PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan said when he decided to run for the position once held by the late Nick Fish, he was frustrated, even angry with how his hometown was suffering through the lingering homeless crisis.
The city had declared a housing emergency years before under then-mayor Charlie Hales in 2015.
"And that was before COVID," he said. "I really just think it's important for us to get moving."
For Ryan, who oversees the Housing Bureau and is now nearing the end of his first year in office, getting moving means building six sanctioned, organized city-owned camps called "Safe Rest Villages."
RELATED: Portland releases locations of three Safe Rest Villages, vows to open six by 2022
"It's really important to remember what this concept is. It's not tents. It's not just organizing a bunch of unsanctioned tents. It's moving people into shelters with sanitation and hygiene services, security and most importantly, case managers and behavioral and mental health specialists," he said.
Commissioner Ryan was a guest on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to discuss plans for the Safe Rest Villages, and also the City Council's response to the epidemic of gun violence in the city.
First three Safe Rest Village locations announced
On Thursday, Ryan and his team announced the locations for the first three villages:
- The first is in Menlo Park, a "Park & Ride" property owned by TriMet at SE 122nd and Burnside. (Hazelwood Neighborhood)
- The second is at the 2300 block of SW Naito Parkway on property owned by ODOT and the Portland Bureau of Transportation. (Downtown Portland)
- The third site is located near the Springwater Corridor on SE 45th Avenue on property owned by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. (Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood)
Why these locations?
Ryan said the locations were chosen because of their geographic reach and because they met the criteria to serve the need of houseless residents where they are.
"What we want to change is having unsanctioned camping by our houseless community out on our streets and in the public right of way — where they can be moved and relocated to these villages," Ryan said.
When will more locations be announced?
Ryan couldn't give an exact date for an announcement on the locations of the final three villages, only that he has a goal of opening them by the end of the year. Finding the locations and making agreements with the property owners has been tough.
"It's been challenging getting these agreements written up and I will say many have been moving. We had about 10 balls in the air just about a week ago. And so I know we should have more information soon," he said.
Expo Center site "on hold" for a village for RVs and cars
Last month Metro, which owns and manages the Expo Center, acknowledged it was in talks with the city for a possible Safe Rest Village somewhere on its 50-acre property for people who live in RVs and cars .
On Thursday, Ryan said that plan has been delayed. Metro has an 11-acre paved parking lot but none of it was made available to the city. Ryan said the area Metro offered was unacceptable.
"We were offered a grassy ditch area that's off the parking lot and unfortunately, that would take $1.5 million to redevelop that space," he said.
Ryan said he hoped Metro would stay at the table and offer something that would work for a Safe Rest Village for people who live in cars and RVs.
How to convince people to move to a Safe Rest Village
Once the villages are up and running another challenge will be to convince people who are homeless to move to one of the sites. Ryan said the navigation team with the city and county's Joint Office of Homeless Services is skilled and equipped to communicate with the houseless community about the advantages and services provided by the Safe Rest Villages.
"Many do not want to be in traditional congregate shelters, in a church basement, and in bunk beds. They like having their own private pod, if you will, and yet still have that connection." Ryan said.
He said many people living on the street have thanked him for pursuing the idea of the tiny house villages.
"They want rules. Many want rules. Many want security. Many want to feel safe. I do believe many in the houseless community will welcome this," he said.
What about those who don't want to go?
Ryan called the question of what to do about those people living in unsanctioned camps who refuse to move to one of the Safe Rest Villages a "million dollar question."
"There is a challenge with many on the streets refusing service. And there is a whole host of reasons for that," he said.
He said the villages are just part of the solution and he's focused on that, but there is more work to be done and a longer conversation to be had about people who don't feel a sanctioned village is for them.
"We needed to start with this. And then we will also stay focused on relocating as best we can. But we will have to look at what that means as we go forward," he said.
Will the villages be low-barrier?
The villages will start out as low-barrier, but Ryan said the expectation will be that residents will continue to build resilience and move toward a higher bar.
"And that will actually be a better indicator that once they're housed they will be able to stay housed. And to get back into the workforce and who says they won't be homeowners someday," he said.
How to comment and get more info on Safe Rest Villages
Each village is expected to house about 60 people. The city is funding them with $20 million in federal COVID aid. The plan is to open them for at least three years.
Portlanders can share their comments on the Safe Rest Villages via email here.
Get more information on the new Safe Rest Villages webpage.
The epidemic of gun violence
The city of Portland has seen more than 920 shootings so far this year compared to fewer than 400 in 2019.
A 9-year-old girl who dodged bullets while playing "imaginary baseball" in a city park shared her frightening experience with City Council in late September. Hadar Kedem implored leaders to do more to stop the violence.
"It was my turn to bat when I saw them pull out guns and start shooting ... as I was getting up to run farther away, a bullet shot about 4 to 5 feet to my right. I want to feel safe," she said.
Dan Ryan called her testimony gripping and promised more urgent action by the council.
Ryan's proposed action to address gun violence
During the council's upcoming fall budget adjustment meetings where commissioners can look at repurposing some investments in the city's budget, Ryan said the focus will be on community safety.
He outlined his priorities including expanding the Portland Street Response Team now in its pilot phase in the Lents neighborhood. The team assists people who are experiencing homelessness and low-acuity behavioral health issues.
"We have a report coming in... Now, we will be able to amp that up (Portland Street Response Team) and make it expand throughout the city, and I'm looking forward to being part of the team that expands that," Ryan said.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, and City Commissioner Mingus Mapps have called for hiring more police officers. The mayor also suggested the city rehire officers who have recently retired.
Ryan said he definitely supports hiring more officers, but had a different idea of who the bureau should be rehiring.
"I would like us to look into hiring some of the younger officers that were more diverse in the police force that left the city. I'd like to try to get some of them back," he said.
"I want to have officers we can deploy on the street and that can really work with the community."
Ryan announces he's running for re-election
Commissioner Ryan was elected in a special election in 2020 to serve the remainder of the late Nick Fish's term which expires at the end of next year. Ryan will be up for re-election in the May 17, 2022 primary. On Straight Talk, he announced he will be running again, calling it a tough decision, but one that he sees as his duty to serve the city he loves.
"I am just getting started. I love my city. I'm going to swing hard for her. She's in a lot of pain right now. And this hometown boy is ready to have a full term. So, I can really get more results for this city that I love," he said.
The decision didn't come easily, especially after a year when protesters showed up at his house and vandalized it. The experience left his family and neighbors shaken. Four of his neighbors are refugees who fled violence in their own countries.
"To experience political violence on their own block was rough. So, I felt I had to check it out [whether to run again] with the rest of them on the block as well," he said.
With the go-ahead from his spouse and neighbors, Ryan said he's eager to continue his work finding solutions for homelessness and making the city a safer place to live.
"I have to serve my city if it's the last thing I do while I'm alive, and that's why [he's running for re-election]. It's my honor to serve and it's my duty to serve the city of Portland," he said.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 6:30pm, and Sunday at 9:30pm.
Straight Talk is also available as a podcast. Download the latest episode here.