Portland, OR

Why is it so hard to find locations for "Safe Rest Villages" for the homeless population?

Rose Bak

Three locations are still needed to implement the City of Portland's plan.

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Photo courtesy of Multnomah County

This week Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan announced a third location for his "Safe Rest Villages" project.

A 60-pod location at the former Jerome F. Sears Army Reserve Center in SW Portland joins the two previously announced locations which include the Menlo Park Park & Ride in east Portland and a site on 23rd and Southwest Naito Parkway. In announcing the site, Ryan stated:

“The unprecedented city and county investment in houselessness just adopted will support these villages through our comprehensive approach, and our community engagement team will continue working to build relationships between housed and unhoused neighbors...Thank you to our partners at the county, particularly Commissioner [Sharon] Meieran for her support of a safe rest village in her district. It’s time to say Yes in My Backyard.”

Ryan first announced the initiative earlier this year and was initially hopeful that six safe rest villages could open by September. However, the project has encountered significant delays, making many residents wonder why the process takes so long.

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

What is a "safe rest village"?

A "safe rest village" is a catch-all term for a variety of options that provide unsheltered homeless individuals a place to sleep. The term is used differently in different cities but is consistent in describing safer alternatives to sleeping on the street whether through sanctioned campsites, villages, or safe parking locations for people living in vehicles.

The City of Portland's Safe Rest Village page describes them like this:

Safe Rest Villages will be outdoor shelters—not tents—that provide a place for Portlanders to sleep, basic and necessary hygiene, and access to case management and behavioral health services. Safe Rest Villages will provide harm reduction. With dignity, stable living, and support services, the trauma and volatility of life on the streets can be reduced, allowing for healing and stability with the goal being for villagers to be able to enter recovery, return home / reconnect with family, or find permanent supportive housing, among other options... Safe Rest Villages will serve as an improved point of entry for Portlanders on the continuum from living on the streets to finding stability in permanent housing—they may look like a safe park program for people living in RVs or tiny houses like Kenton Women's Village. All Safe Rest Villages will include wraparound services. 

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

How are safe rest villages different from traditional shelters and other villages?

Safe rest villages differ from traditional shelters in that guests have private spaces in safe rest villages. A shelter is typically a large room full of beds or costs, where everyone is in one shared space. This model can be problematic for people with PTSD, mental illness, or those who are typically at high risk of victimization from other homeless individuals. It's often very hard to sleep in shelters due to noise and safety concerns, and many shelters require guests to vacate during the day.

Portland also has several homeless villages including the C3PO shelters, Kenton Women's Village, Right to Dream 2 (R2D2), St. Johns Village, and Dignity Village. Each of these villages has different program models, but typically allows longer stays and has waiting lists and screening criteria to access on-site services.

Safe rest villages are intended to be a more immediate and low-barrier option to address the emergency of homelessness.

This is not a new idea. Several other states have variations of sanctioned camping and villages, both voluntary and mandated. For some homeless individuals, safe rest villages are a pathway to services and housing, while others use them as a temporary respite before returning to the streets.ss

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

Why is it so hard to find a place to put these villages?

For the average person, it seems like finding a location for a safe rest village should be simple: identify a large piece of land that is not in use, and open a village. The reality is that there are many considerations that come into play, making many potential sites unusable. This was the case with one of the proposed safe rest village sites in Sellwood that was taken off the table when it was determined that the site was in a flood plain.

Considerations include:

  • Is the proposed site relatively level? With Oregon's rainy season, it's essential that villages be placed in places where there is adequate drainage and rainwater run-off.
  • Can the site be connected to the electrical grid? If so, will that be cost-prohibitive? If proposed sites are not easily connected to the grid, this can be a challenge.
  • Is the site easily accessible by trucks that can service port-a-potties and showers? If the trucks can't get in to deliver and service sanitary equipment, the site won't work.
  • Is the site close to amenities like bus lines, grocery stores, and services?
  • Is the site available for the period of time where villages are expected to be open? An ill-timed property sale would be destabilizing for a village site.
  • Is the site environmentally sensitive or conversely, is the site contaminated?
  • Is the site adjacent to schools, daycares, or parks

The city also has an interest in spreading the safe rest villages across several neighborhoods. For more detail on the city's specific criteria on safe rest village sites, click here.

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What do these safe rest villages cost?

It's very expensive to set up a safe rest village site. Major costs include site preparation and wraparound services.

Site preparation can cost upwards of $200,00 or more, depending on if the site will be connected to sewer lines. Individual shelters can cost $10,000 each. There are also additional costs for garbage pick-up, pest control, and utilities which can exceed $30,000 per year per site. Services can run $100,000 per year or more depending on what will be offered to villagers.

In total, each village is expected to cost the city $1.5 million.

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If safe rest villages are available, will people stop camping on the streets?

Safe rest villages will likely be embraced by some of the street homeless population, however, they won't be a solution for everyone. As previously reported on NewsBreak, in previous "sweeps" of camps, such as the well-publicized eviction of campers at Laurelhurst Park, most campers refused offers of shelter. Surveys of street homeless have shown that only 3% of individuals experiencing homelessness believe that safe rest villages are a good option for them.

It's clear that while safe rest villages are a part of the solution to the homeless crisis, they are not the full solution.

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

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