A Multnomah County commissioners meeting Thursday was tense and sometimes heated as the debate over a new shelter amplified with more than 40 people turning out to offer public testimony.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., commissioners voted 4 to 1 to sign the lease and move forward with the plan to open a homeless shelter that would serve about 120 people in southeast Portland.
The shelter, which would be located on Southeast 61st Avenue and Foster Road, would require a $2 million renovation to an old grocery store, turning it into housing and basic services for about 120 homeless people.
Commissioner Loretta Smith, the only commissioner to vote against the plan, offered harsh criticism of the county’s process to select the site and inform the public as she grilled county staff presenting specifics of the proposal.
Smith also questioned whether the county was trying to rush the shelter through before changes to city zoning codes in the area took effect.
This line of questions was met by applause from frustrated neighbors who said they didn’t learn the county intended to open the shelter until December and weren’t properly notified or engaged in the process.
Some of the neighbors said they are worried about the proposal’s proximity to a school, the potential for an increase in crime or drug activities and what they believe is a lack of basic services in the area, like access to healthcare and grocery stores.
Others in attendance said they were frustrated by neighbors’ “not in my backyard” attitudes toward the proposed shelter, pointing to the dozens of homeless who’ve died on the streets over the last year and Portland’s desperate need to alleviate its homeless crisis.
That was Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson’s message before the board. Vega Pederson called homelessness the “number-one concern heard in the county,” and although she agreed the process could have gone smoother, she urged meeting attendees that signing the lease was just the “beginning process” of greater dialogue between the county and community to iron out wrinkles.
She said backing out of the proposal could result in fewer, not more shelter beds in the future.
County staff said a community-wide meeting on the shelter was held in December, as well as other meetings with various businesses and neighborhood associations.
The county also launched a website specifically for the proposed shelter.
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