The Hansen Shelter marked its first anniversary late last month. In its year of existence, the shelter has remained controversial, attracting critics from all sides and few defenders. Little seems likely to change as it enters its second year.
The chorus of disapproval that began in the Hansen Building at the public meeting before the shelter opened may have seen a few members come and go, but it has changed its tune little in the intervening year.
“It’s really a headache,” said Judy Pierce, or JP, as everyone knows her, a 23-year employee of Cleary’s, the bar-and-grill-style restaurant in Menlo Park Plaza across Glisan Street from the shelter. The shelter has had a drastic negative impact on the restaurant’s business. “I didn’t think it would be that bad,” she added.
JP listed several problems that may already be familiar to readers of the Memo. The homeless dirty the parking lot—sometimes to the extent of relieving themselves there—they camp there and beg for money, and they are rude. Crimes are committed in the space behind the strip mall.
“It’s an older clientele. It’s an older neighborhood,” JP said. “They are easily intimidated.” Complaints must be directed to the non-emergency police line, and they “don’t hurry” to respond. Finally, she added with undiminished resentment that they opened that shelter with hardly any warning.
Marvin Henkel Sr., a retiree who lives near the shelter on Glisan Street, said he has experienced several thefts, with a lawn mower, bicycle and even a flat tire being stolen from his yard. People rummage through his garbage as well. Like JP, he said the neighborhood has experienced a decline since the opening of the shelter.
Safeway, on the opposite corner of Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street from Menlo Park Plaza, has hired a guard and removed its outdoor seating, JP observed. People pushing shopping carts full of filled garbage bags stop on the litter-strewn sidewalk of Northeast 122nd Avenue along the side of the Safeway store.
People camping in the parking lot or pushing shopping carts are not shelter participants but, JP said, “People know it’s over there. It sticks in their minds. They assume any weird people are from there.”
That assumption is a challenge for the agencies that manage the shelter.
However, in recent weeks, both JP and Henkel said they had noticed an improvement in the situation.
Some people will always need help; that doesn’t mean they’re not worth helping
There are plenty of reasons for homeless people, or people perceived to be homeless, to come to the area, says Stacy Borke, senior director of programs at Transition Projects. That nonprofit agency, usually referred to as TPI, runs Hansen Shelter and other facilities. Borke mentioned the proximity of a MAX station and the bottle return located in Menlo Park Plaza in particular. JP mentioned that a needle exchange had opened in Menlo Park Plaza as well.
“We follow up with these people to the best of our ability, and they are often people we have never seen before,” Borke said. “[But] I can imagine how you might correlate the issues.”
The agencies involved in running the shelter tend to show a siege mentality. Any suggestion of unfavorable attention elicits a nervous reaction from them and a highly coordinated response. They also respond quickly and provide assistance generously. It is an effective communications strategy.
Denis Theriault, communications coordinator at the city-county A Home for Everyone initiative and the Joint Office for Homeless Services, said the situation would be worse without the shelter. He was echoing a contention first heard a year ago. Hansen Shelter keeps people off the streets and, unlike many other Portland shelters, gives them a place to go both day and night, Theriault pointed out.
He expressed some sympathy for residents’ complaints. “I get it,” he said, “but we have to ask who the victims are here.”
Homelessness is increasing in Multnomah County. A federally mandated biannual “point-in-time” count of the homeless showed that, on the night of February 22, 2017, there were 4,177 people homeless in the county, a 9.9 percent increase in two years. The number of people on the streets had decreased 11.6 percent, however, to 1,668 people.
“For the first time since our community began doing biennial point-in-time counts, we counted more people sleeping in emergency shelter than outside or in vehicles and other places not fit for human habitation,” Marc Jolin, director of A Home for Everyone and Joint Office of Homeless Services, told the Memo in an email. “The number of people counted sleeping in shelter doubled over two years, and it’s because we worked with providers to open nearly 650 new beds of shelter since 2016. It had been years since our community added beds at that pace.”
