Home for the Holidays: Campaign asks community to help families with a hand up from shelter

November 13, 2017

Marlena Neely speaks during the kickoff of the Home for the Holidays campaign Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
Marlena Neely was grateful to have a safe place to be — a shelter — when she “broke the cycle of domestic violence” in her life and moved back to Portland with her children in tow.

“We were all traumatized and unsure of our future,” she said, noting the support they received from staff at Human Solutions, the nonprofit operating the shelter.

But once she found full-time work, Neely wanted something more for her family — a home of their own. Eventually, she found a place she could afford. And now, while her younger kids are in therapy and working to heal the wounds of their past, she’s working to reunite with her oldest child again.

“Affordable housing is the key,” she said.

But for too many families biding their time in shelter in Multnomah County, that path to stability, hope and independence just isn’t clear. Housing prices are high, and units close to schools and jobs, and with enough bedrooms, are difficult to find.

That’s why, this holiday season, leaders in Multnomah County and Portland have launched a campaign to help. It’s called “Home for the Holidays,” and they’re inviting rental property owners, property managers and neighbors to take part by offering up enough units so dozens more families can leave shelter this winter for a home of their own.

“It makes me feel so good I can provide and survive on my own,” Neely said Monday, Nov. 13, during a kickoff event at Portland City Hall. “Let’s pull through together and bring some families home for the holidays, so they can feel like they’re a family again. A little help would change a lot of people’s lives.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks during the kickoff of the Home for the Holidays campaign Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
Direct outreach to property managers

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Chair Deborah Kafoury, who spoke at the event, will personally call on property owners and property managers across the community over the coming weeks to step up. The goal is to house 40 families by January 15. Multifamily NW, which represents property agents throughout the region, will also help share their call through its networks.

Similar outreach efforts have helped house hundreds of formerly homeless veterans in Portland and Multnomah County.

“We’re here today with landlords who are committed to working with us to help families break through the barriers that are keeping them in our shelter,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “Let’s make sure that this Christmas is the last Christmas that these families spend in a homeless shelter.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler called Home for the Holidays "an all-hands-on push to help dozens of families into a place of their own.” Families who can otherwise support themselves through personal income and supportive subsidies are staying in shelter longer than ever while they wait for housing.

“Help us ensure parents and children will have a warm and dry place to stay,” Wheeler said.

Participating property agents would work closely with Multnomah County’s primary family shelter providers, Human Solutions, Portland Homeless Family Solutions and Community of Hope — who will help place families and provide ongoing support to ensure placements are a success.

Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks during the kickoff of the Home for the Holidays campaign Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
Property agents can email Human Solutions to learn more about the campaign at home@humansolutions.org. Or they can go to www.humansolutions.org. In return for providing units, owners and managers will receive support from local agencies to help families be successful tenants.

That includes helping tenants with rent, security deposits and other move-in costs, ongoing counseling and skills-training for tenants, and “mitigation funding” that can help with past-due rent or move-out expenses.

Neighbors who don’t own or manage rental units or have any units available will be invited to help families furnish their new homes by donating new or lightly used furniture and household items to the Community Warehouse.

Family shelter system bursting at the seams

The region’s housing crisis is hitting families particularly hard, with record numbers of families seeking shelter in recent months. After averaging 220 adults and children in its main shelter and overflow spaces last spring, Human Solutions saw its count top 300 for the first time in August and then top 500 people one day this month.

Those numbers are rising in part because it’s taking families longer and longer to find an opportunity to leave shelter once they arrive there. Three years ago, the average stay in a Human Solutions shelter was 23 days. Now it’s nearly three times as long, at 65 days.

After nearly two years of providing no-turn-away space for any family in need, Human Solutions has had to put families on a waiting list this month for the first time.

“Since we opened, we and our partners have been able to provide shelter on a nightly basis for every family that came to our door,” said Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions. “But the need for shelter for families is now overwhelming our capacity to provide it.”

Many families in shelter are working or have the housing subsidies they need to be successful in a home of their own. If these families had an affordable unit available today, they could leave shelter tomorrow.

Andy Miller of Human Solutions speaks during the kickoff of the Home for the Holidays campaign Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
Andy Miller of Human Solutions speaks during the kickoff of the Home for the Holidays campaign Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.
Miller said shelter for a family of four costs roughly twice as much as the support it takes to help a family stay rooted in affordable housing -- all without actually ending someone’s homelessness in the way that housing does.

“We’ve seen the joy families experience when they end their homelessness and move into their next home,” he said. “When the family choices become ‘Where should we hang this amazing painting you made?’  — instead of ‘Where are we going to sleep tonight?’ — families thrive.”

Home for the Holidays will also build on the relationships already have with property managers. One of those management firms, Affinity Property Management, has provided affordable housing ever since it opened in 2003 and has worked with Human Solutions to place families since 2006.

Managing Director Rich Miller, no relation to Andy Miller, talked about just one of the many tenants his company has seen flourish. Melissa, a single mom with two kids, put herself through school as she transitioned out of homelessness. Now she’s working full time as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“We have always believed in doing what we can to house people,” Rich Miller said. “We can all agree that there is a shortage of affordable housing in Portland, which is why I’m honored to participate in Home for the Holidays.

“Everyone in the community benefits when we house people.”