The Hansen Shelter, at the corner of Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street, has been open more than four months now, and its impact on the neighborhood is undeniable.
The homeless presence in the area can be noticed before stepping off the MAX. On a recent bitterly cold evening, a group of Hansen guests gathered around the doors as the train approached the 122nd Avenue stop of the Blue Line. They were well groomed and dressed in clean clothes appropriate to the weather. But they had a certain style, and it was easy to make assumptions about them.
This was not just the uncharitable judgment of a more fortunate bystander. They recognized each other instantly and had instant comradery.
“What’re you doing for Christmas?” one young man asked another after exchanging nods. They both had prominent tattoos and piercings, although not so many that it would stand out among their contemporaries in Portland.
“I might smoke a Christmas tree,” he replied.
A girl joined in with them for a short discussion of his plans and his wordplay. She and the first boy were a couple. They had a two-year-old daughter that his parents were adopting, they said. The other young man had a less stable family background, he shared. As they got off the train together, they looked back at a middle-aged man in a wheelchair and the man with him, who was wearing a tie-dyed baseball cap with a marijuana leaf on it. They shook their heads and traveled farther.
Cars were everywhere, but there were very few people on the street. It was loud and the air quality was terrible. A slender man with a bald spot and long hair highlighted with blond and pink streaks came from the shelter. He was laughing with two young women. They crossed the avenue toward Glisan Street Station shopping center, calling out something about not jaywalking to a trio coming from the other direction. This was an older woman in a pink sweat suit accompanied by two men with large moustaches in identical clothes.
A woman on a child’s bike asked where the bottle return was. She lacked the characteristic stylishness and had several bags full of plastic bottles with her, slung precariously over the handle bars.
“Thanks,” she said after receiving the information. “I usually go to the one in Gateway.”
The man with pink highlights and his friends returned several minutes later with take-out bags from Safeway.
To a middle-aged man, no one there was particularly threatening. The atmosphere could even be called congenial. But perceptions can be tricky.
“Business is down at night because some of the seniors that come in are afraid of being harassed as they leave,” Kathy Waddle, general manager of Cleary’s restaurant in the Menlo Park Plaza complex across Glisan Street from Hansen, wrote about the shelter in an email. “When it comes to the safety of people here, no one seems to care.”
That vulnerability is not illusory. The police were in the space behind the Menlo Park bottle return recently investigating a sexual assault, said Don Hilliard, whose backyard abuts that area.
“Twice a week I get my life threatened,” Hilliard said. “They’re used to talking like that. I say something and they come back [with] ‘I’ll kill you.’ I just shrug it off.”
“It seems more and more homeless people are arriving here,” Waddle wrote. “More people [are] sleeping in the parking lot behind Staples and in the doorways in front. … They try to come in and use the restroom to clean up.”
“There’s more of them,” the manager of a nearby business agreed. “There’s been no improvement.”
This seems to support the prediction made by one speaker at the community meeting held on the eve of the Hansen Shelter’s opening that an influx of undesirable elements would follow because “extraneous people are going to prey on those people who are in the shelter.”
Businesses are responding to concerns. The bottle return, a center of problematic activity even before Hansen opened, has finally hired its own security patrol, in response to public urging. It does a good job, Hilliard said, but it only operates at the bottle return itself and only while that facility is open. Menlo Park Plaza has a security service too, “but if you see them, it’s by accident.” Waddle also complained about the security service at the complex. “Took them two hours to come out, then they just took a picture and left,” she wrote.
Jack Tiano, owner of Menlo Park Plaza, said he was aware of the problems. Expense is an issue, he said, but he has changed security services twice and the current service is increasing drive-bys and surveillance. “I have a big asset to protect,” he said.
“We’re trying to contact some officials. … I was hoping the county would give us some input in helping with the problem they have caused. We’re getting no cooperation and no callbacks here,” Tiano said. He considers the situation he has found himself in “kind of unfair” and has traveled to Portland from Southern California several times seeking resolutions to the problems.
It seems easier for bigger businesses. Jill McGinnis, communications manager for Safeway, said in a written statement that “our store has seen a slight increase in crime with the opening of the shelter … We have increased asset protection coverage in this location in recent months to ensure the safety of both our customers and employees.”
“We know that the homeless situation in the city of Portland and Gresham needs [to be] addressed, and we certainly want to be part of that solution,” McGinnis concluded.
Local proponents of the shelter can be found on the Hazelwood Supports the Hansen Shelter Facebook page, which has a current membership of 89. Six of those people are active leaders, page administrator Todd Hesse said. About half of the members are ready to help, but do not know how and are waiting for instructions, he added.
The page is a focal point for volunteers who find, prepare and serve food at the shelter.
