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After learning of the tremendous number of services Outside In provides to Portland's marginalized communities, "safety net" seems like the most apt way to describe the local nonprofit. For the last 40 years, using an interwoven network of health care and social services, the agency has made it their mission to catch those who have fallen into the darkness of violence, poverty, and homelessness.

With programs dotted across several blocks of downtown Portland, Outside In is nationally regarded as a model for nonprofit community social service. Every day the agency's volunteers face crises and adversity, and every day someone who would have been on the street takes a step toward improved health, employment, and independent living. Those steps might be taken in the quiet of the acupuncture clinic, or the bright refuge of the well-appointed day room. They might be taken in the on-site alternative high school, or during a needle exchange. At all points, Outside In is there to help people off the streets and into a better life.

Through a robust medical outreach program—partnering with Oregon Health & Science University, National College of Naturopathic Medicine, and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine—Outside In provides health care services for anyone who is uninsured or under-employed. A two-room mobile medical unit reaches people unable to travel to their Southwest Portland health clinic. A long-standing needle-exchange program reduces the spread of HIV in the community while simultaneously diverting people into drug treatment. A tattoo removal program helps individuals erase traces of a gang membership or domestic abuse, while increasing their ability to find employment.

Along with these programs aimed at increasing wellness, Outside In provides services to homeless youth primarily between the ages 16 and 21. Not only do they offer a safe environment off the streets, food, animal care, and crisis counseling, but also education, job training, and transitional housing. The idea being that once these kids get help, they're given a ladder to climb back into the light.

"We provide the safety net for people," says Outside In Executive Director Kathy Oliver. "And at the same time, services that help people change their lives."

Beyond what they've done to help those pushed to the edges of society, it's amazing to think what the agency has done to increase livability in Portland. Just this year, Outside In helped 87 homeless youth find employment in the community. Fifteen clients obtained a GED, and 30 enrolled in college or a post-secondary training program. Eighty-eight percent of clients in transitional housing with Outside In found stable living situations, either independently or with family and friends. All this means fewer homeless youth on the streets of the city, and fewer headed for incarceration or death. If you were to erase Outside In's 40 years of community service, Portland wouldn't look the same.

One thing that has allowed Outside In to make such a significant impact in the community is the fact that while the agency has grown, it has remained quick to respond to needs of the community it serves.

"People ask me what the agency's going to be doing in five years," says Oliver. "I don't know. The world changes too fast. When we started syringe exchange, we had no idea we'd be doing it. HIV changed the world and we responded."

Oliver points out that it's important the agency remains flexible and responsive. She points to the tattoo removal program as proof. "Five years ago, tattoo removal wasn't such a big issue. Now it is."

This nimbleness allowed Outside In to respond when they saw the need for increased focus on lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. Later that focus shifted even further when they noticed more transgender individuals accessing their services.

Currently, the biggest issue Outside In faces is ensuring that they can offer job training and education, as the economic downtown continues to leave more and more behind.

"Employment and education go hand in hand," says Outside In Communication Director Kelly Anderson. "Especially in this economy, getting a job is difficult for many people. Homeless youth are just hit harder when times are tough."

Still, whether serving homeless youth or providing medical care to the poor, the safety net of Outside In is there to catch just about anyone. And it's important to remember that "anyone" could someday include you.

"People think that poverty is something that happens to other people and not themselves," says Oliver. "Until it does."

Please bid generously to help Outside In continue the good fight. Outside In is located at 1132 SW 13th. For more information, call 503-535-3800 or hit outsidein.org.

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