City Commissioner Nick Fish is standing among 150 mattresses and almost as many people in the gym of the Foursquare Church on SE Ankeny. He asks Red Cross Volunteer Supervisor Mohammad Ali about the challenges of operating an emergency warming center like this one.
"The personalities are the most challenging," says Ali. "These people live on the streets. Last night we had one fistfight and one inappropriate activity."
As Ali talks, another TriMet busload of homeless people pours through the doors. On Thursday, December 18, the center—which is open only when the weather is cold enough to make sleeping outside life-threatening—is on its fifth consecutive night. Regarding the "inappropriate activity" (what does that mean exactly?), Fish tells Ali he's already met with Police Chief Rosie Sizer to talk about stationing an officer in the center—but Sizer raised concerns about scaring off homeless people with outstanding warrants.
"Even if it were someone walking through once an hour, that uniformed presence would really help us," says Ali, and Fish says he'll see what he can do.
This emergency Red Cross center is in addition to two other winter-round warming centers Fish recently got funded by city council, in partnership with Multnomah County, to the tune of $300,000. Earlier in the evening, he toured the new family warming center, which has just opened in a former bridge club at NE 81st and Clackamas.
"We just scratched the playing card symbols off the windows last week," said the center's coordinator, Jean DeMaster, from the nonprofit Human Solutions.
The family center has 40 beds, and has thus far been catering to between 12 and 20 people a night. DeMaster anticipates an influx of clients in 2009, when homeless families tend to wear out their welcomes with relatives over Christmas. There are currently 2,500 homeless children in Multnomah County, but many homeless families sleep in their cars because of the stigma of this particular kind of homelessness, DeMaster says. There's also plenty more space in the building, including a former boxing ring in the basement, and Fish is abuzz with possibilities for it.
This reporter has had a few differences of opinion with Fish since he joined Portland City Council in June. For example, Fish is yet to formally take a position on the controversial sit-lie ordinance, and he ducked the Mercury's questions about oversight for rent-a-cops during our spring endorsement interviews. Despite past disagreements, Fish agreed to let this reporter join him on the warming center tour, if he promised be on his "best behavior."
Best behavior or not, it's time to give Nick Fish his due. His work to get the warming centers funded has been tireless, and shows an ability to cut through red tape to help those who need it most. Indeed, Fish seems at his best when faced with a human-scale problem, and the opportunity to solve it by drawing on his relationships in the homeless advocacy community. Like when Barry Lewis, a student at Portland Community College who is sleeping at the Clark Center men's shelter under the Hawthorne Bridge, lamented his inability to get into permanent supported housing because of his academic studies.
"Is that a federal rule?" Fish wondered. "Give me your details. I'll look into it, and get back to you."
That's the kind of commissioner Portland's homeless really need.