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Portland Impact: many doors, many solutions


Only a fraction of the 13 percent of Oregonians living below the 2002 federal poverty level of $18,100, sleep on the street. Many hold jobs, attend school and count among our neighbors. They layer on blankets rather than turn up the thermostat. Their children live with relatives. They make a few soup cans stretch a week.

Even middle class earners encounter the unexpected money crisis due to illness, layoffs or runaway debt. When circumstances grow dire, networks of family, friends and associates fill in the small favors. But poor families suffer from independence inconceivable to those with insurance, credit card and employment safety nets.

Enter Portland Impact, a nonprofit agency forging community connections through poverty-relief partnerships. Established in 1966 to revitalize four Southeast neighborhoods, in 2007 Portland Impact assisted 70,000 individuals from Flavel to Killingsworth streets, and east to 148th Avenue with the aim “to help people achieve and maintain self-sufficiency and to prevent and alleviate the effects of poverty.”

Early ventures under their early name, Portland Action Communities Together, (PACT) included a welfare rights project, employment programs, family counseling, food buying clubs and a tool lending library. The agency was a key player in the development of Southeast Portland’s first senior center; first youth service center and first free health clinic for the poor.

Changing its name to Portland Impact in the 1980s, the organization established services for the homeless and for ethnic minorities. Of more recent impact has been the addition of Richmond Place, a residential housing program for homeless families, and the Mentoring to Achieve Potential program, a partnership between Portland Impact and Portland schools that provides an effective way to support young people who are experiencing the effects of poverty.

In 2004 Portland Impact expanded to Northeast Portland with family and youth services and services for seniors as well as adults with disabilities. Services also expanded to include services for Russian and Eastern European families throughout all of Multnomah County.

Executing the belief that “poverty must be addressed at both a personal and political level,” Portland Impact’s 130 employees and over 2,100 volunteers take a multi-angled approach to the contributing factors of poverty. The director of development, Scott Shlaes, analogized the agency’s service system to a wheel.

“You have this center, which is the mission, and then you have these spokes, which are all the access points,” Shlaes said. “At every access point there is a synergy between three distinct Portland Impact program departments. We have Children, Youth and Family; Safety Net and Housing; and Seniors and Adults with Disabilities. Somebody may come in one of the many doorways and be routed to another department.”

The Dancing Tree Family Center located at 10055 East Burnside St. — one of three regional service centers — provides a gateway for struggling families to address needs ranging from basic food and clothing to job training, legal assistance and health promotion.
As Shlaes described, “We serve the entire life cycle and do not discriminate based on ability level. Poverty has many facets to it and there are many ways of dealing with it, so in each age group we are taking a different approach to helping someone either exit poverty or achieve a bit of stability in their lives.”

The Parent-Child Development Service attends to families with young children, providing education and support to ensure that disadvantaged children meet their cognitive, social and physical benchmarks. Impact mentors bond with children ages 6-16, introducing new activities and opportunities. Portland Impact runs the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods programs in 11 schools in North and Southeast Portland (Sabin, Rigler, Whitman, Woodmere, Clark, Kelly and Buckman Elementary Schools; Sellwood and Fernwood Middle Schools and Madison and Marshall High Schools), where 50 percent or more of students at all these schools qualify for reduced lunch. The program aims to improve attendance while uniting parents and students with the community through extended day activities. Students at risk of dropping out receive personalized case management through the Social Support Services for Educational Success Program.

In mid-Multnomah County, housing and energy services lead demand. “On a monthly basis we can get 3-5,000 telephone calls just for energy assistance alone, especially during the winter months,” Shlaes said. At such volume, Portland Impact assists only those facing shut-off, followed by a discussion on prevention.

The housing department includes both transitional housing — two-year programs with on-site supportive services that keep homeless families together while they stabilize, like its Richmond Place facility at Southeast Division and 41st Avenue, and the eagerly anticipated Bridges to Housing partnership at Northeast Glenhaven and 82nd Avenue — as well as referrals.

Utilizing relationships with for-profit landlords, Portland Impact vouches for oft-denied clients, “We have a high rate of success with that because people coming into these programs, they’re grateful for the help they are receiving and they understand that the longer life goes on, the fewer chances they have,” Shlaes said.

By parceling out small measures of assistance, Portland Impact hopes to forestall a problem before it comes to crisis. “It is much more cost effective on a macro level to keep someone in their own home with a little bit of service,” Shlaes said, especially regarding seniors and disabled adults, “than it is to have a subsidized stay in a rest home.” From transportation to cleaning and grocery services to providing “friendly visitors” to check in from time to time, Portland Impact upholds autonomy with dignity for its clients.

“I like to say we are the largest organization you have never heard of,” Shlaes said. “At our school-based sites people think that we are the school. We’re not trying to brand ourselves.” With service opportunities available in different programs and durations, volunteers are free to choose services that most suit their skills. Many former clients also return to help others overcome a familiar predicament. Shlaes credits the agency’s high success rates to its “staff, who are passionate, incredibly dedicated and who work long hours because of something inside them that makes them committed to this work.”

Portland Impact’s success rates — from Portland Impact’s 2006-07 Annual Report:

• 88% of homeless families acquired and maintained permanent housing.

• 75% of Portland Impact participants achieved most of their goals upon exiting
the program.

• 89% of mentored children improved their outlook on school.

• 81% of children improved grades and test scores.

• 81% of children improved peer relations.

• 90% of children in the Parent-Child Development programs passed appropriate development benchmarks.

• 80% of at-risk youth in the Social & Support Services for Educational Success program improved their attendance records.

• 90% of regular SUN Community School
participants had average daily attendance.

• 75% of children met standard scores or showed improved scores in reading
and math.
The issue of funding crops up in any conversation regarding nonprofit poverty relief. Portland Impact sustains its programs through partnerships with other nonprofits, government contracts and grants, and private contributions. Government funding supports programs like the SUN Community Schools (administered by Multnomah County) but limits others. “With lots of changes with how the county works, our programs would ebb and flow,” Shlaes explained. For example, regarding energy assistance, “We have put together what sound like singular programs from lots of little pots of money so we receive energy from NW Natural Gas, Pacific Power, Portland General Electric. And then there are all these federal programs: Oregon Low Income Gas Assistance, the Oregon Low-Income Energy Assistance Programs, known as. We receive funding from Oregon Heat, which is a nonprofit, so there are all these funding streams. Depending on the source of funding, that informs what we require of people.”

Among the anti-poverty services Shlaes mentioned, “They (Portland Impact) have these little subcontracts specifically targeted for cultural groups. We have one for Slavic anti-poverty, so we serve a lot of people in the Slavic community.” Though Portland Impact offers culturally relevant services in 24 languages, the Slavic contract specifically funds that program. Portland Impact is the main provider of culturally specific services for Multnomah County’s Slavic community.

Portland Impact’s greatest threat comes from the ballot box. This November, voters will decide whether to renew the Children’s Investment Fund, a four-cent tax levied per every $1,000 of home value to support SUN schools and other programs for disadvantaged children. Shlaes has hope. When the SUN system faced funding cuts a few years back, public outcry helped save the program, one of Portland Impact’s small victories.

It has many: when homeless families sustain permanent housing, when SUN students regulate daily school attendance, when mentored students improve grades and/or social habits. No program alone will eradicate poverty forever, but together, they provide tools to stability, and the know-how to serve as someone else’s safety net. Portland Impact has ... well ... impact on Portland’s livability.

To learn more about Portland Impact, visit To volunteer, call Jill Morrow at 503-988-4996, ext. 265. Or, to make a donation, call Shlaes at 503-988-4996, ext. 266.
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