A center to "end" homelessness in Portland has been a long time coming.
"We first tried this when my daughter was born," says Margaret Bax, the housing policy manager in City Commissioner Erik Sten's office. "And she's about to graduate college."
Sten told the Mercury on October 1 he expected to settle on a site for a new center to shelter homeless people and help them move into housing "in the next two weeks" ["No Room at the Inn," News, Oct 4]. And with up to $30 million worth of possible investment, everyone is curious about what to expect when the center eventually opens in—fingers crossed—2009. However, Sten's deadline has already passed, and negotiations are still in the works.
Andy Wilch, housing director for the Portland Development Commission (PDC), now says the agency is likely to choose a site for the center by "the first week of December." The two contending locations are the "Dirty Duck block," nicknamed after the bar on its corner at NW 3rd and Glisan, and the triangular historic fire station block, or A&N block, kitty corner from it, next to the onramp for the Steel Bridge in Old Town.
Regardless of which site is chosen, and how long the decision actually takes, how did the city get here, historically? Does anybody really believe the center can "end" homelessness in Portland, and if so, what's different about the efforts to do it this time, as opposed to when a similar project was attempted in the 1980s? What makes everyone so sure this new center is going to be a success?
LEARNING FROM PORTLAND'S MISTAKES
Housing Policy Manager Bax is coordinating the city's effort to site and build the homeless resource center with the county and a trio of organizations with acronyms for names—the PDC, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP), and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD).
Around the time Bax's daughter was born, Bax was taking part in an effort under Mayor Bud Clark in the '80s to remodel what was then called the Beaver Hotel, into what now serves as the city's current homeless center—part of Clark's "12-point plan to end homelessness."
If that sounds familiar, it's probably because Bax's "new" effort to build a "new" center is part of a "new" "10-year plan to end homelessness" launched by Sten three years ago—it borrowed elements of Clark's plan, but emphasized a speedier transition between homelessness and permanent housing, with fewer intermediate steps.
Today the old Beaver Hotel, behind the Greyhound bus station on the corner of NW 5th and Glisan is, to quote Bax, "worn out." It's been through a number of changes, hosting homeless men's and women's shelters over the years, and currently plays host to Transition Projects, Inc. (TPI), a homeless men's shelter, and the Medford House, a treatment center for high-risk offenders with addiction problems.
To an uninitiated visitor, TPI's men's shelter makes an unforgettable first impression—men cram themselves into bunk beds spaced so closely together that the shelter had to get special permission from the fire bureau just to stay open. It's not a place that inspires optimism.
When dinner is brought in each evening, there's nowhere for the men to eat it, other than sitting on the edge of their beds. It's more like a scene from Down and Out in Paris and London—George Orwell's 1933 account of living as a "tramp" in those cities—than what one expects from a supposedly ultra-liberal city in the richest nation on Earth in 2007.
The mood hardly lightens when you walk around the corner into TPI's "service access center"—more than 20 people crowd into about 100 square feet of floor space, take a number, and wait their turn to speak to one of three desk clerks behind a tiny, battered counter. The center gets busiest when it first opens—there's usually a line waiting outside—but there's always frustration in the air.
"There's not enough space for people to sit in a dignified manner," says Fern Elledge, the shelter's human resource director, who is gearing up to manage the new homeless center when it opens. "So our clients get frustrated, and about twice a week yelling erupts. It's very stressful for everyone."
Someone has pinned quotes from Aldous Huxley's dystopic novel Brave New World on a wall in TPI's mailroom, where another Xerox'd quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky hangs: "Originality and a feeling of dignity are achieved only through work and struggle."
Struggle, indeed. In the basement, there's a bizarre, 300-ton mound of 100-year-old earth left behind by the people who built the original building in 1907. It could be taken symbolically as the center's very own Sisyphean mountain—named for the Greek mythological character whose only task was to endlessly roll a rock up said mountain, doomed to repeat the effort again and again.
Aside from being "worn out," the building just isn't working: TPI has an extremely long waiting list, and has had ongoing problems with people camping outside. Those camps attract drug dealers, who conceal themselves in the crowd, and the cops are fed up with making arrests on the center's sidewalk—it's a vicious cycle.
"The problem, is, we're telling people who are camping elsewhere to go to [TPI] for services," says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese. "But when they get there, there's a 10-week wait." The wait for women at a shelter around the corner is worse: 12 weeks, currently.
"Meanwhile, the Medford [House] and TPI are seeing their clients dropping like flies because when they come out of the building they have to wade through this sea of humanity," Reese continues, "with people outside shooting up, smoking crack, and drinking—the very problems they're trying to kick."
MY, WHAT SERVICE!
Thankfully, things have changed since Bax first oversaw the conversion of the old Beaver Hotel, and practices have changed when it comes to building centers for the homeless.
"How we provide shelter and services is different now," she says. "We're not just trying to get people off the streets. We know people need to get stabilized in housing to stay off the streets."
