks the second time Lake has mounted an incursion onto city land in recent years.
In May of 2016, she and other advocates swooped onto a piece of city-owned land near Lents Town Center to set up a camp that was to serve as a sanctuary for homeless domestic violence survivors. The group stuck it out on the site for a number of days, but left when the office of then-Mayor Charlie Hales vowed to find them another city-owned plot. That never happened.
Lake says she’s learned from her last go-round with the city: “Don’t give up your stronghold until you absolutely have to.”
Like the 2016 project, the Village of Hope has been in the works for some time.
In the January 16 planning meeting attended by the Mercury, co-founders Lake, Kimes, Mubarak, and a dozen others strategized how to set up the new village, how to support its residents, and what to do if the city opposed it. They batted around names for the community, and talked about creating an Amazon wish list for supplies.
The organizers contrast their vision with Kenton Women’s Village, the North Portland houseless community blessed by the City of Portland and overseen by Catholic Charities. That arrangement has rankled some advocates, who say houseless communities should be able to manage themselves. Village of Hope residents, Lake said, will make their own decisions.
“They’re going to drive the train, we’re just going to lay the tracks down,” she said. “Let’s start out here and prove to the—for lack of a better word—NIMBYs that it can look nice, can be a great resource. Maybe we’ll start introducing these into neighborhoods.”
Even if it avoids a crackdown from authorities, the Village of Hope will have its work cut out for it, as evidenced by the personal challenges its managers are overcoming: Boggs has a history of incarceration and addiction. (He jokes that his former drug of choice was “yes.”) Wheeler uses a walker and has multiple health problems, she says. Aquino says he’s houseless by choice.
“We’re not here to hurt anybody,” Wheeler said. “We need a little quality of life.”
This story was first published in the Portland Mercury.