Developer takes new tack to help the homeless
Developer and homeless advocate Homer Williams says he is working on a three-phase plan to significantly reduce the number of people living outside, with the support of Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Williams failed to persuade the City Council to help him and his supporters create a temporary shelter and permanent multiservice center for the homeless at Terminal 1 last year. But their nonprofit organization, Oregon Harbor of Hope, has continued meeting with regional leaders and social service providers on the issue.
Now Williams says the organization has agreed to try to open five or six new 24-hour homeless shelters in existing public and private buildings in Portland by the end of the year. Williams says numerous locations are under consideration, but declined to identify them to avoid stirring up early opposition. He hopes the first will open within three months.
"Each would be remodeled to accommodate up to 120 people, which is a manageable number. They would receive three meals a day there and visits from medical, dental and social service providers," Williams says of the concept.
The shelters would not be financed with city funds because they come with "too many strings," he says. His organization would raise the necessary money.
Even if they are not city funded, opening such new shelters would help Wheeler keep his campaign promise to create enough additional shelter and other space for half the people living in Portland streets by the end of his first two years in office.
The second phase is to create an integrated system that would track everyone seeking homeless services, to ensure they receive the help they need and do not fall through the cracks. Ideally, it would even include information on police contacts and emergency room visits to alert providers of worrisome changes in behaviors.
"The more information you have, the more helpful you can be," Williams says.
The third phase, he says, is the hardest — creating enough permanent affordable housing for people living on the streets or in shelters, or who might end up there. Skyrocketing housing costs are pushing more and more people out of their homes.
"Providers are beginning to see 70- and 80-year-olds in shelters who have never been there before," Williams says. "They've worked all their lives, and now they're homeless. And it's just the beginning of a tidal wave of older people who cannot afford their own homes."
The inspiration for Williams' vision is the Haven of Hope, a large homeless multiservice center in San Antonio with a track record of success.
Williams toured the facility before proposing to create something similar at Terminal 1, an underused piece of industrial property in Northwest Portland. Although initially supported by a majority of the City Council, the plan fell through last year in the face of opposition from area residents and businesses and planning delays. The Bureau of Environmental Services, which managed the property, subsequently sold it.
"The forces were against us, but we learned a lot in the process and haven't given up. There are some things in Portland that work well and others that can be improved, and that's what we're committed to doing. Keep on trucking, as they say," Williams says.
Oregon Harbor of Hope also participated in the Point-in-Time Count this year — the annual count of Multnomah County's homeless population mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — to get an understanding of how the process works.
The count offers demographic insight so that officials can allocate funding and resources, but some Oregon Harbor of Hope members believe that HUD's rules for the count make getting a complete picture difficult.
Their advisory committee is working on its own survey of homeless people outside of the government-mandated count.
Continuing participants in the organization include former Portland Development Commission Executive Director Don Mazziotti, Central City Concern Executive Director Ed Blackburn, and Union Gospel Mission Executive Director Bill Russell.
Reporter Lyndsey Hewitt contributed to this story.