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A Portland initiative to help unhoused LGBTQ people is facing backlash

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The American Rescue Plan provided more than $5 billion for housing and services for homeless people, and cities are using that money in a variety of ways. In Portland, Ore., a cluster of sheds has been operating as a shelter for LGBTQ people. But Katia Riddle reports some neighbors have withdrawn their support for it.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: That first night on the street is one that Mia Winters remembers clearly.

MIA WINTERS: I was downtown by a Chipotle somewhere. I'm tired. I don't know where to go. My phone is dead.

RIDDLE: Winters had come to Portland from Reno, Nev., with a plan. It fell apart. That night, they found an alcove and laid down.

WINTERS: And I fell asleep. And I remember this little girl in the morning walking by with her mom and saying, Mommy, there's a person sleeping there.

RIDDLE: It would be years before Winters got off the street. Finally, they moved into this village especially for queer homeless people.

WINTERS: I mean, it was just nice to be able to, like, set my backpack down and, like, leave it in a spot and then come back to that spot later, and my stuff was there.

RIDDLE: Twenty-one residents live here in individual structures.

WINTERS: We have a bed and we have shelves. That's it.

RIDDLE: So it's not luxury accommodations.

WINTERS: No, there's not diamond-encrusted bidets. That's it.

RIDDLE: Each shed is 8-by-8 feet. They're climate controlled. Bathrooms and kitchens are shared. Faraday Nolend is one resident. They say checking into a congregate shelter for men isn't an option.

FARADAY NOLEND: I would be, like, extremely unsafe there. Yeah.

RIDDLE: You're worried about a physical assault.

NOLEND: Yeah. I mean, I feel like it would be an inevitability.

RIDDLE: That's precisely why this affinity village exists. Here, residents have privacy and community. But integrating with the neighbors here has not been smooth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BODO HEILIGER: None of us wanted to be where we are today.

RIDDLE: Bodo Heiliger is the principal of a nearby private school. In May, he spoke at this press conference to revoke support for the village on behalf of a group of community members.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEILIGER: Which includes our two schools, plus the downtown neighborhood association.

RIDDLE: Initially, this group was supportive of the village moving in across the street from the school. Things fell apart when they say city officials weren't addressing safety and oversight concerns.

BEVEN BYRNES: That press conference day was really difficult for me, personally.

RIDDLE: Beven Byrnes is an administrator at another nearby school. She says they've made progress with the city since then, but she still has concerns. She wants to welcome the village. She's the daughter of lesbian moms and the mother of a nonbinary child.

BYRNES: To have the narrative coming out of those press conferences that we were homophobic NIMBYs, basically, that was driving our force - that was what was really the most hurtful.

RIDDLE: A big point of disagreement has been this group's demand that the residents of the village undergo background checks before moving in. Given the proximity to schools, Byrnes' group is especially worried about sex offenders.

BYRNES: It only takes one, and our job is to protect our kids.

DENIS THERIAULT: These are low-barrier shelters, and we are not doing background checks in low-barrier shelters.

RIDDLE: Denis Theriault is a spokesperson for Multnomah County. He says background checks can be especially intimidating to unhoused queer people. And background checks aren't required in other similar low-barrier homeless villages. Theriault says sex offenders are already prevented from living by schools, homeless or not.

THERIAULT: And there are other mechanisms for enforcing that.

MARISA ZAPATA: The only reason you run a background check is because you're going to decide that certain people can't live someplace.

RIDDLE: Marisa Zapata studies homelessness and housing issues at Portland State University. Zapata says objections from neighbors are a constant issue with these sorts of initiatives.

ZAPATA: I think it really raises the question of, is this a model worth pursuing?

RIDDLE: Zapata wonders if cities like Portland would be better off investing in programs that require less public relations work. Back at the queer affinity village, Mia Winters unfolds a letter.

WINTERS: I'll read it aloud.

RIDDLE: It comes from a parent at one of the nearby schools.

WINTERS: How in the world in good conscience could you support this village location? These are in all caps.

RIDDLE: The writer objects that her 7-year-old son will be able to see the village from his classroom.

WINTERS: He is within earshot, sight and gunshot range of this village.

RIDDLE: Even though Winters laughs it off, they say the words hurt.

WINTERS: I would like to officially request empathy on behalf of all unhoused people.

RIDDLE: It's not helpful, says Winters, to villainize people who are already suffering.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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