George Pfromm II
With the announcement last week that a city-sponsored youth program plans to shut down an ad hoc, all-hours night shelter, street youths around Portland began to wonder what's next. For the past few years, the Janus Youth Access and Assessment Center--fondly and/or bitterly nicknamed "Jackass" by street youths--has provided space and a revolving door for homeless teens to drop in and crash for the night.

Street youths explain that the Assessment Center has offered something that no other program in Portland did--or, for that matter, any place on the West Coast: A crash pad where the social service providers don't hassle them with questions, and where teens can keep their own hours. Often, say Portland street youths, they used the Assessment Center as an emergency safety zone to find sanctuary from abusive friends or sometimes from the rain. No questions, no hassles and, sadly, after last week's announcement, no more.

The announcement that Janus--a city-sponsored social service provider--would close its doors sent tremors of resentment through the tightly knit circles of street youths. Although the service only provided 25 spaces for kids each night, participants explained that it offered such a hassle-free shelter that the loss is irreplaceable.

Officially, Janus has blamed the closure on lack of funds (to which several youth responded, "Bullshit"). Moreover, Kevin Donegan, a spokesperson for the service, said that the Assessment Center is not designed to be a shelter. "It is open overnight for youths to come in off the streets," he explained. "The Access and Assessment Center has been used by youths to sleep on the floor. That's not what it was originally designed for." The closure will occur on July 1. According to Donegan, Janus hopes to add as many as 10 more beds to its other shelters, Porchlight and Streetlight, which currently provide 55 beds nightly.

Even so, those beds, say youths, are a different quality from space provided at the Assessment Center, because they often have strings attached. Unlike other shelters in the city that many times require youths to sign on with a case worker and often run background checks, the space at the Assessment Center had an open-door policy--as long as floor space was available, youths were welcome. At times, kids would vacate in order to make room available for more needy teens.

"It pisses me off, because the people who need it the most won't have anything," said Alice (not her real name), an energetic and well-spoken teen who has been on and off of Portland's streets for two years. Alice goes on to tell about a friend who had recently been beaten up by her boyfriend and escaped to spend the night at the Assessment Center. Alice, who is pregnant, also says that last Saturday night she stayed there after her other options bottomed out.

"Now it will be like any other city, we'll go sleep in the street or doorways," she adds. The other shelters hold long waiting lists and require youths to reserve space; such a system, say teens, does not accommodate emergencies. Other shelters also run background checks to find out whether the teen has outstanding warrants or is a runaway and, often, dictate strict rules of conduct.

"You may want to change your life, but they force you to," says Alice, who entered the social service programs in Portland through the Assessment Center. By July, she promises, she plans to be off the streets and in stable housing. She attributes much of that transformation to the flexibility that the Assessment Center provided. The stern-handed guidance from other services, she says, does not work with many street youths. "A lot of these kids are rebelling in the first place."