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Background - Safe Rest Village Program

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Commissioner Ryan talking about site development at Old Town

This page was originally published 5.18.22. It was updated on 11.2.22.

How did we get here? 

There has been a gap in providing immediate services for those in need before they are ready to move into housing, or before housing is ready for them. The Safe Rest Villages program is one approach to address this immediate need. 

Background

The Safe Rest Village approach is innovative for Portland—a City-led, federally-funded, compassionately-modeled alternative shelter paired with wraparound mental and behavioral health services that gives vulnerable Portlanders an on-ramp to permanent housing.

The path to Safe Rest Villages has not been easy. 

In April of 2021, Portland City Council unanimously passed the Shelter to Housing Continuum: this ordinance changed our zoning code to allow for siting outdoor villages, and it instructed city bureaus to identify city-owned properties that could potentially be used for outdoor shelters.

In June of 2021, City Council unanimously passed the Paving the Pathway from Streets to Stability ordinance (#190478), which codified the City's approach toward outdoor shelters and provided the regulatory tools needed to build six Safe Rest Villages. Safe Rest Villages are alternative 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 provide harm reduction. With dignity, stable living, and support services, the trauma and volatility of life on the streets can be reduced.  This allows for healing and stability.  The program goal is for villagers to be able to enter recovery, return home / reconnect with family, or find permanent supportive housing, among other options.

By Labor Day 2021, Commissioner Ryan assembled a team of dedicated Portlanders with lived experience to make the Safe Rest Village vision a reality.

The Approach

Safe Rest Villages are an improved point of entry for Portlanders on the continuum from living on the streets to finding stability in permanent housing.

Services provided, by category, at Safe Rest Villages

Safe Rest Villages are among a range of services and program models being employed to address houselessness. The City and Multnomah County—through theJoint Office of Homeless Services, with federal ARPA funding and revenue from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure—are expanding that system of services, serving tens of thousands of people every year.


What was the site selection process?

The Safe Rest Village team developed site selection criteria with input from many sources. Community members shared thoughts on criteria and specific sites with the Commissioner, with all Council offices and bureau staff. A Home for Everyone’s Safety Off the Streets Workgroup—comprised of people with lived experience as unhoused neighbors—also significantly informed the site selection criteria.

Residents of existing outdoor shelters, staff from both the SRV team and the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), many of whom have lived experience being unhoused, shaped the criteria and were part of the decision-making process of site selection. Staff from other bureaus (Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, the Bureau of Development Services, Portland Fire and Rescue, and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability) also reviewed and provided feedback on the criteria.

Not every site meets all criteria. Factoring in how a given site meets some but not all criteria was an important part of the process. 

Generally, the criteria used fell into three categories: 

  • Safe to Rest In 

    • Not subject to environmental risk or hazards (contaminated soils, etc.)
    • Topography (flat and paved, safe for walking, wheelchairs, pod placement)
    • Enough space for COVID-safe distances between pods, communal space, and shared buildings
    • Some shelter from the elements
  • Accessible and Usable

    • Accommodates people with differing abilities
    • Proximity to social services, transit, jobs for villagers
    • Easy in/out for service providers, without impacting neighbors
    • Easy connection to utilities
    • Square footage sufficient to accommodate pods, shared spaces, and amenities
    • Areas of particular need
  • Contractual Considerations

    • Costs to purchase or lease land, etc.
    • Length of time available for use as a village
    • Zoning rules

How does equity inform your work?

As a core value of the City of Portland, the Safe Rest Village team continually approaches our work from an equity perspective. 

As with any community, Portlanders living outside are not a monolithic group—they are a diverse group of people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and abilities. As a response to the unique needs for safety and community among specific groups, some of the alternative shelters originally established with City General Funds focused on serving  members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community, while another was established to support queer-identifying individuals.  

We understand that the COVID-19 public health emergency has amplified existing housing insecurity and that low-income communities and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the negative economic impacts of COVID-19, and we anticipate that the percentage of unhoused people identifying as from a community of color has increased. This project intends to serve communities of color at the rate they experience unsheltered homelessness in our region. 

Accessibility is also a vital part of our work. According to the 2022 Point-in-time (PIT) count, 60.8% of our houseless population reported a disabling condition. From ensuring that the sites are flat to designing village layouts with on-site navigation in mind, our team is thinking about accessibility. Lighting, ramping, ground surfacing, and more – all decisions are reviewed with a thought towards access, safety, and functionality. 

Sites were considered across the City, in all quadrants, with siting criteria as the guide to ensure their success in serving future villagers. Up until our community’s massive shelter expansion starting in 2016—when shelter capacity doubled from 650 beds to nearly 1,400 beds—most services and shelter locations were concentrated downtown. We learned years ago that limiting shelters to one part of the city was a barrier that prevented Portlanders from accessing shelter. People with lived experience said they needed services in the neighborhoods where they already had connections and where they were being forced from their housing and onto the streets. 


Where else are outdoor shelters operating? Who else is operating them?

Many people are working to provide outdoor shelters, safe rest spaces, and access to services that bridge the gap from life on the street to more supportive, stable housing. Existing outdoor shelters include:

The Joint Office of Homeless Services recently put out a request for proposals for Alternative Shelters and is working with local non-profits to create a range of outdoor shelters. Those programs will receive funds from the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure and could add several more villages to our system of services.

One of those Joint Office sites is Beacon PDX, among many organizations partnering with communities of faith to build micro-villages (10-12 sleeping pods) on church properties and there are more examples. And that's just in Portland! In the Metro Area, Vancouver's Stay Safe Communities are now opened and Veterans Village is operational in Clackamas County. 


Where else has the Safe Rest Village team looked?

Since before the Safe Rest Village team was hired, staff with the City and County have been reviewing potential locations for outdoor shelters for use as Safe Rest Villages. More than 400 locations – City properties, County properties, other public agency lands, and private properties – have been considered.  Siting criteria – as defined above – have been the guide with the understanding that trade-offs exist for every site. An early list of 70 City-owned properties was shared with the public and media before they had been fully vetted. Since that time, they have been vetted, along with another 100 or so locations that are both private and publicly owned. During the first several months since the SRV team was assembled in  September 2021, more than 20 locations were visited for on-site review, following preliminary vetting.