But on Friday, Sept. 21 — almost four months after the Wy’east shelter opened and began successfully serving dozens of men, many of them with a disability or 55 and older — the scene couldn’t have been more different.
Dozens of neighbors and volunteers gathered with shelter residents and staff for an end-of-summer party full of donated food, games, snow cones and live music.
Friday’s “Parking Lot Eat & Greet’’ party marked the first time community members in Multnomah County have stepped up with a full-on bash to get to know shelter residents and welcome them as they would any other new neighbor.
The event sprang from the heart and persistence of a Wy’east next-door neighbor, Caleb Coder, who envisioned the Eat & Greet as “a third way” in the community’s conversations around shelter and “an opportunity for neighbors to gather together.”
“When they invite us, it makes you feel a little better. It makes you feel accepted. It makes me feel good,” said Bob, 64, who’s been at Wy’east since it opened. “I’m still human and I want to feel accepted.”
The Eat & Greet idea came to Coder after he met Ed, who was then living at the shelter. Ed, who is in his 70s and has limited vision, needed help getting back to Wy’east one morning. Coder introduced himself, fixed Ed some coffee and chatted with him. Later, he invited Ed and two of his friends to his house, just north of the shelter, for a barbecue.
Ed has since moved back into housing. Coder says having an apartment or a house shouldn’t be what qualifies someone as a neighbor.
“That’s what neighbors do,” he said of fellowship like an Eat & Greet. “Why should the men at Wy’east have to wait just because they’re in a shelter?”
The idea took off in a matter of weeks after Coder brought it to the shelter's operator, Transition Projects, and to another neighbor, Mercy Corps' Community Investment Trust, which stepped up to host the event at its Plaza 122 property.
Soon after, other partners joined in to make Coder's vision a reality, including the Mill Park and Hazelwood neighborhood associations, and the City of Portland/Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services.
The partners mobilized a team of volunteers and worked with several neighborhood sponsors who provided food, services and other donations, including the La Osita food cart, Bridge City Taproom, the Portland Mercado, Midland Library, Target, Grocery Outlet and Home Depot.
Dozens of folks turned out to mingle and chat and share a good time. Kids played ladder ball and cornhole while munching popcorn as they raced to keep snow cones from melting onto their shirts. Other neighbors wrote cards to the men or signed up as shelter volunteers.
At the end of the night, neighbors and volunteers came together to pack up the tables and chairs and other equipment that they’d unloaded from their cars and pickup trucks just hours before. Others carted leftovers and extra supplies down the sidewalk to Wy’east.
“What would it look like for a neighborhood to welcome its new neighbors? What does that narrative look like?” organizers, including Coder, asked in an invitation sent to community leaders ahead of the event. “What if neighborhoods embraced shelters as a chance to give back to their communities?”
As the parking lot cleared, as neighbors returned to their homes with a glow, they had their answer.