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Even Less Room at the Inn

Homeless Center Needs More Than Cash



A temporary homeless shelter established by the mayor's Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) committee is on track to go $25,200 over budget by next June—thanks to higher than expected demand for its services.

Cops and private security officers have been directing homeless people who are sitting and lying on downtown's sidewalks to the Julia West House (JWH) on SW 13th and Alder, ever since doing so became illegal in Portland on August 15. The shelter provides hot showers, coffee, and someplace warm to sit.

By October 1, the center was already proving more popular than expected ["No Room at the Inn," News, Oct 4] and matters have since gotten worse. The center's ideal stated capacity is between 40 and 60 people at a time, but it's consistently holding 80 people during peak hours.

"Because there is no other day center, JWH is experiencing much heavier usage than expected," wrote the center's director, Marvin Mitchell, in a memo to the SAFE committee on October 31. "We have consistently had counts of 80 and more between 8 am and 11 am."

To operate the overcrowded center, Mitchell now wants to pay another part-time staffer to cover the center's peak hours at a cost of $16,000. Also, he needs another staffer on the second floor five hours a week to oversee the showers, which costs $7,200, and $2,000 extra for more towels—a total of $25,200.

That money is likely to come from the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), according to the SAFE committee's co-chair, PBA Vice President of Downtown Services Mike Kuykendall, who offered to look into paying for the shortfall at the November 1 SAFE committee meeting.

But throwing money at the problem may not be enough.

"It kind of worries me if we just add staff. Does that really control the central issue, which is over-utilization?" asked Liora Berry, program coordinator for ending homelessness at the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD). "If we put more staff in, does that really resolve the issue?"

Homeless advocates don't think so. At the committee meeting, Patrick Nolen of Sisters of the Road said the city should fund another temporary day-access center as soon as possible. Kuykendall agreed to chair a subcommittee to try to locate another site.

Meanwhile, the SAFE group has started flexing its political muscles on the issue of what the city's permanent center for the homeless should look like when it eventually gets built—straying into political territory usually reserved for council's homeless commissioner, Erik Sten ["Somewhere to Go, Something to Believe In," Feature, Nov 1].

Sten's plans for the center are based on research done by BHCD that shows money is best spent on ending homelessness when it's put directly into getting people stabilized in housing. Temporary centers like the Julia West House, which effectively warehouse homeless people to get them out of the cold, are not covered in Sten's 10-year plan to end homelessness because over the long term, they don't offer the best bang for a city's buck.

Nevertheless, most on the SAFE committee were shocked to hear from Berry at BHCD that Transition Projects, Inc. (TPI)—the social service agency Sten's office contracted to run the new resource center—does not plan to place emphasis on temporary day-access space to get people out of the cold when it eventually opens in 2009.

"It's a service access center," said Berry. "What [TPI] doesn't want is a place where people are free to just go and watch TV."

Berry's remarks drew surprise from most around the table, signaling what could be the beginning of an intense debate about the center's role. Sten may have written the center into the 2004 plan to end homelessness, but it has been the momentum generated by the SAFE group that has brought it closer to reality.

"I'd resist the assumption that if someone is just homeless with nowhere else to go, then they're going to be ready to engage with the services right away," said Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center, who co-chairs the SAFE committee.

Marc Jolin of homeless nonprofit JOIN suggested pulling together another subcommittee of the SAFE group to talk about how it can influence plans for the resource center.

"Different people have different perspectives about how the place will be, and that's important," responded Berry.

"I'd welcome the SAFE committee getting involved in the 10-year plan," Sten told the Mercury on Tuesday, November 6. "My whole concern has always been whether SAFE gets past symptoms and into causes. But the 10-year plan can only really succeed if we have a whole bunch of different actors doing their part."


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