How One Portland Neighborhood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Homeless

Source: Willamette Week / 

Portland Police Officer Jason Jones arrives early in the morning at Slough Town.

Three hand-built wooden rafts sit atop plastic barrels moored to the water’s edge in the Columbia Slough. On one raft and on the land nearby are a few camping tents. The other two rafts hold handmade tiny houses, constructed from wood pallets and plastic tarps.

The captain of this flotilla goes by the name Gilligan. His real name is Danny Ferren. He’s 39 years old with a meth addiction and minor brushes with the law over the past 10 years.

A year ago, he picked this out-of the-way bog as a homestead.

Now living in the slough—a swampy channel of water bordering the Columbia River near Portland International Airport—with a half-dozen other homeless people, Gilligan is facing a cop.

Gilligan knows what usually comes next. He gets rousted—a casualty of the increasing disdain Portlanders have for a growing homeless population blamed for wrecking natural areas, attracting vermin with piles of garbage, and stealing.

Yet Jones hasn’t come to sweep Gilligan out. Instead, he’s bringing good news: Jones says he’s talked the city out of erecting a fence to block access to the slough.

Gilligan sounds relieved, even though he was ready to improvise.

“I was just going to build a ladder and go over the fence,” Gilligan says.

“That would be awesome,” Jones says. “That would be creative.”

The friendly chat between Gilligan and the local patrolman on a July morning isn’t an accident.

It’s just one of several experiments over the past six months in the outer Northeast Portland neighborhood of Parkrose, where community leaders are trying something different with homeless people: welcoming them.

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