Carl Geers
On August 13, the Salvation Army shut the doors on the Greenhouse School. Literally. With no prior notice, representatives from Salvation Army changed the locks on the alternative school, a unique program where street youth could earn their high school diplomas. That same day, two teachers who had served as primary instructors and mentors, were called into an office along Sandy Blvd and told that the program was finished. For the past eleven years, the Salvation Army has served as the school's sugar daddy, but citing budget concerns, the charitable organization abruptly ended the program.

Greenhouse will remain in operation as a drop-in homeless shelter, but the educational program will no longer exist--an absence that social workers and street youth alike cite as a perilous loss for scores of homeless and drug-addicted teens.

To mourn the program's loss last Thursday--little more than a week after the sudden decision--about 100 social workers and street youth gathered at the brick-laid O'Bryant Park along SE Washington. With the melancholy celebration of an Irish wake, a guitar-heavy rock band played, occasionally giving over the microphone for youth and staff members to cry, vent, and revisit past successes of turning people from drug addicts to high school graduates.

Compared to many of the other shelters around town, Greenhouse was considered unique primarily because the school had expended resources on long-term solutions and compassion for street youth, rather than quick fixes. Complete with a GED program, a co-ed softball team, and art classes, Greenhouse had pieced together an ad hoc high school in downtown Portland for the past eleven years. The programs served about 150 street youth annually. Over the past three years, the high school at Greenhouse has helped about 60 teens kick drug habits and earn their high school diplomas.

"My real growth began when I met people that gave a damn," said Leticia, a Latina teen addressing the group. A former heroin addict, Leticia plans to start her sophomore year at PSU this fall, and since completing her GED through Greenhouse, has been reunited with her two-year old daughter. "People can tolerate homeless youth, but who wants to be just tolerated?"

Although many of the teens at Thursday's rally tried to concentrate on past successes, they all expressed acute anxiety about what the loss of this school will mean to present and future street youth. Commonly considered the most helpful and heartfelt programs in the city, the loss of the school at Greenhouse leaves a gaping hole in services for homeless and troubled kids.

"It's about the youth out there," said Leticia. "Greenhouse was an opportunity to get out of the life I was living."

Nearby, one homeless youth had erected three faux headstones, which read "School," "Substance Abuse Program," "Softball and Rec."

Although many current and former directors, teachers, and volunteers were appreciative of the decade-long string of street youth successes, it was obvious during the rally that venom towards management at Salvation Army simmered below the surface. The Greenhouse agency will continue, but without educational programs, it will shift its emphasis to temporary lodging for the street youth.

"The focus is not on enriching activities, but just as a place to come in," said one former volunteer, assessing the new mission of Greenhouse. "They [the street youth] can pretty much just have food and watch TV."

The hasty decision to shut down the school and its attendant programs has left scores of youth wondering what they will do. One 18-year-old was a single test away from completing his GED; After obtaining his degree, he had planned to look into jobs or college-level classes. Three current college students, who earned their high school diplomas through Greenhouse and were relying on the program to funnel their scholarship money, are uncertain about how they'll pay for the coming term.

"It is very ironic that they [the Salvation Army] are touting youth development and are walking away from traditional self-empowerment programs," said Evan Burton, a former teacher at Greenhouse. Burton emphasized that the school's closure removes a very unique and very needed program for street youth--one that is not currently replicated elsewhere in Portland.

"Greenhouse provided something functional," Burton explained about the role of Greenhouse, a sentiment echoed by each of the afternoon's speakers. "This may send them back to their dysfunctional street families."

Burton went on to point out that many of the current county and city-sponsored programs for street youth demand that teens provide intimate data about their drug and sexual histories. Burton pointed out that such prying often intimidates youths and keeps them on the streets instead of welcoming them into programs.

The Salvation Army has said that constricted budgets are to blame for shutting down the school. But others think this excuse may obscure the real reasons. One observer speculated that recent staff unionization plans had prompted the decision.

Others strongly believe that the program's closure marks a radical and unfortunate shift in the goals for Greenhouse and the city's relationship with street youth--one that will now emphasize quantity of relationships with street youth over quality. Like many social service agencies that rely on governmental funding, the Salvation Army applies for grants and contracts. It is easier to quantify their services and justify their need by the number of youth served, as opposed to detailing elusive qualities like trust and love.

"They are moving away from a relationship-based program towards numbers, which translates to money," said Joy Cartier, one of the primary teachers from Greenhouse. "It's a numbers game."

One youth standing nearby succinctly offered, "It's bureaucratic bullshit." As if his point was not made well enough, he added, "I fucking loved this program. What now?"

The teachers from Greenhouse are planning to re-group in the next few weeks and possibly launch a new program to fill the gap left by the closure of the school. To provide assistance or for more information, contact: mudluscious5@aol.com.