Op-Ed: My Night at Portland’s City-Sponsored Homeless Camp

Councilman Tam Nguyen spent a night at Portland's city-sanctioned homeless camp to test the feasibility of building a similar shelter here in San Jose. At 3am Saturday, San Jose Inside received a series of text messages from the councilman, who had trouble sleeping through the night. Below is a transcription of those texts.—Editor

Finally, I made it to the Right 2 Dream Too legal homeless encampment in downtown Portland at the gate of Chinatown.

The city is romantic and charming with breathtaking views of the Willamette River cutting through it. But the streets are full of so many homeless people. The number is 3,000, I was told.

What strikes me is that a great majority of them are very young—many of them young men with children. Their faces show signs of drug and alcohol abuse. But those who line up for a sleeping spot at the camp appear to be more sober, or at least know how to put on a good face for admission.

The physical appearance of the camp is more dilapidated than I wanted, and it obviously needs more improvement—especially in the cold, rainy season. But to my delight, there is electricity and a computer center with WiFi!

There are three port-a-potties, but no shower or laundry. There’s a microwave and toaster, but no kitchen or refrigerator. In the afternoon, many local charities drop off bags of good food.

The founder, Ibrahim Mubarak, told me that there are about 25 members who live here and help operate the center, which can provide up to 120 sleeping spots.

By 6pm, people start the line to sign up so staff can prepare the necessary arrangements, including making sure there are enough sleeping bags. Later, by 8-9pm, the campers have to come back to turn in for the night.

The councilman's cot for the night.

The councilman's cot for the night.

Tonight, I count about 50 men, 20 women and some couples. No children. The men and women sleep in separate quarters, but the couples are allowed to stay together in a special tent for couples. All tenants must abide by strict rules: No drink, food or smoking.

By 10pm, it seems that everyone is sound asleep, many of them loudly snoring after a long, hard day. Outside, I hear the sounds of city life. Loud talking, singing and yelling of young revelers down the streets drown out the traffic noise and intermittent police or ambulance sirens.

Tomorrow, by 7am each day, there’s a wake-up call—just like every day for the past five years. I ask Ibrahim how much it costs to run this program. He says $1,500 a month. That’s about $50 a day, or 50 cents (yes, that’s two quarters) per person per night. That’s it.

I asked myself, “What do I do with two quarters?”

I, for one, can’t think of anything that I can do with that little pocket change nowadays. A few years back, before the price increase, I could park my car in downtown San Jose for 30 minutes with two quarters. Now, every time I park downtown for lunch, the new credit card-fed meters charge me $2 for an hour. That’s eight quarters.

With eight quarters, the Right 2 Dream Too camp can provide sleeping spots for a family of four. So the entire yearly operating budget is less than $20,000. Some winter months, Ibrahim explains, it gets cold, which drives up electricity bills.

The camp lies on less than an acre near Portland’s Chinatown. The owner sold the lot to the city, which plans to develop it eventually. Meanwhile, the organization that runs the camp has bought a new location across the river a few miles away. The new site will be better equipped, with full utilities, toilets, showers, laundry and even a kitchen.

One burning question on my mind related to safety. I was told that for the past five years, there has been no reported crime at this camp. Details remain vague, but I think the speaker may have meant no violent crime.

Tonight, laying in a cot among the homeless at this strange place, while everyone else around me is sound asleep amid noisy street life, it’s just me who is wide awake.

I keep trying, but sleep escapes me tonight. The only other people awake in the vicinity are a few assigned staffers who rotate security shifts to keep watch over the camp.

Now, just after 1am, the town is starting to quiet down outside. I keep telling myself that I should have come here sooner, much sooner—maybe four or five years sooner.

Councilman Tam Nguyen represents San Jose's District 7. He's a former attorney, journalist and classical guitarist who is serving his first term on the City Council. To reach him, contact his district office online or email [email protected]

16 Comments

  1. Your Honor;

    You should have gone there “…four or five years sooner.” And YOU should have stayed there permanently, sparing all of us the notion that “vagrants” are entitled to live in areas they cannot afford to do so and having property owners pay to have these vagrants and their problems to be in our immediate midst.

    The City of San José’s policy of embracing Communist ideology via “Free housing and permanent supportive housing” is part and parcel why San José has become an “irreversible festering slum.”

    The Evans Lane, “House the Vagrants Project” in D6 providing “Free housing and permanent supportive housing” at taxpayer expense is going to generate multiple claims against the city for “Diminution of Property Values.” This project is now facing claims from adjacent property owners with reference to NO Environmental Impact Report or CEQA clearances for this project.

    But, let us NOT forget the “Free housing and permanent supportive housing” that is slated for D7 and D3. More claims will be filed against the city for “Diminution of Property Values.”

    Meanwhile at city hall, there is a move to change the following;

    San José, the Capital of Silicon Valley

    To:

    San José, the Capital of Communist Ideology for Silicon Valley.

    Property owners beware;

    The communist comrades on the San José City Council, backed up by several “Non-Profits,” who are already on the taxpayer’s dime, are actively seeking to put a “Parcel Tax” on properties to provide “Free housing and permanent supportive housing” as an “entitlement” to those who can’t afford to live here.

    The communist comrades on the San José City Council, have already passed the “Inclusionary Housing Ordinance” which means these non-descript vagrants are also entitled to live in our neighborhoods furthering the “Diminution of Property Values.”

