Environmental, fire and traffic risks make Hazelnut Grove a dangerous place to live. Residents have the opportunity to move to the new St. Johns Village.
Many residents of the Hazelnut Grove homeless community will move to stable new housing this winter, as the City of Portland decommissions this self-governed village in the Overlook neighborhood to address health and safety risks.
The transition, in the works since 2018, follows years of collaboration between Hazelnut Grove residents, City staff and the City of Portland/Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services. It also signifies the launch of St. Johns Village, a nonprofit-managed alternative shelter community that the City committed to opening before requiring people to leave Hazelnut Grove.
While spots at the new village are prioritized for people experiencing homelessness in the St. Johns area, roughly half of the 19 pods were offered to people at Hazelnut Grove. Other residents have worked with Do Good Multnomah, the provider operating St. Johns Village, to find permanent housing or referrals to shelter programs.
“From the beginning, we have prioritized the wellbeing of our houseless neighbors and our community at large,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “Hazelnut Grove tells the story of Portland’s housing challenges – but it also shows what we can achieve with empathy, creativity and cooperation.”
Situated along a steep hillside between Greeley and Interstate avenues in the Overlook neighborhood, the land that now hosts Hazelnut Grove was purchased by the City in 1956 to protect Portland’s sewer system from landslides.
People experiencing homelessness organized a community here in 2015, vowing to create a model of intentional, self-governed community living. Today, about 15 people make their home in the tiny houses, garden, portable toilets and other amenities at Hazelnut Grove.
“With an outpouring of community support, the Grove went from being a group of campers to a village, a community resource for people experiencing houselessness,” according to a webpage for the community.
Although the City did not officially sanction Hazelnut Grove, leaders recognized the challenges facing residents due to Portland’s housing affordability crisis. The City assisted them by providing fencing, trash services, portable toilets and a storage container.
But the City also flagged concerns about allowing people to live at Hazelnut Grove long-term, documented by several City bureaus.
Steep slopes create a danger of landslides and other environmental problems. The location is difficult for fire fighters to access, jeopardizing residents’ safety in this wooded setting. Serving portable toilets, removing trash and performing other maintenance is equally challenging. And accessing the site can require sidewalk and bike lane closures, putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk.
The Overlook Neighborhood Association has consistently asked the City to move Hazelnut Grove, citing safety risks and neighborhood impacts. Tensions heightened in 2018, after a fire in the Overlook hillside area – set by campers who happened to be in the area, and not affiliated with Hazelnut Grove – renewed some neighbors’ concerns about the dangers of habitation on the slope.
That year, the City told residents that Hazelnut Grove would need to close after they worked together to identify alternative housing. Do Good Multnomah, the nonprofit selected to lead this effort, has hosted regular office hours at Hazelnut Grove to help plan the transition.
One key option was a separate, planned village on City-owned land in St. Johns, funded by the City/County Joint Office of Homeless Services. When that site was deemed too difficult to develop, the village plan shifted to land owned by the St. Johns Church near downtown St. Johns.
Construction began late last year, and St. Johns Village is scheduled to open as soon as next month. Do Good Multnomah will manage the site – offering housing navigation and case management services through a contract with the Joint Office.
The new village features 19 heated sleeping pods, electricity, full bathrooms, a full-service kitchen and laundry facilities. A coalition of supportive neighbors, called St. Johns Welcomes the Village, has been working with Do Good Multnomah and St. Johns Church to support the new program. Members of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association have also volunteered their time as construction moves along.
“Just because someone loses their housing, it shouldn’t mean they have to sacrifice a shared, supportive community,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “As we build a housing-focused alternative shelter in St. Johns, we hope participants can thrive by building those connections among themselves and with their neighbors.”
About half of the 15 people living at Hazelnut Grove have accepted spots at St. Johns Village. Outreach workers have invited other residents to select from alternative housing options, while respecting that some prefer to make plans independently.
The City plans to begin decommissioning Hazelnut Grove within the next month, after St. Johns Village is ready to welcome its first residents. At that point, the City will ensure nobody remains at Hazelnut Grove to protect health and safety while the site is restored.
Some advocates for Portland’s homeless community have circulated a petition opposing the closure, while Overlook neighbors have urged the City to complete the move as soon as possible.
“It’s understandable that people have passionate opinions on both sides. We’re making decisions that affect people’s sense of safety and their living environment,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan. “I want to thank everybody involved for working together to find a respectful, innovative, and safe solution.”