April 18, 2019

Marc Jolin, left, and Bob Leek
A long-planned transformation of Multnomah County’s family shelter system will be complete as soon as this summer.

Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to lease a motel in Southeast Portland as a shelter for 40 families, who will each have personal rooms and bathrooms, along with access to a wraparound supports to help them return to permanent housing.

This “bridge housing” shelter, called Lilac Meadows, will be operated by Human Solutions in a motel property at SE 77th Avenue and Powell Boulevard currently known as Briarwood Suites. The County’s seven-year lease, which amounts to $35,000 a month, includes an option for a five-year extension and first right of refusal if the property owner ever decides to sell.

Lilac Meadows is set to open in June. After minor improvements, it will join a new Portland Homeless Family Solutions shelter in Lents and a smaller church-affiliated shelter in St. Johns in a publicly funded system where every family served — more than 70 — has a space of their own.

Milestone for family shelter system

That moment will mark a milestone for Chair Deborah Kafoury, who first announced the new shelter during her 2019 State of the County address. After creating a more robust shelter system for families, Kafoury has worked with the Board of Commissioners and the City of Portland to mature that system into one that remains responsive to families in need.

And that need is growing. On any given night, 56,000 households across the metro region teeter on the brink of homelessness because housing eats up more than half of their limited incomes. Meanwhile, food aid providers say more people are lining up for relief now than during the Great Recession.

Instead of staying in shelter for a few days or weeks, some families increasingly need those beds for months. To support healthy families, that meant shifting from a system where dozens of families shared a few bathrooms and slept, played, did homework and took meals in one large room.

“When I learned families who lost their homes in the recession were living in cars, I pushed to open a winter shelter for families. When I saw kids sitting outside that shelter doing their homework in the freezing rain waiting for the doors to open at night, I directed staff to open a 24-hour shelter for families,” Kafoury said in her State of the County speech April 12.

“But the truth is, those families needed more than living in a large room with 120 bunks. They needed their personal space. Every family does,” she continued. “Especially when the Portland housing market is keeping families in shelters longer than ever. The market here is so tight that families are stuck in shelter even when they have a housing subsidy, even when they’re working full-time jobs.”

Finding a new shelter

Lilac Meadows will formally replace the Family Center shelter, which opened in 2016 on SE 162nd Avenue and Stark Street and was later closed by the County and Human Solutions in 2018 because of persistent roof leaks.

Human Solutions, through its contract with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, has continued to shelter families using motel rooms. But those rooms had to be rented night-to-night, which was expensive.

In addition, because those motels weren’t leased for the long-term, or leased in their entirety, Human Solutions also wasn’t able to make improvements to those motels or add amenities such as common spaces, a kitchen or a play area.

County Facilities and the Joint Office of Homeless Services started looking for a long-term site in spring 2018, asking for multi-family housing and motel owners to come forward if they were interested.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office, said Lilac Meadows emerged as the best choice among the seven responses received.

Beyond lease terms that will save the Joint Office money, Lilac Meadows offers recently remodeled rooms and a newly installed electrical system that will allow each family to have a microwave.

The property is also large enough to accommodate a play area, parking, a modular kitchen, expanded laundry facilities and a computer room. It’s also set back and buffered from busy Powell Boulevard, tucked along a side street that parallels Powell, near residences.

Pairing shelter with services

Families seeking to stay at Lilac Meadows must call 2-1-1 for a reservation. Once a family has a reservation, Human Solutions will welcome them to their space and provide services such as housing, employment and benefits assistance.

“This shelter is more like a form of bridge housing,” Jolin said. That means providing “more of the supports of traditional housing, without losing the benefits of it being a shelter program.”

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, whose east Portland district includes Lilac Meadows, said she was glad to see the Joint Office adjusting to changing conditions in the housing market by finding ways to better serve families who’ve been forced to stay in shelters longer than ever.

“I’m really pleased,” she said. “This opportunity makes sense in terms of responding to the needs of families who need shelter in a way that takes in our learning from our past experience and thoughtful about the best experience for individuals, families and children.”