“I have a great deal of food left over from my company retreat, some of it unopened from Costco. Is this something the shelter can accept?” read a recent post.
Local churches also help, so guests have a place to eat about three times a week. In addition, the shelter has received donations from many companies and members of the public.
One lady brings two pizzas a week, which are cut into minute pieces and shared widely. “This is the most generous population I have ever spent time with,” said Hesse, who is employed at the shelter as a residential advocate.
A Secret Santa campaign for the shelter was organized on the website Nextdoor.
There is still a great need for donations of winter coats, as well as other warm apparel, socks, underwear, hats, scarves and grooming products, shelter manager Jeff Riddle said. Nothing will be refused. To donate, call him at the Hansen Shelter, 503-488-7766.
Riddle admitted that there were “a few bad apples” among the shelter’s 200 guests. It is one of the easier shelters for men to get into, since male guests are sometimes excluded for infractions of the rules.
And the plumbing causes trouble from time to time. But that was the limit of problems Riddle was willing to acknowledge. Has the neighborhood become more dangerous since the shelter opened? No, he said. Has the shelter attracted undesirables? No, they are the same ones as before. Riddle, a local resident, remembers them.
How about the guests?
“They may cause a ruckus on the streets to advocate for their needs,” Riddle said, but the shelter has effective enforcement of its rules. “People are picking their life back up,” he said. Many of the guests work—some at Safeway—and 10–15 percent of them are elderly.
Jason Abrams, who has lived at Hansen since it opened, works at the AutoZone across the street. “about 10-12 hours a week.” Not enough to keep him in rent money yet. “The [Transition Projects] staff is great,” he said when asked about conditions at the shelter. “I think it’s kind a neat to live in an old police station.” He said there are people to avoid, but he is thankful to have a roof over his head.
There have been numerous cases of success at the shelter, with guests finding housing. Exact data were not immediately available.
Riddle is a proactive advocate for the shelter. He is systematically working his way north through the area reaching out to local businesses and is “building relationships” with the nearby state Department of Human Services office, the Paw Team (which provides veterinary care to pets of the homeless) and Planned Parenthood. A women’s resource group is on his list of targets as well.
Riddle and Hesse both think that their neighbors are coming around to a more sympathetic view of the shelter. Hesse told of inviting one of the more strident opponents of the shelter active on Nextdoor to visit it with him. “That [experience] changed everything,” Hesse recalled him saying.
Few people who have anything to say about the situation do not add a proviso that “some of them are really trying, I know they need help,” etc., but at least one local small business owner is sincerely sympathetic.
“I’m glad to have it,” Portland Florist proprietor Lynne Pohrman said about the shelter. She values compassion, she said, and she did not perceive an influx of shady characters following the shelter’s opening. “It’s not doing me any harm,” she said. A shelter guest came to thank her after she donated food from the coffee shop attached to her florist store. The same person came back several weeks later and told her they had found housing.
Pohrman even had words of praise for the Department of Human Services office that has opened across the street from her. The empty Target store it replaced attracted drug addicts. “It was worse,” she said.
Don Hilliard is less pleased with the proliferation of services in the area. “This community has been unduly impacted,” he said. The announcement of the coming Central City Concern health center on East Burnside between Northeast 120th and 122nd avenues has compounded that impression.
Hilliard had advice for city planners regarding Hansen Shelter. “Build something permanent and look where you’re putting things. … Think about the whole,” he said.
Marc Jolin, director of the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services (503-502-7046), says that is happening.
“We are looking for the right long-term location,” he told the Memo. His office is working with brokers and “vetting properties as they become available.”
When it opened, it was said that the shelter would serve for six to 18 months. County officials also promised to make available a map of the homeless shelters in Portland, to dispel the idea that this east Portland neighborhood is being targeted as a location for facilities other neighborhoods do not wish to host. That map was posted on Aug. 12 and can be found under that date at ahomeforeveryone.net/news/.
Jolin said the shelter was meeting a vital need and issues were being addressed as they arose. “I hope they continue to communicate with the shelter if there are issues, and with us as well,” he said.
At the same time, Jolin was unwilling to comment on broad issues of city planning. “You can’t expect us to answer for that,” his colleague Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, senior communications analyst in the Multnomah County Health Department, said in a follow-up call.
“Those are good questions for the elected leadership,” Jolin said, and “a discussion for the community.”
A follow-up public meeting is one of the promises made at the first meeting that has not been kept. And, as Hilliard and Tiano, and possibly others, have discovered, it is not easy to get a response from the leadership.
Hilliard places the blame firmly at the top. Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury “doesn’t even know what’s going on here,” he said. “I would love to see someone run against her and beat her.”
To reach Kafoury, call her office at 503-988-3308.