Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury opened the July 8 public meeting at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, otherwise known as the Hansen Building, by being sorry.
“I want to apologize for the process” were the first words out of her mouth, referring to the fact that the public meeting had been called with barely a day’s notice, and the conversion of the Hansen Building into a homeless shelter, which opened July 22, had been announced only a day before that.
Her apology was not accepted. Members of the public had formed a line that stretched into the parking lot of the future shelter on Northeast Glisan Street and 122nd Avenue, and they waited calmly for seating to be rearranged and the meeting to start. Even then, people were grouped around the door outside the room. The crowd let out a barrage of invective, however, upon Kafoury’s initial statements.
Eventually, Kafoury was able to introduce her colleagues at the table with her: Marc Jolin, initiative director of the A Home for Everyone collaborative, and Stacy Borke, director of housing services at Transition Projects, Inc. The shelter will be operated by Transition Projects, a local nonprofit that already runs three shelters and two supported-housing units. A Home for Everyone is a joint effort of Multnomah County, the City of Portland, the City of Gresham, Home Forward (formerly known as the Portland Housing Authority), local nonprofits and members of the public.
The 60-year-old building will house 200 people using a reservation model, under which space will assigned in advance over the telephone, and that space will be held for the assignee for as long as it is needed. Under such a system, a bed typically turns over five times a year, Jolin said.
A reservation at the shelter can be made by visiting the Day Center at 650 N.W. Irving St. or calling 503-280-4700. The shelter can be reached directly at 503-919-6586.
The shelter is expected to be open no longer than six to 18 months, owing to the limited usefulness of the building. Women, couples, the disabled, people over 55 (who make up the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, according to Jolin) and veterans (who make up 12 percent of the homeless, according to the Transition Projects website) will be given priority in accommodation. Children will not be housed at the shelter, but well-behaved pets will be allowed. The building will remain open to the guests during the day, and assistance in accessing housing, health, employment and income resources will be provided at the site.
The ultimate goal of the shelter is to get guests into permanent housing. “We have a track record of doing that,” Kafoury said.
Torches and pitchforks
This information was not easy to convey. Some members of the audience were clearly intent on disrupting the proceedings, regardless of what was being said, while others had a specific message they wanted to be heard.
“What gives you the right?” was a common challenge.
This is a representative democracy, Kafoury explained, and she was elected to act in accordance with that model. “I made the decision,” she said. When asked if there was anything that could be done to stop the shelter from opening, she responded with a calm “No.”
“We can be quiet and let you yell at us. We’ve been yelled at a lot lately,” Kafoury said at one point. That was undoubtedly true. There had been a meeting about the Springwater Corridor just the day before.
“We have been totally blindsided,” a woman said, after patiently waiting to be called on. “It’s sneaky, underhanded and wrong.”
Issues besides acceptance of the democratic process emerged as the meeting progressed. Safety was a big question, with numerous people pointing out that the Menlo Park Elementary School was only blocks away.
There will be no screening process at the shelter, but there will be “behavioral expectations,” Borke said. Known sex offenders will not be excluded from residency. There will be no requirement that residents be clean and sober either, as the shelter aims to provide “support at all stages,” and active drug use does not mean that the user is not receiving help.
Jennifer Young, who identified herself as a social worker in Lents, objected that this was “enabling disease.”
“Not all homeless people are down-on-your-luck types,” she said. Sometimes homelessness is “a lifestyle and a choice.” The shelter will also lead to an influx of undesirables, Young predicted, because “extraneous people are going to prey on those people who are in the shelter.”
Jolin explicitly rejected the notion that there are just two types of homeless people, preferring to say that a portion of the homeless are facing barriers to reintegration into the community. Drug addiction is a serious barrier, Jolin acknowledged, but he also said that his eight years of experience working directly with the homeless has convinced him that no one really wants to live in such a way.
The shelter would not contribute to the problems commonly associated with homelessness, such as crime and litter. “This shelter addresses those things; it doesn’t make them worse,” Jolin said. “This is not ‘set it up and hope it’s going to work.’ It’s ‘set it up and work like crazy to make it work.’”
“The people we are trying to serve are members of our community,” Jolin said, to a renewed round of jeers.
Multnomah County Communications Director David Austin echoed Jolin’s thoughts. “Homelessness is everyone’s problem,” Austin told the Memo. Its causes are varied and usually economic. He described a “downward slide” that could happen to many people—essentially, the one-paycheck-away from the street scenario. “The county works every day to stop that trend,” he said, and he listed a constellation of elements that those efforts rely on: shelter, jobs, drug treatment and education. The county is looking for volunteers, he added. “We totally understand the frustration at the town hall meeting about letting them know,” Austin said. “The deal didn’t get solidified until last week on Thursday or Friday [June 30 and July 1]. We were doing walkthroughs, we were doing environmental testing, we were doing all that stuff [before then].”