The point-in-time study showed that a whopping 71.6 percent of the homeless in the county have “disabling conditions,” which include substance abuse and mental health issues as well as physical challenges. This was up from 59 percent in 2015. The study made a distinction between “chronically homeless” (for two years or more) and “not chronically homeless.” The clear majority (69.1 percent) of the homeless are non-chronic, and that population seems to experience comparatively quick turnover. According to the study, A Home for Everyone made 4,600 housing placements in the 2016 fiscal year. This year, it has helped 3,800 people so far, Theriault added, and has helped 25,600 people, all told, remain in their housing.
Life on the Inside
A stay at Hansen Shelter is not for the faint-hearted. Two former participants there shared their stories with the Memo. They approached the newspaper themselves at different times, and they have given permission for their names and words to be used here.
“The experience of these two people is not indicative of the experience of the several hundred people who have stayed there,” Borke warned.
Deborah Bernard, also known as Lady D, is a middle-aged Black woman. With beautifully coiffed hair, modest but attractive jewelry and dress, and a warm, self-possessed manner, no one would suspect that the only possessions she had in the world were the clothes on her back, the items in her purse and a car. She worked for many years in an administrative position for Providence Health & Services and raised three children, but she became homeless in January 2012.
Bernard does a lot of pastoring, in person and online, she said, “because people talk to me.” She quickly became embroiled in daily life at the shelter. She said she was surrounded by petty theft and serious drug use, as well as “all of the stressful screaming and hollering.”
Bernard spoke of inconsistent application of shelter rules and a dishonest and vindictive staff who were former homeless people and addicts themselves. “All the training they get is a tour of the shelter and a day shadowing an old staff [member],” she claimed. Bernard described many incidents in detail, but there is no substantiation for her claims, and they will not be reproduced here. She speaks of some of the same matters in more general terms in videos on her Facebook page Deborah Bernard (Pastor Lady Deborah).
Bernard’s father died while she was living at Hansen Shelter, and she was able to buy a used car with her inheritance. She moved out of the shelter after living there for eight months. She said she was moved up the waiting list to transfer to TPI’s Willamette Center after complaining about the food (its quantity, not quality) provided at Hansen, and she spent a week at the Willamette Center before deciding to live in her car. One of the few good memories she had of Hansen was being taken to Cleary’s by a gentleman who was also living at the shelter.
Undoubtedly Bernard’s faith is key to her continuing prosperity. “God knows what He is doing,” she said. “Believe it or not, I am still blessed.” She still lives in her car and stays with her daughter when possible.
Nor did he stop there. After taking the opportunity to speak for three minutes at an open meeting with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, he moved quickly into transitional housing in Central City Concerns’ Biltmore building.
Like Bernard, Wilmath found fault with much at Hansen, and he mentioned its staff and staff training. He referred to the Hansen staff as “zookeepers,” which says something about everyone there. He was one of the first people to move there, coming from the Peace Shelter in downtown Portland when it closed. His experience since that time has been transformative.
“I have learned so much stuff about politics and the way things are done in the last seven or eight months,” Wilmath said. He took a cynical view of the entire system that is meant to assist the homeless, casting doubt on both its competence and motivations. “Follow the money,” he said.
Wilmath also pointed out specific instances of the system’s nonsensicality. One that especially irked him was TPI’s requirement that he attend AA and NA meetings while at the Clark Center. He does not drink or take any drugs whatsoever.
Neither Bernard nor Wilmath had a case manager at Hansen, but Wilmath got one while he was at the Clark Center. “I brought him stuff to follow up on,” he said. That fact sums up both the problem and the solution. “So many places are supposed to help and they don’t,” Wilmath said. “Where’s the people to help the people?”
Naturally, Wilmath advocated for himself (and the greater good) at the Biltmore as well. On July 25, he signed a lease for his own subsidized apartment. Wilmath, who uses a wheelchair, had been homeless for three and a half years.
“I’ve accomplished something good in my life,” Wilmath said. “The problem is there’s nobody else out there to help others do that.” He acknowledged that many homeless people have overwhelming problems, and he did not suggest any specific solutions. “That’s their job,” he said, referring to the city’s legion of social services workers and agencies. “Make people own up to what they do.”
