Special Report: Inside look at California sanctioned homeless campsites coming to Portland

Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 5:45 PM PDT|Updated: Apr. 27, 2023 at 6:45 PM PDT
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LOS ANGELES (KPTV) - We are getting an inside look at Urban Alchemy, a California-based group that runs sanctioned camp sites to connect people experiencing homelessness with services.

The nonprofit is coming to Portland to set up at least one sanctioned mass campsite in the city, with likely plans for more.

The group’s Lincoln Safe Sleep Village in South Central, just minutes from Downtown Los Angeles, is similar in size and structure to what will be in Southeast Portland early this summer.

Sheryl Monaco has lived at the Lincoln Safe Sleep Village for two months after experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles the past four years.

“It’s rough. I was robbed, I was raped, my car was stolen, I had all my identity stolen, my husband’s ashes were stolen,” said Monaco. “These people brought me in because I needed a safe place to be.”

Monaco says Urban Alchemy has helped her start fresh. Right before the pandemic, she says she lost much of her close family, had health issues, and ended up on the streets.

“Every one of my family members died, and then my husband died. And I just couldn’t handle it. I lost everything during the pandemic: I lost my home, I lost my car, I lost my motorhome,” she said. “But now I’m rebuilding. I’ve got to not think about those things I’ve lost and stuff. And know that my family members are watching over me and want me to do better.”

Monaco says simple things like three meals a day, a clean bathroom and shower, her own space, and a case worker or ‘care coordinator’ helping her get documentation to start the process of finding housing has given her hope.

Dolores Flores says she has been at the site for seven months and says Urban Alchemy provides a refuge from the risky day-to-day of living on the streets of Los Angeles.

“I’m very very very grateful for this place,” said Flores. “I lived out on the streets for almost two-and-a --half years. I’ve been raped, I’ve been beaten. And so me being here, I feel protected.”

Part 2: How Urban Alchemy campsites operate

Urban Alchemy just came to an agreement for a five year $50 million dollar contract with the City of Portland to operate up to five mass campsites. Right now, the group is planning to operate at least one site in Southeast Portland, which according to Urban Alchemy’s proposal will cost $5.1 million per year to operate. With the large contract, Government and Community Affairs Director Kirkpatrick Taylor says the group is poised to grow in Portland, and help those on the streets but also stick to its core values of providing jobs to those who’ve recently gotten out of prison.

“While our services center around homelessness, the real role of Urban Alchemy is to create pathways for the formerly incarcerated,” said Taylor. “We believe that the success that we’ve been able to see is because we actually center them in leadership, center them in decision making places, center them in the middle of the work, and it allows us to really make progress and touch the issue in a way that we’ve probably not seen before.”

Carrie Bell is the site director for Urban Alchemy’s Lincoln Safe Sleep village. Bell says Urban Alchemy’s approach to providing homeless services is effective: giving formerly incarcerated people a second chance at a career, which she says creates more personable relationships with those living in the sites. Bell says she uses her experience of once being homeless in Los Angeles to help others.

“I was drug addicted, I was homeless, I was incarcerated. So when I have these conversations with our guests here they understand ‘I’m coming from where you’re at.’”

Bell says residents at the site typically stay three months to a year. The site is cleaned regularly, wellness checks are done on residents every hour, and each resident has a case worker or “care coordinator” to help them in their journey to getting their lives back on track and finding housing. Whether with physical or mental health, addiction, or getting documentation so they can find work. Residents have clean bathrooms they can access at any time, as well as three meals a day. Residents have to sign in and out, and check any weapons into a locked storage unit. But Urban Alchemy staff take what they say is a realistic approach when dealing with drug use within its sites.

“We do support sobriety and give resources pertaining to that, but we do meet our guests where they’re at,” said Bell. “If you come in here and you’re not ready to have that conversation about sobriety, then what we’re going to do is try and keep you alive while you’re getting intoxicated or high.”

Bell says staff are trained on using Narcan to reverse overdoses, but strive to take a more personal approach in helping those struggling with addiction at the site by sharing their own stories of recovery.

The site and the perimeter outside are monitored daily by staff, who say the trust they form with residents means they don’t need additional security.

“We don’t need security,” said Bell. “I know it seems strange but we don’t need security, it’s relationships we need, that’s all it is. Once we build a relationship with our guests, they tend to honor what we’re asking them.”

Fellow staff member Marci Bloomfield has a similar story to Carrie Bell. She has worked with Urban Alchemy in Los Angeles for three years and will be re-locating to Portland when the first site opens up in the summer to be one of the directors. She says Urban Alchemy has helped her get her life back on track as a staff member and she is looking forward to helping the group grow in Portland.

“I feel like I’ve outgrown myself down here and I’m looking to just expand and take what I know here up there. A year after I got out of prison, I started with the company and it’s a family. It feels so good to give back from the community instead of taking from the community,” said Bloomfield.

According to Urban Alchemy, the Lincoln Safe Sleep Site has been open for about a year and a half and business owners nearby say it was a rocky start but now there are mixed emotions.

Steve Robertson is a South Central native and owns a burger and wings restaurant. He says he has never been thrilled about Urban Alchemy’s presence and says the mass campsite was jarring for the neighborhood. But he says the neighborhood has adapted.

“With me being a businessman, it gives me some headaches sometimes. But with me being a person who understands the neighborhood I learn how to understand the situation.”

He says whenever there have been incidents related to Urban Alchemy’s residents the neighborhood reminds Urban Alchemy staff about their expectations.

“We always step back and tell them, when you’re in this neighborhood, you do as this neighborhood does, and you’re going to keep the peace neighborhood,” said Robertson.

Part 3: Why Urban Alchemy is coming to Portland

A few doors down, clothing boutique owner Eloisa Torres feels differently and says the campsite has brought issues to the area.

“Ever since they came in, it got ugly. Two of my windows have gotten broken, my door got broken into,” said Torres. “People already think South Central is ugly because of the name, it’s not like that. But if that’s the situation, it gets harder to let them know it’s not ugly.”

Kirkpatrick Tyler acknowledges Urban Alchemy turns heads every time a site is set up in a community. Urban Alchemy has also faced legal troubles tied to other sites it operates. Tyler says he knows this may make some question the group’s credibility.

“I think we always welcome skepticism. That’s healthy right? It makes for good conversation,” said Tyler. “It holds us accountable. It allows us to be genuinely responsive to the questions people have. I would challenge that when folks look at some of the reports that have come out that one, they’re usually editorial.”

Tyler says despite the issues that have come up with the group the success and rapid growth of Urban Alchemy speaks for itself. Urban Alchemy’s proposal to the City of Portland mentioned that currently, the group has 28 contracts with different government agencies totaling $61 million.

“I think when you look at the work, when you talk to the people, you’ll find that by and large we’re not perfect but we try really hard and we really love and respect the folks that we serve,” said Tyler.

Lincoln Safe Sleep Village resident Sheryl Monaco says anyone experiencing homelessness should open their minds to the opportunities Urban Alchemy can provide.

“Come on down here and try it out. If you don’t like it, you can leave anytime you want.”