Homeless on the range and clueless in the mayor’s office

By Steve Duin & published in The Oregonian, June 25, 1995

Rarely does a single question provide as much heat and light as the one Chuck Currie stuck in the City Council’s ear on Wednesday.

The need to replace the dear, departing Recovery Inn was up for debate at City Hall. Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury had proposed building a temporary shelter near the police horse barn at the west end of the Broadway Bridge.

Someone then asked why the city didn’t throw enough money at the Recovery Inn to keep its doors open a little longer.

And Mayor Vera Katz, desperate to appear as if she’s seriously tracking this issue, snapped at the bait.

That, Katz said, is the same question she heard Tuesday from the suits at her exquisitely tailored Central City 2000 Task Force. “Some of us,”she was quick to add, are wondering the same thing.

Currie, a tireless advocate for the homeless, then waded through the malarkey to the microphone.

“How many of you,”he asked the mayor and the three commissioners present, “have been to the Recovery Inn in the last couple years?”

Kafoury’s hand shot up. Mike Lindberg‘s wave was a tad tentative. “Couple years?” he said. “I was there three years ago.”

No, Currie said, “I saw you there in 1990 at our 10th anniversary.”

“Okay, five years,” Lindberg mumbled.

What about Katz and Charlie Hales? They looked positively statuesque with their hands locked in their laps.

Currie promptly told them what they’ve missed. The Recovery Inn, formerly known as Baloney Joe’s, is a dilapidated hovel that stinks of urine, he said. If anyone from the Bureau of Buildings ever bothered to darken its door, “they’d close it down in a heartbeat.”

Hurting for funds, the Salvation Army beat them to it. Because the shelter stopped accepting new residents on May 10, the city and the homeless are in desperate straits.

The homeless — at least those who spurn the case-managed recovery offered by Central City Concern or the Union Gospel Mission — have no emergency shelter.

And the city has an anti-camping ordinance. “We’ve essentially criminalized homelessness,” said Erik Sten, Kafoury’s executive aide. That’s why the Multnomah County Legal Aid Service has threatened to sue the city if it doesn’t replace the shelter or repeal the ordinance.

Because she has a bleeding heart for this issue, Kafoury has spent the past six months seeking a replacement site, one that can be up and running before the first winter frost. Respecting her turf, the mayor gave her plenty of room.

Trusting her work ethic, Hales and Lindberg didn’t argue with Kafoury’s siting of a temporary shelter on the future site of the River District, a decidedly more upscale development.

Former Portland mayors Tom Potter, Bud Clark & Vera Katz pay homage to the Expose Yourself to Art poster

Former Portland mayors Tom Potter, Bud Clark & Vera Katz pay homage to the Expose Yourself to Art poster

Not Katz. The previous night, that Central City 2000 task force passed a resolution urging the council to delay siting the shelter. The task force’s business interests did so after hearing lots of testimony from heavyweight developer Pat Prendergast and none at all from Kafoury.

The mayor seemed paralyzed by that message. She quarreled with Sten’s testimony that other sites weren’t available. She raised financial issues that haven’t bothered her on other sitings. She fumbled for an excuse to delay the inevitable.

“I find it incredibly frustrating,” Currie said, “when someone comes up with a plan, and people say, `Let’s study it again.’ When they haven’t been players. When they haven’t visited the shelters. When my guess is they haven’t met anyone who is homeless.”

Katz vehemently denied that she was spending much more time with developers than with homeless advocates. She complained that Kafoury and Sten kept most of their information “undercover” and described as “unconscionable” their reluctance to brief her and her staff.

And that’s odd: No one else on the council seemed to be in the dark. Jeanne McKeever, Hales’ top aide, said their office was thoroughly briefed on Kafoury’s plans, often in executive sessions attended by Sam Adams, the mayor’s chief of staff.

If Katz is out to lunch on the current state of those who can’t afford one, it’s precisely because she is so familiar with the concerns of Pat Prendergast and Bob Ridgely and so unfamiliar with the Recovery Inn.

Given Kafoury’s passion for the homeless, the mayor’s time may be better spent elsewhere. Katz is a busy woman who will, I trust, someday merit a noble statue in a Portland park.

Of course, except for Kafoury’s passion, a lot of miserable people will be sleeping in its bronze shadow.