    The communist comrades on the San José City Council have accepted political donations and volunteer support for their political campaigns from the “Non-Profits.” The “Non-Profits” have become an organized political machine-a hybrid of Tammy Hall.

    With reference to Portland and other large cities in the Northwest, real estate markets are as hot if not hotter than here in Silicon Valley. Public Storage facilities have waiting lists due to the large numbers of people being displaced by property owners either raising rents and or outright selling their properties-sounds familiar.

    Government has failed miserably in NOT creating NEW towns. Raising taxes to provide “Free housing and permanent supportive housing” as an “entitlement,” at taxpayer’s expense is communism. The use of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) camps to address the plight of perusing the moral imperative is the only solution to the vast and growing problem of vagrancy.

    David S. Wall

    • David:

      Thanks for keeping an eye on the lizards and reptiles.

      I understand the quarter cent sales tax increase is supposed to raise $40 million.

      Can you figure out from the City of San Jose budgetary gobbledygook how much they spend or intend to spend on the “free range homeless” via the “permanent supportive housing”?

  2. Hi Tam, Thank you for your kind words for the homeless, and for your courage to stand up against the many naysayers who tend to post in this space. They do not speak for the people. I have lived and worked here for 26 years, and the people of this city are a generous and compassionate people who care about their community and everyone it, as you do.

  3. Tam, Thanks for taking the time to go to Portland to see some examples of alternatives to the current approach to homelessness in San Jose. It seems like Right To Dream Too may be an example of what happens when a community choses to not properly fund and provide services to a “sanctioned encampment”. Perhaps this is an example of what not to do in San Jose. We can do better in San Jose. We need to change the building code and change the zoning code so that we can have villages of tiny houses on wheels, with bathrooms, showers, trash collection and with social services/recreation trailers that can do double duty for social services and resident recreation. We need to provide social services so that the homeless are empowered to be the best people they can be and to contribute to society in whatever ways they are capable of.

    Richard McMurtry
    Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition

    • I’d be curious to know who paid for this trip. Anyone know?

      I suspect it was paid for at least in part, if not entirely by taxpayers.

      It’s free (to him, anyway) publicity, proving that “he cares”.

      Question: how many trips like this did Tam make before he had his fingers in the public’s wallet?

      http://tiny.cc/7mc7by

  4. I scrimped and saved to buy a home in D3. I still have a monumental mortgage to pay, thanks to the housing bubble. I did not realize that my hard work would result in living on Skid Row. Now, I am scrimping and saving to get out of San Jose, where I will be taxed to house the homeless, while the homeless continue to do whatever they please in our communities. These increasing taxes will drive the Middle Class out of San Jose, so downtown will be left with only rich tech workers, and the homeless.

  5. Stop trying to convince us that the homeless are our neighbors! My neighbors don’t pee and poop on the sidewalks! Many of the homeless are mentally ill, and/or drug or alcohol addicted, and residents are expected to be mental health workers? We are ill-equipped to deal with this problem in our residential neighborhoods. Many homeless need the kind of help that keeps them in a medical facility, not free to wander around our neighborhoods.

  6. > My neighbors don’t pee and poop on the sidewalks!

    CITY GAL:

    Why are you backlashing against people who pee and poop on the sidewalks?

    You must be an awful person.

    • Yes, I am an awful person because I do not want a health crisis in our neighborhoods. I am an awful person for looking after the safety of all people who live in San Jose. I’m curious, do you pee and poop on the sidewalk? If so, I am an awful person in that I prefer not to call you names or denigrate you for your personal habits or opinions.

    • You might be interested to know that the central valley cities have found a solution in the Guardian Angels. Several shopping centers have hired us to “Discourage” the panhandlers. 2 weeks ago they had us patrol during a Carnival at a stockton shopping center.

      It’s sort of one of those necessary evils. Unfortunately the homeless folks don’t understand that we don’t really want to be shaken down by a gang of homeless vagrants begging for “Spare Change”. We know that for most of them, that money goes right to the liquor store.

  7. I live in Portland… used to live in San Jose before I lived here (couldn’t get out fast enough). If you had widened you circle of opinion solicitation, you would have found out that most Portlanders (especially those who live downtown like me) think RightToDreamToo (R2D2 in local parlance) is an eyesore and they want it gone…like yesterday! The only ones who seem to want to allow it to stay are the members of the Portland City Commission (whom most Portlanders want gone…like yesterday…too).

    Mayor Charlie Hales is so unpopular, he declined to run for re-election for a second term (perhaps feeling the ire of just about every citizen of the City).

    Lastly you write: “Meanwhile, the organization that runs the camp has bought a new location across the river a few miles away.” This is patently false! The proposed site is on City-owned land near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). None of the industrial neighbors want a homeless camp there either. There is an active lawsuit to prevent the City of Portland from moving R2D2 there.

    City-sanctioned street camping, no matter how organized is an eyesore and a health and safety hazard. If you think for one minute that an R2D2-like solution is something San Jose should embrace….well, then, I got some formerly-Federally-owned from a guy named Bundy in Harney County, OR that is for sale…

    • Steve:

      I’m disappointed to hear your report.

      After watching episodes of “Portlandia”, some of us were thinking that the solution to San Jose’s urban forager/homeless problem would be ship our bums and hoboes to Portland.

      They’re not all like you in Portland, are they? Surely someone up there would welcome replenishment of your stock of free range campers.

      We could possibly even throw in some mobile toilets and bum washers.