But the decision to convert the Hansen Building was simple. “It’s a county-owned building,” he pointed out.
The county will not leave the neighborhood unattended. “There’s a level of control in this type of thing … We will check in regularly. The neighbors are owed the due diligence.”
Celeste Carey, the neighborhood crime prevention coordinator, was also on hand at the meeting. “This is going to happen,” she said. “Your participation can make it work.”
The most vocal proponent of the shelter to speak at the meeting was Todd Hesse, a neighborhood resident with two children in Ventura Park Elementary School. He spoke briefly and was given a tepid, though not hostile, response.
“As a member of the PTA at the school, I know we have children who are homeless, and they can benefit from the shelter,” Hesse told the Memo. “People complain about people sleeping in the park, and then they complain about giving them a place to sleep.”
He is convinced that there is more support for the shelter than was apparent from the meeting. “The dynamics of those who were speaking didn’t allow for a lot of support to be shown,” he noted.
On the same day as the meeting, Hesse set up a “Hazelwood Supports the Hansen Shelter” Facebook page that is similar to the page created by Multnomah County organizers. The page has a few dozen members who are engaged in an active, detailed discussion of the mechanics of providing support.
Since the meeting, Hesse has gone to work for Transition Projects.
Different kinds of homelessness
Another person who is happy to see the shelter coming is Billy Wilmath, a 50-year-old disabled man who was moving to the Hansen Shelter from the downtown Peace Shelter after its closure.
“Some of the things they said upset me,” he told the Memo about the meeting. “Some of the things I said upset them too. I asked this lady in the lobby what she thought homeless people looked like. She said the people at the bottle drop (across the street in Menlo Park Plaza). I told her they aren’t homeless, they’re drug addicts.”
Wilmath saw a subtext in the night’s heated discussion. “The main concern isn’t the building,” he said. “They’re mad because all this stuff is happening in their neighborhood and nothing is being done about it. They’re concerned we’re going to add to their problems. It’s not like that. There are rules and regulations for being in a shelter.”
Wilmath acknowledged that there are problems in shelters, and he mentioned an example in another neighborhood. “There was no structure. Everybody did what they wanted to. Our staff [at the Peace Shelter] enforces the rules … The people at the bottle drop don’t have any structure. We’re not going into a neighborhood and messing it up. If we go out there and mess it up, where’re we going to be after that? … That’s not what a shelter is about.”
Wilmath, who suffered a stroke in 2007, has been homeless for three months. “You live on a fixed income, and your landlord raises the rent so you only have $20 at the end of the month, and you can’t pay the lights. What happens?” he asked. His question was not rhetorical. “I’m living it,” he answered himself.
Nearby business owners were reluctant to speak on the record about the conversion. Kathy Waddle, general manager of Cleary’s Restaurant & Spirits (across Northeast Glisan Street from the Hansen Building in the partially vacant Menlo Park Plaza shopping complex where the bottle-return facility is also located), is taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I’m keeping an open mind about how it will go,” she said. “We’ve been told there won’t be lines out the door every night to get in, that you have to have a reservation.” Asked about the loss of business when sheriff’s office employees leave, she said that groups from the sheriff’s office, who meet there regularly, told her they will continue to do so even after the move.
The county decision-makers are not unanimously supportive of the new shelter. County Commissioners Loretta Smith and Diane McKeel sent a letter to Kafoury dated July 6 in which they stated that opening the shelter would “dramatically and unnecessarily reoccupy a dangerous and poorly equipped building with far too many individuals.” The Hansen Building, they wrote, “is the lowest-rated building in the entire inventory of County facilities.”
Among the problems with the building that Smith and McKeel pointed out are a lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors, poor water supply (bottled water is used in the building), block masonry that has not been reinforced, toilet and shower facilities that are too few and in poor condition, no kitchen, asbestos present, issues with the electrical wiring and a sewer fly infestation. Sewer flies, also known as drain flies, breed in moist organic debris and so are sometimes indicative of a sewer leak.
When asked how many bathrooms the building has to serve its 200 future guests, the speakers exchanged glances and remained silent. “Plenty,” Kafoury answered finally.
Why not Wapato?
A gray-haired lady stood when she was called on and presented an organized, concise statement of facts to support the use of Wapato Jail as a better alternative to house the homeless. The crowd gave her a standing ovation. This was Harriett Heisey, a veteran community activist and Wilkes neighborhood volunteer. “I was so shocked,” she said later about the reception she received. “This isn’t rocket science,” she said. “Don’t go [to community meetings] with anything but facts, and make sure they understand them.” Heisey has a thick loose-leaf binder dedicated to Wapato and filled with printouts of innumerable sources, right down to case studies of comparable situations.
