The City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee is finally creating licensing for emergency shelters. They’re also considering a zoning change to allow emergency shelters with up to 40 beds in most parts of the city, including residential zones.

Concern shouldn’t necessarily be directed at shelters or clients; instead, focus should be on density, proximity to residential buildings and operators’ attitudes toward neighbors. We’ve seen the result when shelter operators get to decide how much impact is acceptable. Some current shelters, like Milestone, blend in. Other providers dominate entire neighborhoods without compunction.

Some are arguing that the recommended licensing focuses too much on neighborhoods, and the buffers and spacing are arbitrary. Some say associated neighborhood impacts are the price people pay for “choosing” to live near a shelter – a privileged, cynical view that demeans the homed and homeless alike. No person’s well-being should be forfeit because of where they can afford to live.

There’s ample evidence and years of data supporting the proposed licensing language. In fact this effort only begins to recalibrate the settings, make shelters safer, repair fractured public trust and acknowledge how much better we can do.

To truly be a community, especially in a close urban environment, everyone has to play their part and honor each other’s reality. If an agency’s definition of “neighbor” begins and ends with their clients, it’s up to the city to ensure that the surrounding community’s fair and reasonable needs are respected. Good licensing makes good neighbors, and good neighbors make a better Portland.

Sarah Michniewicz

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