Homeless adults looking for a safer place off the streets to start their path back to permanent housing may soon have access to another high-quality shelter in Multnomah County.
The Board of Commissioners on Jan. 25 voted 4-1 to lease and renovate a property at 6144 SE Foster Road for a long-term shelter. The site would serve 100 to 120 people, with priority for women, couples, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities. Transition Projects would operate the shelter, which would open as soon as Fall 2018.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, whose district includes the site, will lead a steering committee over the next several months of neighbors and stakeholders. The committee will shape final details about programming, the population served, safety planning and shelter guidelines. It will also decide how to spend a portion of the shelter budget that will be set aside to address street concerns.
“We are in a crisis with housing and homelessness. That is not something anyone can deny,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “This isn't easy. But sometimes, this job is about making the hard decision and trying to go the best way.”
Some speakers welcomed the shelter in their neighborhood and thanked the board for taking decisive steps to confront the region’s growing homelessness crisis.
“I would like to come out with my full support. I know a number of people from my neighborhood are also here to show their support,” said August Kroll, a member of the Mt. Scott Arleta Neighborhood Association board. He said there aren’t enough options for people on the street right now.
“If I could move it close to my house, I would,” he said. “I will be there helping with cleanups and other volunteer work as often as I can.”
Some demanded the board delay the vote, saying they hadn’t been given enough time to weigh the proposal. Others criticized the site itself, noting it’s across the street from an alternative high school, too close to their homes or in the midst of a commercial district.
“A lot of us agree with your ideology,” said Maureen McKenna, a neighbor in Mt. Scott-Arleta. “You haven’t taken the opportunity to build a coalition of support from the people who support you. We’re the people in the murky middle. We need the details.”
Vega Pederson said she remembers similar concerns when the 200-bed Hansen shelter opened in her East Portland neighborhood in 2016. She said the public process for the Foster site was better than when Hansen opened, and she and other commissioners said they will continue to make improvements in outreach.
“We all need to work at finding that middle ground. It's really hard to site a shelter. I know because I had that experience as a resident with the Hansen shelter going into my neighborhood - with an announcement to the community and opening two weeks later,” she said.
Commissioner Loretta Smith opposed the lease agreement. She said neighbors should have had as much time to weigh in before the lease agreement as they’ll have to help shape shelter operations before it opens. She also wanted more financial details.
“Until we understand where the money is coming from, how much money we've got and what exactly we are paying for, we cannot approve the lease,” she said. “I am also afraid people will not trust us or want to participate because they don't believe their voice counts.”
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said that as an emergency room doctor, she routinely sees the people who will be served by the shelter suffering because they are released to the street.
“I can’t sit by and let people die. We have an opportunity to do what works for the most people and serve those in need.”
Outreach launched as deal takes shape
Multnomah County, the City of Portland, the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Transition Projects sent notices about the site to the Foster Area Business Association and four neighborhood associations surrounding the site -- Mt. Scott-Arleta, Creston-Kenilworth, Brentwood-Darlington and Foster-Powell -- on Dec. 8. The notices included invitations to a large community meeting Dec. 18 that filled to capacity.
Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, told commissioners that the Foster site will help stabilize a shelter expansion that’s added 650 year-round beds since 2015 and helped thousands more people access shelter.
Those new beds were designed to bring in people who hadn’t been able to engage in traditional shelter. They’re open 24 hours, providing a place to be during the day or a place to sleep for guests who swing or graveyard shifts. They allow couples to sleep together, instead of splitting up at night. Residents can come with their pets.
Residents aren’t required to follow a particular sobriety or religious program in those shelters, Jolin said. But they’re immediately offered on-site services around treatment, employment and housing.
That approach “not only motivates and brings people back into shelter who’ve been left out,” he said. “It maximizes the likelihood of their successful transition back into permanent housing.”
Difficult to find sites that work as high-quality shelter
Jolin said it’s difficult to find sites to provide that help. Sites work best when they’re spread across the community, in places where there’s need on the streets. They also need the right zoning, require a willing landlord or seller, need to be close to transit, can’t be too large or too small. And they can’t be too expensive to renovate or occupy.
“It is truly a challenging process to find sites that meet all of those criteria,” Jolin said. “The Foster site has emerged from this process as a good option for a year-round permanent shelter.”
The lease is for 10 years, with two five-year options. The cost will rise from $13,390 a month over the first year to a maximum of $16,322 a month by the 10th year. Renovations are expected to cost less than $2 million, with the city and county splitting the expense. The shelter’s annual operating budget will be roughly $1.2 million, not including any attached social services.
“It’s difficult to find the balance necessary in this situation,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, “to find a suitable location with proximity to services that also respects the livability we all seek to build in our neighborhoods. I see the passion on each side of this issue.”
Chair Deborah Kafoury noted the progress partners in A Home for Everyone have made in the past three years, adding affordable housing and helping thousands more people return to housing or stay in their homes.
“We have made tremendous progress as a community these past two years. We passed the first ever housing bond, raising $258 million to preserve affordable housing and to build new units,” she said. “We have committed unprecedented new ongoing resources to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which served 30,000 people last year and will serve more next year.”
“But we need to do more,” she said. “So I am voting today for this shelter, because I know it will save lives.”