That means a whole host of services need to be incorporated in the new center that weren't in the old one: The maximum zoned height for both properties being considered is 350 feet, and it's "likely" all of that may be required, according to Leah Greenwood at PDC. TPI has the contract with the city to run the new access center when it's built, and has drafted a series of recommendations on what to offer.
Basic service ideas include a day-access center for 70 people aimed at getting them out of the elements during the day, an outside smoking area for 20 people, shelter beds for 90 men at night (in 45 bunk beds), lockers for people to store their belongings, 10 showers with dressing areas, laundry facilities, restrooms, a dining area (no more eating in bed), a commercial kitchen, internet and computer kiosks, and a mail service.
Ideas for resources to help move people into housing include meeting rooms for staff to connect people to assistance programs, meeting spaces to run a variety of rental and employment classes, private meeting rooms for mental health services, medical exam rooms, and a medication storage area.
On top of that, HAP, which is the lead developer on the project, hopes to add permanent supported housing on the center's upper floors.
"Fifty units of supportive housing is a good planning number," says Mike Andrews, director of development and community revitalization at HAP. "It's not too many, and not too few."
ASK A HOMELESS PERSON
"It's awesome we're going to have a day-access center, and that it's something in the works and actually going to happen, it seems," says Patrick Nolen, community organizer at Sisters of the Road, who was himself homeless in Portland for eight years. "But I hope there's community involvement in the width and depth of the program."
For Nolen, that means everything—from the hours the center is open, to rules for use of the center's computers, its kitchen space, even what kind of mental health counseling is offered—needs to be first run past the homeless community the center is geared to serving. As a result, Sisters of the Road is advocating for focus groups involving the homeless community to be held before the center's plans are drawn up.
"We should do that," says BHCD'S Heather Lyons, who helped write Sten's 10-year plan. "It's absolutely critical to have the voice of the people who'll eventually be using the systems involved in the planning process."
GETTING BUSINESS ON BOARD
Perhaps the most important part of delivering the new center will be the support of downtown's businesses. Historically, that community has been against accommodating homeless shelters.
Twenty years ago, Mayor Bud Clark blocked an attempt by the now-defunct homeless shelter Baloney Joe's to move from its location on the Eastside into what is now the Pearl District (next to what eventually became the Park Kitchen restaurant). When Clark learned Baloney Joe's had bought a space on NW 8th and Flanders, he called an emergency press conference the next day to speak out against the attempt, citing business concerns. Baloney Joe's ultimately closed, eight years later.
Things are different today. The Portland Business Alliance, which represents 1,300 businesses in and around Portland, has found itself in the (perhaps unexpected) position of being an advocate for better social services downtown. This was sparked by the Alliance's involvement in Mayor Tom Potter's Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) committee last year.
The SAFE committee has established a temporary day-access center, the Julia West House, downtown at SW 13th and Alder, in exchange for council passing a controversial law banning people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk—a political bargaining process covered extensively in this newspaper. But the temporary center only provides very basic services for between 40 and 60 of downtown's homeless, and already it's overflowing.
"We've been an advocate for the new day-access center from day one because it will make downtown better for everyone, including the homeless population," says Mike Kuykendall, vice president of downtown services for the Alliance.
Times for Portland's business community appear to have changed. And for Clark, too—he's now on the board of TPI.
HOLDING POLITICIANS ACCOUNTABLE
Having the political will to build a $30 million center from scratch to help people out of homelessness is a massive opportunity for Portland. What remains to be seen is if Commissioner Erik Sten and his team can pull it off. The center has been a generation in coming, but what's to stop the ball from being dropped for another 10 years?
As council's chief homeless representative, Sten is the archetypal good guy, and is arguably given an easier ride by certain journalists than his fellow commissioners and other lobbying groups because of it. Indeed, so far, much of the community's ample frustration over the slow progress of the access center has been misdirected at the mayor's office rather than Sten, ever since Potter chose to get involved in Portland's homeless scene by convening the SAFE committee.
For example, on September 11, TPI Executive Director Doreen Binder vented her spleen on Kyle Chisek, a mayoral staffer, at a meeting of the downtown public safety action committee.
"The 10-year plan talks about having an access center," she said. "For God's sakes, get it done. Kyle: Get the goddamn building done already."
Ultimately, of course, Sten is the man responsible for getting the goddamn building done already. Let's just hope he can pull it off within the decade.
"I think Erik himself would be very disappointed if this process weren't resolved before he leaves office," Binder says—about as close to putting him on the hook for the center as she's willing to go.
There's also the small problem, for Sten, of coming up with the money. Sten wants to divert urban renewal funds for the center from what PDC currently calls the "river district," or the Pearl District—now that it's been "renewed," he wants to spread some of the cash around. But that's by no means a done deal, and could easily spawn more delays and a swarm of controversial press coverage.
Nevertheless, Sten is talking like a confident man.
"We're going to do it," he told us on October 1.
No pressure, Erik, but you'd better.