Mayor Selby, Council members, and senior City staff,
We are appealing to City staff and the City Council to pause the sweep and step back from the brink of inflicting significant additional harm on the residents who have taken shelter under the 4th Avenue bridge, many having done so on the advice of the City when the Smart Lot camp was removed in March.
We are not asking the City to solve this challenge by itself, and we are not asking that this camp remain under the bridge indefinitely. After unsuccessfully considering a number of alternative locations, we are asking that we give ourselves time as a community to create a collaborative partnership at 4th Avenue similar to the successful camp management model at the Nickerson Camp while we continue our efforts to bring another mitigation site online. Indeed, several faith communities and community organizations have already expressed an interest in participating in such a plan, including those that already have a weekly presence at the camp. We are asking that we embrace a solution-oriented approach rather than an approach driven by a chosen deadline (September 11) that seems disconnected from the human complexities of this situation.
We appreciate your invitation of August 15 and September 4 to “outreach workers or providers to visit the site and assist in the process of engaging individuals and exploring alternative sheltering options,” and have been doing all we can in that regard. We have been doing so even though it feels that the camp’s residents and service providers, who have very few resources, have been asked by the City to accomplish in three weeks what the City with all its resources has been unable to do in over a year. Nevertheless, we have stepped up.
The reality we have encountered is that most residents at 4th Ave are either not welcome at the Union Gospel Mission or the Mitigation Site, or have had negative experiences there in the past. The only other alternatives that have arisen are other unsanctioned locations — less visible, less safe, and more vulnerable — that would not be served by portapotties or garbage removal. These include private industrial sheds on West Bay, several nearby parks, and the railroad tracks along the Deschutes Parkway. (Some 4th Ave residents have already moved to sites along the tracks, which Burlington Northern has now posted for clearance.) In other words, unless we are able to offer appropriate alternative places to camp, we will simply be repeating the traumatizing cycle of whack-a-mole.
We are very aware that the effort to find such appropriate alternative places to camp, if it is to be successful, will require a level of communication and collaboration among the City, camp residents, and service providers that does not presently exist. This is largely because there is not much we and other providers can do without the agreement and support of the City, and without clarification of what the City can or cannot support. Such communication is especially important when the parties to the dynamic at 4th Avenue have such different perspectives and narratives about the situation.
These differences are to be expected, especially when the parties involved come to the table with different levels of risk, vulnerability, institutional power, and ability to influence the outcome. Identifying the divergent perspectives and placing them on the table for all to see and understand can be a critical step toward greater mutual trust and respect for each other, and greater mutual understanding of the situation, that can in turn create an opportunity for higher-level collaboration and problem-solving. The reality is that we need to work together to constructively resolve the situation at 4th Avenue, and the circumstances experienced by many other unhoused community members.
On the other hand, when such differences are not addressed as part of the normal process of working together, they can contribute to the confusion and distrust among the various parties that we are presently seeing. This is why we regret that City staff did not join us at the community meeting Wednesday to explore options for 4th Avenue that was attended by over thirty camp residents, various faith communities and service providers, two council members, and other community members. Nevertheless, we are again inviting the City into a collaborative process with community partners committed not simply to seek an alternative path forward, but also to build the relationships we will need to do this work.
The City’s Community Work Group is engaged in creating a community-wide philosophical and policy-oriented response to homelessness. The various encampments, however, offer a laboratory for the challenging yet necessary relationship-building that forms the heart of an authentic community response to houselessness, and gives us our best opportunity to pursue a path that enables camp residents to be a vital part of the solution, and not simply dismissed as the problem.
Please step up and pause the sweep at 4th Avenue and send a message of hope and uplift to the residents there that our community will work alongside them as we all seek better longer-term options. As a former resident at Smart Lot once said, “We need to be working toward a future that gives our unhoused neighbors a reason to live, and not merely the bare necessities to exist.”