Georgia Perry

R2D2 gives the city's homeless just a sleeping bag and a communal tent for the night. The homeless run it, too—allowing others to survive on the streets on their own terms.

This story is part of a CityLab series launching this month on the state of homelessness policy in American cities.

Portland’s Old Chinatown district, dotted with bars and nightclubs and full of alcohol-fueled revelry and accompanying police sirens on any given night, is an unlikely place to find a good night’s sleep. But just steps from the large, ornamental Chinese arch distinguishing the district, a small community of activists has established a place for people to bed down for the night.

Right 2 Dream Too is a tent city, plain and simple. Set up in 2011 on a small parking lot bracketed by office buildings, pretty much every structure on the site is made out of plastic tarps, held up by a haphazard assortment of wood and metal poles. At the back of the lot there are tents—about 20 of them, a patchwork of nylon in different colors and sizes, many draped in multiple layers of tarp to keep out the relentless Portland rain.

The outside of Right 2 Dream Too, in downtown Portland. (Georgia Perry)

But there’s a lot more to R2D2, which is the locals’ shorthand for the site. (“I don’t even think of the robot anymore when I say that,” a longtime resident says.) R2D2 is a highly organized community of activists providing something that isn’t offered anywhere else in the city: Help for the unhoused—from the unhoused.

Completely grassroots and peer-run by people who have experienced homelessness themselves, R2D2’s mission is simple: To “try to make the world a better place for our houseless brothers and sisters by allowing them to come in and get up to 12 hours of safe, uninterrupted sleep.” Its funding, approximately $1,500 a month, comes entirely from donations and grants—notable contributors include local nonprofits the Larson Legacy Foundation and the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation. R2D2 uses that money to pay for liability insurance, port-a-potties, dumpsters, electricity, Internet service, and its biggest expense: having sleeping bags washed twice a week at a laundromat. The site itself was donated by local businessman Michael Wright, who rents R2D2 the lot for $1 a year—his motivation mostly being to spite local authorities, who denied him permission to develop the land as a hub for mobile food trucks.

With three large tents for communal sleeping divided into men’s, women’s, and couple’s quarters, R2D2 sleeps 75 people on any given night. Sign-ups begin at 5:30 p.m., and at 8 p.m. a list of names is read out. Access is on a first-come-first-served basis, and the rules are straightforward: No drinking, no drugs, no sex (with yourself or others), no violence. Sleeping bags are provided, and for the most part they’re clean: In addition to those expensive twice-weekly washings, they are sprayed down with tea tree oil and a bleach solution each night.

A main sleeping tent. (Georgia Perry)

Those who make the cut can sleep in safety until 9 a.m. Those who don’t are given a blanket, which they are asked to return the next day (this doesn’t always happen), and sent out into the night to find somewhere else to sleep—usually in a doorway or under the awning of a nearby business. James Tucker, a 27-year-old who has slept at R2D2 more than 50 times in the two years he has been homeless in Portland, lauds it as a “lifesaver”—as much for its sleeping quarters as its portable toilets, which are available to the public around the clock. Over free juice and a cookie at the Union Gospel Mission around the corner from R2D2 on a recent afternoon, he waits out the few afternoon hours left until 5:30 sign-ups begin. Reflecting on his experiences with the place, he says the people there are always helpful. He looks down and realizes that they gave him the jacket he is wearing.

At the same time, if R2D2 fills up—which it does every night—“there’s nowhere else to go” for some, says Tucker, who claims he has been kicked out of the nearby traditional shelter options—Portland Rescue Mission and Portland Transition Projects—on multiple occasions for reasons like refusing to provide his last name. He is fresh out of a 20-day jail sentence, after being cited for trespassing: Police found him sleeping under the decorative Chinatown arch just steps from R2D2 on a night when his name didn’t make the cut.

According to the Portland Housing Bureau, there are about 4,000 homeless people in Portland and the surrounding Multnomah County. Compared to other cities, Portland has a high rate of chronically homeless individuals—in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, it was shown as having the third-highest rate of unsheltered chronically homeless individuals among major cities. The other cities in the top five were all on the West Coast as well: Las Vegas, Fresno, San Jose, and Long Beach, California.