What’s Being Done
Portland is doing things. “At a time when other West Coast cities facing similar gaps between rents and incomes have seen large increases in their unsheltered population, ours went down by more than 11 percent,” Jolin said. “Our overall homeless count … rose less sharply than in many of those other communities.”
No one can doubt that running a homeless shelter is a difficult task in a difficult environment. Borke conceded that it was perfectly possible to have a bad experience staying in a shelter, adding that “we have a variety of mechanisms in place to elicit feedback.”
“Shelters should be places to flow through,” she said, but “housing assistance is not enough to help everybody. There are people who need additional assistance to get out of shelter. I don’t know that [providing that assistance] is a function of the shelter.” The shelters themselves needs support to get people into housing, she said.
Theriault pointed out that Hansen is a low-barrier shelter: Anyone can stay there who can get a reservation, which is done in advance, preventing the formation of lines at the shelter in the evening. “It’s not as smooth and calm as more rule-based shelters,” he said, and that is intentional, as it serves the people “having the roughest time.”
The federal government has been cutting back on housing assistance for decades, Theriault said. Government disability payments, for people completely unable to work, are $750 a month, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Portland is $1,100. Those figures played a fateful role in Wilmath’s life.
“More help upstream” is needed to find a solution to homelessness in Portland, according to Theriault. Specifically, he listed rent stabilization and control, tenant protection, more affordable housing and cheaper healthcare.
Kafoury told the Memo in an email, “For decades, the federal government provided … money and we had a strong, secure middle class. We did not have thousands of people sleeping on our streets and in our shelters. We’re doing more than we ever have. But local government will never have enough to make up for the federal government walking away from this responsibility.”
An unscientific and nonsystematic survey of Hansen’s neighbors found even less support for it than ever. Lynne Pohrman of Portland Florist Shop on Northeast 118th Avenue and Glisan Street, who was enthusiastic about the shelter in January, has cooled toward it. “It’s a sad situation,” she said. “It’s not right for this neighborhood.”
The Hazelwood Supports the Hansen Shelter Facebook page, although its membership has grown to 101, is moribund after a dramatic drop in postings since May.
Faint support for the shelter was voiced by one local business manager. “Just because the state has an influx of homeless doesn’t mean it is an issue with the Hansen Shelter,” she said. “I wish there were more beds. I wish there wasn’t a housing crisis. Can we blame what’s happening [around the business site] on the Hansen? No. I’d take it up with the mayor.”
It is Kafoury who takes responsibility for the opening of the shelter. Recently elected Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler promised in his election campaign that beds would be found for all the city’s homeless, and that may be a decisive factor in Hansen’s future—an issue that inspires constant speculation. Since there are barely enough shelter spaces for half the local homeless, Hansen’s 200 beds will remain essential for a long time.
“As we have said from the beginning, we do not view Hansen as a long-term solution for our community’s shelter needs and we continue to look actively for a sustainable alternative location for the bed capacity provided there,” Jolin wrote. “As soon as we identify and prepare an alternative site, we will be able to provide a projected date for closing the shelter at Hansen.”
Matt Olguin, TPI director of shelter services, told the Memo in an email. “We have long-term funding to continue to operate the Hansen shelter,” he wrote. “While there is no timeline for Hansen to move out of the old sheriff’s office, we are actively looking for a permanent location for the Hansen shelter … We continue to make material improvements such as bed frames and mattresses and improvements to the electrical system.” According to Bernard, the fire marshal made the shelter get beds.
The shelter is also moving toward more comprehensive services for its participants. “We are continuing to add more resources to the Hansen Shelter … Specifically, case management to work one-on-one with residents, a wellness access spet to provide additional support and referrals to mental health resources and drug and alcohol treatment, and soon an employment spet,” Olguin wrote.
There is no resolution in sight. “We’re homeless because most of us are poor and we have no resources. But we are still deserving of a few nice things,” Bernard said. Case management and an employment spet are apparently easier to provide inside the shelter than honesty and respect. Hansen’s neighbors deserve honesty and respect that they are not getting either. If you see a problem, or have an issue or concern with the Hansen Shelter, call manager Jeff Riddle at 503-488-7720, or email him at email@example.com.