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The Pearl District and the right to dream

The Pearl District for many represents a neighborhood on the rise — a shining example of how to plan urban growth, public transportation, sustainability, parks and the environment. The list goes on. Add a bustling food and art scene, a growing tech community, and a neighborhood that prides itself on walking and cycling, the light begins to shine even brighter.

Where else in Portland does the luxury of life blossom more than in the Pearl District? The Pearl District is a neighborhood where ideas and innovations can be developed, crafted and supported. The neighborhood is home to both the rich and the poor. Twenty-two percent of the neighborhood’s rental units are dedicated to low-income housing. It supports nearly a dozen Street Roots vendors day in and day out and has a strong philanthropic spirit. It’s home to Powell’s Books. Need I say more?

That’s why I was extremely disappointed when I heard that the people representing one of the most successful and affluent neighborhoods in Portland would be so quick to shoot down the idea of welcoming Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo), a tent city created by people experiencing homelessness.

Within a week of the news breaking that the city and R2DToo had reached an agreement on a piece of property in the Pearl owned by the Portland Development Commission, the neighborhood association earmarked $10,000 from its rainy-day fund to pay for legal services to fight the city and R2DToo's effort to move into the neighborhood.

An audio recording of the Pearl District’s Neighborhood Association’s meeting on September 12th was passed onto Street Roots.

Patricia Gardner, the Pearl District’s neighborhood chair, led spirited testimony on why the camp doesn’t belong in the Pearl District.

 After the passage of the resolutions to allocate money to fight the camp, Gardner went on to say,  What we want to do is focus in on the politics. That's the quickest and easiest way to get rid of this.” 

 Gardner told the crowd. “My opinion is that their lawyer at the city is telling them to avoid process so they don't open up. That's our challenge moving forward.”

 “What we've been telling people to do is write to their commissioners,” says Gardner.  “Let's talk about the lack of public process, the lack of following their own laws. That's really the root of the issue here.”

Gardner goes on to talk about the neighborhood being the victim in this process, “Because of the misunderstanding of this neighborhood, we will never be understood. I don't care if your income is zero. You live in the Pearl, you must be rich. It doesn't matter. You're never going to win the argument. Everybody starts from nothing. We all started from nothing. We have great empathy.”

“We’ve been really clear that we want long-term solutions for housing,” Gardner says passionately. “The city is going to spend money to put this camp here. The money could go to build something else, something real that actually solves the problem. We want to solve the problem and to not just have BandAids. It rains in Oregon, so lets live in a tent — like, bad idea.”

I don’t even know where to start.

Let’s start with politics. For the record, there are thousands of people violating land use rules and laws in our city every single night that are homeless. Essentially, nearly two thousand people in our city are illegal because they have no home or shelter. No law can or will change the fact that we have a massive shortage of affordable housing and that we have human beings who are enduring unimaginable living conditions because of their homelessness.

Gardner is spot on in thinking that we have to work towards long-term solutions for housing. The question then becomes who is responsibility to take care of those who will sleep outside tonight? The politics surrounding that question are many, but one thing is for certain, people do live and die on our streets. There’s no getting around it.

The idea that somehow that landowners, developers and residents in the Pearl have somehow been wronged and are actually the victims of the lack of public process doesn’t hold much water. Few neighborhoods in Portland have benefited so much from public input and support.

According to the Portland Development Commission, from 2000-2013 there has been $260.3 million dollars in public investment that’s gone to support the River District, or the Pearl. With that kind of public support, it's ridiculous of the Pearl Neighborhood Association and other larger players to be screaming foul. Please.

Let’s talk about R2DToo for a moment.

The Portland Police Bureau’s spokesman Pete Simpson told me recently, “Central Precinct officers report that R2DToo has not been a problem for police as it seems self-managed.”

Self-managed. Isn’t that at the heart of the American community? A group of individuals working to better their lives, regardless of their circumstances.

Like them or not, R2DToo is an example of a group of people experiencing homelessness that are pulling themselves up from the bootstraps. They may not be providing the living conditions that most Portlanders might consider healthy, or that Gardner or some politicians speak of, but believe me, the conditions at R2DToo are gold compared to being alone and isolated on the streets.

R2DToo has proven over the past two years that they can provide a refuge to a range of individuals and families. They do so in harsh conditions, under the microscope of the media and community, non-violently and in collaboration with a range of partners, including social-service agencies, businesses and neighborhood groups. For better or worse, they are providing more than 50 people experiencing homelessness a safe place to rest each and every night. You can’t ignore that.  

Change is seldom easy. When Street Roots began, many businesses disapproved, some people in the city were disinterested or against it altogether. Others saw a good idea. Fifteen years later, and having helped house hundreds of people and offer an alternative income to those who have nothing, we have a positive effect on Portland every single day. There’s no reason to believe that Right 2 Dream Too can’t do the same.

In today’s economic landscape, solutions won’t always look like they used to, and they will challenge our community to think differently and work together. Solutions always do. 

 

The measure of whether the Pearl Neighborhood Association is right or wrong on their rebuke of R2D2 will not be determined by the outcome of the lawsuit. In the cold hard letter of the law, and with some of the best legal minds in the state, they probably have a strong case to keep R2D2 from occupying a place in their neighborhood.

The judgment lies in the neighborhood's actions, responding out of the gate with a stereotypical fear of the homeless that stifles both dialogue and opportunity across the board.

Old Town, the neighborhood where Street Roots resides understands full well about shouldering the responsibility of the poor and homeless.

You can blame the outcomes on the lack of public process, or point your finger at me, or others and say we’re blaming the rich, but I don’t believe any of those things are true. I believe R2DToo should be welcomed by the Pearl District because it’s the right thing to do.

R2DToo deserves a place to call home in Portland. It deserves the respect of the residents in the Pearl.