Lone Sellwood parking spot for homeless may stir up City Hall

Lone Sellwood parking spot for homeless may stir up City Hall
This May 24, 2012 photo shows a car parked in a space which is proposed to be designated for homeless motorists in the Moreland Presbyterian Church parking lot in Portland, Ore. The church has been the first to take advantage of a Portland pilot project that allows religious and nonprofit organizations to host homeless motorists in their parking lots at night. Moreland Presbyterian Church wants to open one parking space to be used by female motorists who need a safe haven at night. Under the program, the church must provide access to toilets and garbage pickup. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Pastor Tom McKnight spoke with great apprehension when asked about the uproar over the parking space in the corner of the Moreland Presbyterian Church parking lot — the one next to the beige storage trailer.

"I don't want to be put in an adversarial position," he said.

It might be too late for that.

The church wants to let homeless, female motorists use the parking space as a safe haven in the middle of the night, an offer that has created a dust-up with neighbors in the verdant Sellwood section of southeast Portland.

Though only a neighborhood controversy, the ramifications extend north toward City Hall.

City commissioners and a still-to-be determined mayor will undoubtedly look at the situation when deciding whether to extend a one-year test program that allows religious and nonprofit organizations to host overnight homeless guests in their parking lots.

The program was approved in December, but no churches participated until Moreland Presbyterian gave notice to its neighbors on May 2.

The reaction was unexpectedly negative in a city that touts its progressiveness.

"I think we've all been somewhat surprised by how many stereotypes about homeless people have become unleashed in this debate," said City Commissioner Nick Fish, who led the effort to get the program passed.

"I'm not critical of people for having their fears," he said. "I'm just not sure they are well-grounded in fact."

Similar programs have been employed elsewhere without major problems. Oregon's second-largest city, Eugene, invented the overnight parking program in the 1990s and has almost two dozen parking sites.

Fish and McKnight will meet with neighbors June 4 to answer questions and try to ease concerns. Neighbors, however, say they know the facts and think they have been unfairly portrayed as not-in-my-backyard types.

Stacie Carney, a mother of two who lives across from the parking lot, said she feels conflicted in her opposition. She empathizes with the plight of women who have no place to call home, but feels she and her neighbors have been put in a tough spot because it will be their responsibility to keep an eye on the parking lot and call 9-1-1 if something happens.

"I would just throw back at proponents: Would they feel the same way if this was right in their front yard?" she said.

John Calhoun, who lives two houses away from the church, echoed that concern, noting that nobody from the church will be there to monitor the lot from 10 p.m. until 7:30 a.m., the hours in which car camping is allowed.

Portland's program allows up to four vehicles for overnight parking. Pastor McKnight describes the church's proposal as modest, because it is limited to one vehicle driven by a woman, with or without children, who is working with a social services agency to move into permanent housing.

The church, like any other that might join the program, must provide access to toilets and garbage pickup.

Neighbors say the portable toilet provided to the camper might become a magnet for other homeless people. They also worry about general nuisances, such as increased noise, and whether the homeless women will be safe in their cars. The church flier alerting neighbors to the program arrived almost one year to the day after a homeless man broke into a Sellwood woman's home and sexually assaulted her.

"Sometimes it's easy to be altruistic when you don't have to deal with the issues," said John Needham, who lives next to the church.

Fish said the program can work in Portland, as it has in other places, without putting homeowners at risk or lowering their property values. And it will improve life, however slightly, for some in the city's homeless population, estimated at more than 5,000 people on any given night.

"This is not my preferred approach for ending homelessness," the commissioner said. "Allowing people to sleep in their car is no great victory for the cause, but it is — on the margins — better than where we find some people."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.