First Citizen: Bill Russell
Good citizens are the riches of our city," said turn-of-the-century Portlander C.E.S. Woods, whose words are etched in stone on the Skidmore Fountain.
In May, Bill Russell joined the ranks of Portland's best citizens, his name added to a list of marquee names that dates back to 1928. Considered one of Portland's most prestigious awards, the First Citizen Award is given by the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors (PMAR).
"It's humbling," said Russell, who heads up the nonprofit Union Gospel Mission, which serves over 250,000 meals per year to the homeless and hungry. Portland's oldest nonprofit, UGM has made its home on Northwest Third and Burnside since 1927.
Russell was working as a young prosecutor in Idaho when he made a change that altered his life.
"The first few years I was a trial lawyer, I was just working and career-building,"
he recalls. "I didn't think about the impact I had. After a few years, I had to confront my own drinking." As Russell continued in his work as a sober person, he became much more conscious of the problems around him.
When he became a deputy district attorney, Russel observed the number of people moving back and forth through the criminal system. Says Russell, "They weren't bad people, they were just broken. Since I was also in recovery, I empathized. I was developing a gnawing sense that we needed alternative solutions to just incarcerating people."
Russell spent the next seven years working in corrections and covering the state of Washington, coordinating more than 1,000 volunteers. At this time, he caught the attention of UGM. "They said to me, 'we like your program, can you bring it here to help people?' And so we started the LifeChange."
UGM's addiction recovery program, LifeChange, has grown to serve 50 men at the Mission's downtown location, and 38 women and children at their facility in Beaverton. In 2017, Russell launched Search & Rescue, a nightly outreach that helps meet homeless peoples' essential needs.
Recently, Russell joined a coalition of advisors looking at the permanent navigation center and homeless shelter proposed by developer Homer Williams for city-owned land near the Broadway Bridge.
"I've been advising him and working on his board of directors. Williams is extremely collaborative, he's invited a big tent of people from the nonprofit world," said Russell, adding that UGM is looking at the feasibility of providing meals at the new center.
"We believe we can really help in that area," he continued. "Our strategy is that we can provide life essentials, and then we can have relationships. Care leads to connection, and connection leads to coaching."
Russell is confident the center will have an impact on Portland's growing homeless crisis. "This center, and the focus on the downtown core is needed," he said. "I hope it can become a template of what other neighborhoods can do."
The problem requires a long-term, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach, Russell says.
"Relocating it is not a fix because it's not just downtown, it's everywhere," and it's a population with different issues, he says, made up American nomads, the opiate and meth crisis, and women and children seeking asylum from domestic violence. "Despite our best efforts, women and children are still tuned away because there isn't enough shelter space."
He adds, "Safe, legal camping areas are needed. It's also not OK for homeless
individuals to be unsafe or unsanitary, and to leave garbage and spent needles."
To unwind and lighten up, Russell enjoys watching some baseball. His nephew plays for the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks so he pays especially close attention to that team. Of course, he's in favor of a professional team coming to Portland.
"I would just love to see that."