In Portland, as in many West Coast cities, there are more homeless than there are shelter beds available on any given night. And also like many West Coast cities, Portland law prohibits sleeping outside on public property—resulting in a no-win situation for houseless individuals who do not find shelter by the time the sun goes down. And while R2D2 lacks much of what can be found in organizations that are part of the city’s “homeless system”—it provides no caseworkers, direct routes to permanent housing, or even structured meals—what it does provide is no small thing: A place to legally lay one’s head.

Explains R2D2’s organizer, Ibrahim Mubarak: “When you’re living on the sidewalk you’re sleep-deprived. You don’t have no walls around you where you feel safe. You either get harassed by pranksters, or the police, or your own fears. You’re constantly worrying about getting a safe rest. R2D2 is a place where people just get a safe, dry, warm place to sleep—that’s one less thing they have to worry about. … With proper rest you can think clearly and then you can think about how to become productive.” He says many people have been able to find housing and employment as a result of the respite they received from sleeping at R2D2.

There are a handful of other shelter options available within about a five-block radius, but several unhoused people who were interviewed, including Tucker, say they prefer R2D2. The reasons are varied, but the general consensus is that there are more rules, more red tape, and a more institutional atmosphere at many shelters. Mubarak says R2D2 accepts people that traditional shelters turn away—including those who appear to be under the influence of drugs upon arrival. (If an overnight sleeper is disruptive, R2D2 staffers try first to calm the person down, but they will remove someone if they become violent.) The first-come-first-served feature is also preferable to other shelter options, which often draw names randomly in a lottery, or require anyone who wants to sleep there to be part of a formal program.

The staff that helps run R2D2 sleep in these individual tents. (Georgia Perry)

The approximately 20 volunteers who collectively operate R2D2 (under the supervision of Mubarak) live at the site full time in the array of individual tents behind the larger overnight sleeping quarters. (Mubarak himself doesn’t live at the site but makes frequent visits.) They work regular security and check-in shifts several hours each week, plus other jobs around the site. It’s necessary for R2D2 members to be committed to activism, explains Trena Sutton, who has been living at the site for about a month, “You can’t be here just to squat. This place is for people who want to work to improve the lives of others,” she says. It’s true: R2D2 members have been instrumental in crafting a Homeless Bill of Rights for Oregon, which will be presented to the Oregon State Legislature this December. And Sutton is currently working with local officials in nearby Clackamas County to set up an R2D2-style rest area there.

And though R2D2 is providing a much-needed service to the community, it exists amid a constant swirl of public criticism and uncertainty about its future. Many local business owners complain that it is an eyesore that costs them customers. And there is another issue: Until last year R2D2 was technically classified as an illegal “recreational” campground according to Portland city code, and as a result amassed thousands of dollars in fines from the Portland Bureau of Development Services, all of which have gone unpaid. The site has been able to stay open this long mostly due to support from key politicians, including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. Last year it won a lawsuit against the city, and was granted a new designation as a “rest area,” along with $859,000 to find an alternate location. Mubarak says they’re looking for a new site that’s more amenable to public officials, but continually run into NIMBYism that threatens to push them away from the area of Chinatown where most of the homeless services are located.

The food tent at R2D2. (Georgia Perry)

R2D2 has also drawn public criticism for the site’s living conditions, which are indeed far from ideal. For one thing, it’s hard to keep dry and warm in the tents. “The weather is our enemy. If we don’t keep these tents dry, people are gonna die,” a member named Kirsten bluntly told a school tour group one afternoon. (Indoor locations have been considered for R2D2’s possible relocation.)

Kristina Smock, a poverty and homelessness consultant who works with government agencies and nonprofits in Portland and who conducted an evaluation of another local grassroots homeless village—this one city-sanctioned—Dignity Village, says that well-organized camps are an important tool, if not an ideal one.

“The reality is we don’t have enough resources, and we need to house everybody. When you’re dealing with that stark reality, creating a space that is safer for folks than camping on their own where they’re more likely to be victimized, and a space where there are leaders within the camp who know the system and can connect people to services, those are huge benefits,” she says. Plus, she says, there are psychological benefits to doing things outside the system. “I had a long-time resident of Dignity Village tell me that, even though she qualifies for subsidized housing, she would rather stay there and stay in control of her own life than be cooped up in some tiny apartment downtown where there’s a 22-year-old case worker telling her what to do. I think for a lot of people that’s a worthwhile trade-off,” Smock says.

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