Portland Confronts Years of Legal Limbo For a Downtown Homeless Camp

A judge is set to decide whether a tent city owes the municipal government thousands of dollars in fines.

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Right 2 Dream Too

In most other U.S. cities, an empty lot downtown would be full of parked cars.

But in Portland, Oregon, one such empty lot, at Fourth Avenue and Burnside, has housed more than two dozen homeless people since late 2011. The encampment, dubbed Right 2 Dream Too, is run by an organization called Right 2 Survive, a homelessness rights group. In addition to makeshift shelters for 28 full-time residents, there are also three group tents, where anyone who needs to can sleep for 12 hours at a clip.

Plywood outlines a frame for a computer center (which, when finished, is intended to house internet and a printer for job-hunters). Meals are served on mismatched benches at a big table. There is no running water, and power is supplied by a generator. Three porta-potties sit on the camp's edge, which is encircled with a fence of old doors.

The land is owned by Michael Wright, a local businessman. In 2011, Wright offered the parcel to the homeless as a sort of protest against what he sees as restrictive zoning regulations that, he claims, have made it impossible to develop the land the way he'd like to. He rents it to R2DToo for $1 a year.

In a city where more than 4,000 adults are thought to be housing insecure on any given night, R2DToo provides comfort, safety, and an opportunity for uninterrupted sleep off the street. Its downtown location makes it easy to access (and easy for residents to travel to social workers, doctors appointments, and job interviews).

But Right 2 Dream Too could soon be shut down, or at least relocated. The city government has been fining the encampment more or less since it opened, for violations such as operating as an unauthorized recreational campground, and they say the group now owes at least $17,000.

R2DToo maintains that the fines are illegal. They are suing the city for "an incorrect and unjust interpretation of state code." Today, they will go to court to ask a judge to toss out the fines.

"They're imposing unjust coding and zoning on us," says Ibrahim Mubarak, one of the founders and current chairman of Right 2 Dream Too. "We're keeping people safe, off the streets, from being crowded, teaching them their rights. We're doing the job the city should be doing and we're getting no funding from the city."

The city, of course, sees it differently. Officials hint that they might be willing to relocate the camp elsewhere, possibly close to another city-sanctioned encampment, Dignity Village. Several nearby business owners complain that R2DToo is keeping visitors and customers away. Developer David Gold accused R2DToo of forcing him to shelve a heavily city-financed plan to redevelop the nearby Grove Hotel into a grocery store.

Even the city's homeless shelters have come out against the encampment. In the Daily Journal of Commerce, Transition Projects Inc. director Doreen Binder called the encampment an "unacceptable temporary situation."

But until there are better options, Isreal Bayer, the director of homeless advocacy organization Street Roots, says he hopes R2DToo is allowed to stay. "The idea of creating something like a tent city where you can at least stay dry, where there's safety and community, I think that that is a positive thing," he says. "Still, it's not a situation where you wake up one day and wanted to live in a tent city."*

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled Street Roots.

Top image courtesy of Right 2 Dream Too.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.