Heisey’s findings are summed up in her letter to the editor on page 19 of this issue.
The enthusiasm for Heisey’s presentation did not extend to the dais. Kafoury, who was certainly familiar with Heisey’s arguments from discussions in other venues, said the county would use it if it could, but “Wapato is not a useful facility … [It is] not ready to go … and it is too far away.”
Wapato, which was dedicated in 2004, has never been used because of a declining prison population and lack of operating funds. It has a capacity of 525 beds. According to The Portland Tribune, it cost a total of $58.4 million to build and has cost taxpayers an additional $90.1 million in finance charges and maintenance as of February of this year.
Austin disputed a number of Heisey’s claims. “Wapato is a jail,” he pointed out. The design is not appropriate for housing the homeless, and conversion would take a tremendous amount of money that could otherwise go to services—$5 million, Austin said, repeating a figure also found in The Portland Tribune. The kitchen and medical facilities at Wapato are no longer functional, he added.
The conversion of the Hansen Building will cost between $132,000 and $140,000, Austin said. With no kitchen or laundry facilities, the building “is not going to be a best-case scenario,” Austin said, but the operator will figure out ways to handle those problems.
Nonetheless, the Hansen Building is an adequate temporary shelter, Austin said. It complies with all safety ordinances and there are no asbestos particles in the air. The sheriff’s department did not leave because the building was “not good enough” for it; it simply left because it found an opportunity to move into a building that better suited its needs.
Decisions making east Portland neighborhoods unlivable for taxpayers
As the evening wore on and many of the grandstanders left, the meeting took on a quieter, more solemn tone.
“I feel sad for my neighborhood,” more than one person said. People talked about declining property values and quality of life, feeling unsafe on the streets and the perception that east Portland was being targeted as a “dumping ground.”
There are a number of factors that combine to give the impression that the neighborhood is being treated unfairly.
Ken Pearce, who retired five years ago from a career spent at Wieden+Kennedy and Nike and moved to the Gateway neighborhood, warned policy-makers about “setting yourself up for failure” with the proliferation of low-income housing and facilities for the homeless in east Portland.
Pearce countered claims that there is no policy detrimental to the area by asking to see a map of the shelters in the city. Multnomah County spokesman Austin later told the Memo that a map of that type was being prepared and would be posted online. Austin denied that the area had been singled out by the county and said the opening of a state Department of Human Services office in the building vacated by Target in 2012, just a block away from the Hansen Building, would bring in new customers for local businesses.
Pearce told the Memo that the deterioration of his neighborhood was clear, and his hopes of participating in its urban renewal were going unfulfilled. It had turned, Pearce said, from an area with civic pride, full of “yards like putting greens,” to one where “if it’s not nailed down, it’s gone.” Businesses are closing because of crime and lack of community support, and the area’s tax base is being eroded, Pearce said.
He promised, “In six months, we’re going to be all over them to start looking for another place [for the shelter].”
The definition of community is crucial but nebulous as the city and county interact with neighborhoods. Kafoury and her colleagues stated repeatedly that the shelter in the Hansen Building would help the community by housing people already within it. But the procedure for gaining entrance to the shelter—registering at an office in Northwest Portland or telephoning—is not in any way oriented toward the local neighborhood. Heisey pointed out to the Memo that, according to the 2015 Point in Time Count of Homeless conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 126 people homeless in outer east Portland.
Occurring simultaneously with the opening of the shelter in the Hansen Building, the closure of the Peace Shelter in downtown Portland will deprive another approximately 260 people of a roof over their heads, and the clearing of the Springwater Corridor will leave nearly 300 of Portland’s homeless looking for other options. The conclusion that the Hansen Building shelter will draw homeless people into the area from other parts of Portland is hard to avoid.
At 9:45, nearly two hours after the meeting was scheduled to end, Kafoury rose. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My daughter is sick.”
“What have you learned from this meeting?” a woman called out as Kafoury was gathering herself up. Kafoury did not respond. “Tell me what you learned from this meeting! Tell me what you learned from this meeting!” the woman persisted, in the angry tone that had characterized the evening. “I’ve learned what I can do better next time,” Kafoury said, walking away. “I’ve learned there is a lot of dissatisfaction in the community.”
County Senior Policy Adviser Liz Smith-Currie took Kafoury’s place, and the meeting wound down quickly after that. Transition Projects’ Borke promised “another neighborhood meeting, hopefully soon,” and crime prevention coordinator Carey urged people to see her about community involvement opportunities.
Then the remaining crowd filed quietly and somberly out into the chilly, drizzly night.
Kafoury sent a follow-up letter the next morning. “I apologize that there wasn’t enough space for everyone to be in the auditorium,” she wrote. “I know that people are upset about how quickly this evolved and the lack of communication around the announcement of the shelter… my takeaway: the county needs to do a better job at communicating.”