A Royal Conflict

From the Oregonian, October 13, 1994

In his mind’s eye, as he gazes at the gray grime of Third and Flanders in Old Town, Bruce Wong sees the garden as clearly as if it were already there.

Water-hewn rocks, unique and ornate, rim a rippleless pond. From one end rises a small building, its rooms peaceful, contemplative, filled with antique vases, porcelains and ancient artwork.

On that spot, at present a parking lot, he sees just what Chinatown needs — a classical Chinese garden that complements the great gate, reflects cultural pride and beckons more visitors.

When he shifts his gaze, however, to the opposite corner, he just sees red.

There, within a small, rundown hotel called the Royal Palm, a group plans to open a shelter for homeless people with mental problems.

The group, Mental Health Services West, already owns the building, having purchased it July 1. Now, if it wins a conditional use permit from the city, it plans to admit 50 to 60 clients beginning in the spring.

No hearing has been scheduled, and the group’s officials say it may be months before one is. But they’re firmly committed to the project.

That’s because, they say, such a facility is sorely needed for Portland in general, and Old Town in particular.

The three major causes of homelessness, they say, are drugs, alcohol and mental illness. Programs and shelters abound for the first two; far too few address the third.

“The number of mentally ill people on the streets is alarming,” says Jean DeMaster, executive director of Transition Projects. She estimates that more than 800 emotionally disturbed homeless people wander the streets every day.

“This facility is a way of reducing those numbers,” she says.

The shelter would do that, supporters say, by coaxing those in need off the streets and into appropriate treatment programs.

“These people need more than just a hot meal and a cot,” says Brad Heath, program manager at Mental Health Services West. “They need specialized treatment. That’s what this will provide.”

Wong and other members of the Chinese community aren’t convinced.

To them, the proposed service is just one more homeless shelter in a community already overburdened with them.

They see visions of nearby Blanchet House, where clumps of tattered homeless men shuffle in line, waiting for a daily meal. They envision more and more homeless invading their community, drawn by the magnet of a new shelter.

Mostly, they fear, the shelter will wilt enthusiasm for the proposed garden.

“It’s going to deter people from coming,” says Wong, who has worked on the project for more than three years with the Chinese Benevolent Association.

“They’re constantly going to be on guard: `Is he going to say something? Is he going to do something?’ People are going to say, `Let’s not go down there.’ ”

The garden and cultural center, meanwhile, first was proposed by City Commissioner Mike Lindberg in 1989, and Portland’s Classical Chinese Garden Society was formed to plan the project.

Negotiations for the Flanders Street site are far from complete, say spokespersons for the Northwest Natural Gas Co. — which owns the parking lot — and the Portland Development Commission.

If it becomes a reality, organizers believe, the project would be the only classical Chinese garden in the United States.

Until he learned of the new shelter, Wong viewed it as an oasis for Old Town.

“It is supposed to provide a very restful, peaceful setting,” says Wong.

Heath sees nothing to deter that.

Clients, he says, will not be milling outside the shelter, because security guards will patrol the hotel front. The federally funded shelter, he says, provides enough money for full staff around the clock. Mental Health Services West plans a major facelift to the building.

Once the mentally ill get treatment, he says, they can be eased out of Old Town and into other single-residency housing.

And, says Heath, Mental Health Services West has a track record.

“I challenge anyone to go to our other facilities and see if there are disturbances there.”

The bottom line, says Erik Sten, a top aide to City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, is that “this is a way to get people off of the streets. Over time it will help move some of the chronic problems of Old Town out of the area.”

To sweeten the deal, he says, a planned shelter for homeless women will be located in Southeast Portland, rather than Old Town. After that, and the completion of the Royal Palm project, the city will reevaluate the current men’s shelters and consider whether to move some of them out of the community.

Wong and others say such carrots have been dangled before.

They remain skeptical: Mostly, they say, because they’ve been kept in the dark about the Royal Palm project.

“There have been many meetings held,” says Wong. “The Chinese community has not been called. Why? It seems like another example of the Chinese community being treated like second class.”

Ron Eng, president of Chinatown Development, nods as he listens. “They do what they want,” he says, and tell the Chinese community later.

As to the assurances, they’re too little, too late, they say.

“We’ve been told this is a done deal,” says Wong, “and now they’re trying to tell us why this done deal is good for us.”

Sherwood Dudley, president of the Historic Old Town Association, agrees.

“We feel that, being business people in the community, we should at least be notified of what’s going on.”

They were — indirectly, says Heath. And now, more fully.

Members of neighborhood groups, including the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Old Town Historical Association, were in on the meetings, he says, even though meetings weren’t called specifically for those groups.

“We felt like we had our bases covered,” Heath says.

“The reality is if they feel that way, then we have to address that, but our intention is not to sidestep anybody. That’s not how we do business.”

But the damage has been done.

Wong and Dudley say they now have an attorney looking into the matter.

As he stands at Third and Flanders, across from the peaceful garden he dreams about, under the Royal Palm sign, Wong promises a long, hard fight.