Letter about Houselessness from Kakumyo

I wanted to touch on a topic that has been painful to many of Dharma Rain’s members and supporters to witness and wrestle with.  We’re aware of how dire the housing situation has become in Portland.  Recent county estimates suggest there are more than 5,000 homeless but with some support or shelter in Multnomah County, and more than 3,000 without any shelter. Sprawling tent camps are much more visible than they have been in generational memory.  Economic instability, increases in violent crime, political polarization and the many effects of the pandemic have exacerbated the situation.

Many members may not realize just how impacted our immediate neighborhood is by these issues. Approximately every other day there are syringes and/or condoms left in the parking lot.  In the last month or so, a catalytic converter was stolen from the temple truck; a car crashed through our fence and landed upside down in the bottom of the ravine; a truckload of spoiled food and garbage was dumped in the savanna; someone drove through our fence with the neighboring property and broke in to a neighboring business; we had to confront someone who had been flashing passersby; the driveway was blocked by someone trying to fix their car; Portland Police officers carrying assault rifles chased a suspect through the property; a lost handgun was found in our field; and some fresh graffiti appeared.  

We close a gate at night, we do closing rounds and set alarms, we have a 24 hour presence and keep tabs on things and know our neighbors, but it’s just like this in the summer months. We’re located three blocks from 82nd, which last month transferred from being a highway governed by ODOT to an avenue maintained by the City of Portland, so I am hopeful that there will be further changes in how this artery looks and functions in the coming years.  We also have a parking lot that is not so visible from the street and a distance from the buildings, so there’s a certain anonymity to it.   It’s a hassle at times to deal with the misbehavior, and I can be astounded by the brazenness or callousness of some actions, but I rarely resent it — it’s symptomatic of deeper suffering and desperation and if we can help with some of that mess, great.  I believe it’s worth the effort.  I feel a responsibility to help with this situation.  Our mission, vision and values (https://dharma-rain.org/about/our-mission-and-vision/) point in several ways to the third pure precept of doing good for others.  We’re already doing something just being here and being an example of dharma, and, I think there’s the possibility of doing more.  

Recently, the Board of Directors has taken up the question of offering a portion of our site (roughly 7% of it, under an acre), for temporary use as a transitional housing village. We are in the early stages of assessing whether this is a realistic and appropriate path to take, but so far the responses have been quite positive. If the transitional housing village came to fruition, Dharma Rain would partner with the county government and with a non-profit alternative housing provider, who would provide the funding and expertise, respectively.  Dharma Rain would provide the land and perhaps some amount of volunteer support.  For an example of a nearby comparable situation, see: Beacon Village, near NE Glisan and 76th, in the parking lot of Bridgeport UCC https://beaconvillagepdx.org.  For a PSU study on the effectiveness of transitional villages serving the houseless population, see:  https://www.pdx.edu/homelessness/evaluation-best-practices-village-model.  We’re envisioning 10-12 units, which is a very small scale project.  These units would be supported by a professional care team, and inhabited by people committed to the structure and to transitioning to permanent housing.

We’ve had preliminary informational meetings with sangha, government, nonprofit and neighborhood leaders. The process will be slow and drawn out.  It will involve the Board and working group’s investigation: gathering and discerning sangha cohesion and neighborhood support; finding, choosing and working with partner organizations; choosing the served population; planning and developing the specific governance model, structures to be used, site layout, patterns of use/access, utility, safety, and support logistics, etc.;  and then testing, troubleshooting and evaluating as decisions are made.  It’ll be a year at the earliest before something happens. There will be lots of opportunities for the sangha and the neighborhood to ask questions, state concerns, share inspirations and get involved, including the Sangha forum in fall.  Feel free to bring it up in less structured ways in the meantime, including at the summer party this Saturday!

One of the frames that has been helpful for me with this, and other social justice issues, is the Buddha’s four criteria about speech.  He taught (eg., Abhaya Sutta – MN 58) that one should only speak if it is true, beneficial/necessary, and at the appropriate time depending on how kind the message is.  Personally, I’ve found that in instances of discernment, the criteria of beneficial and kind are fairly straightforward, and truth usually comes forward with some patience. Finding timeliness is more of an art. In reflecting on this issue, I feel a sense of conviction that this is something we should say.  Houselessness is a real problem (criteria of truth) that could be solved, as it has been in other communities.  It seems very likely that the temple could have some positive impact (beneficial to others).  I opened this letter describing some of the impacts of not speaking in this way; many sites have found that hosting a village has significantly decreased crime locally (beneficial to us).  Offering a safe place to stay for a few people who are actively trying to change their situation is a compassionate response (kind).  There is political, financial, logistic and social support for being part of the solution in this way right now (timely).

Thanks for bringing your wisdom and compassion to bear on this issue.  I look forward to hearing from you.

In gassho,

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