Owner of homeless camp property "hopeful but not optimistic" as settlement with city nears

Owner of homeless camp property "hopeful but not optimistic" as settlement with city nears
KATU photo.

 “I can’t figure out what I’ve won,” said Michael Wright, owner of the property where the Right to Dream Too homeless camp is located.

He is expected to join his lawyer along with Commissioner Amanda Fritz on Monday afternoon to announce the camp will move to a new location near the Broadway Bridge.

Since it became known that a deal was in the works, people have been asking Wright if he will see the settlement as a victory.

“I think I’m going to be right back at square one,” he says.

Wright has been fighting with the city since 2011, when he worked out an agreement with the camp to locate on property he owns at Burnside and Fourth at the entrance to Chinatown.

“The city had forced me into a corner,” he says.

The dispute started a couple of years before that, when the city forced him to close an adult bookstore he ran at the site. He ended up having the building razed and then tried to figure out what to do with the site.

“They wouldn’t let me do anything,” he says. “I couldn’t turn it into a parking lot, I couldn’t have food carts on the site. Whatever I wanted to do, they said no. There was a lot of animosity.

“So, one day in an interview, I said maybe I should just let the homeless stay there.”

The people who ran a camp tracked him down through property records.

“They wanted to know if I was serious,” he says. “I thought about it and decided yes. Yes, I was serious.”

Wright concedes that when he made the decision he was split between wanting to help the homeless and wanting to annoy the city.

“It was probably a 60-40 split,” he says, pointing out that it was weighted slightly in favor of helping the homeless.

“I had my motives but I also really wanted to help them,” he says. “This was a group of people in a very bad situation. People were getting beat up. They were getting shot. There were drugs and violence.

“It was a bad situation.”

Over the past two years, Wright has seen himself become a bit more of a homeless advocate.

“It really wasn’t my intention,” he says. “It just sort of evolved that way.”

Wright – who has some dark moments long ago in his past, including drug charges and a murder conviction – knows that given the right circumstances and enough will, people can change for the better.

“They have been able to set up a situation where you can knock on their door, agree not to use drugs, not to carry a weapon and stay the night,” he says.

“And it’s been working out. There haven’t been police calls to the area. There have been people finding stability in their lives and getting jobs and housing and moving on.”

The deal expected to be announced on Monday will relocate the camp to a new location, allowing it to continue operating. Wright, though, fears that it won’t be a long-term solution.

“It will give them a sense of stability for a year, but after that its not clear,” he says. “I hope the city continues to support their right to operate and just doesn’t say after a year, 'OK, everyone has to move.'

“That would just put them back at square one and that would be really unfortunate.”

In the agreement, Wight will drop his lawsuit against the city and it will forget about the thousands of dollars in fines it has levied against him for allowing the camp to operate.

“I will be right back where I was when I allowed the camp to settle there,” he says. “I still can’t have a parking lot. I can’t put a business there.  I can’t allow food carts to operate.”

Wright says there has been talk that the Portland Development Commission will make him an offer on the site but he is not holding his breath.

“I would say I am hopeful but not optimistic,” he says when asked if he thinks that things will eventually work out. “We can resolve this.”

What has Wright optimistic is that they are this close to a settlement.

“The city has really been much better,” he says. “Charlie (Hales, the mayor) has been great, as has Commissioner Fritz. They both recognize that the city had not treated me right and they seem serious about bringing this to a close.”

In the meantime, Wright waits to see how it will all play out.

“I don’t have a sense of triumph or completion,” he says. “I haven’t won anything from the city. I just have to see what happens next.”