Some things don't change in a recession: local government keeps spending and building as it addresses some of the worst crises Portland faces.
In 2019, the Multnomah County board of commissioners approved the building of a first of its kind mental health facility for homeless people to be built downtown in the building that once was home to the all-ages night club Escape.
The design of the Behavioral Health Resource Center at 333 S.W. Park Ave. is moving along. Carleton Hart Architecture is converting the 24,000-square-foot facility that stacks transitional housing and a homeless shelter on top of a drop-in day center. The designs adds an adjacent 7,000-square-foot plaza where the parking lot on the north side is now. The plaza will be a fenced-in outdoor area where people who need the feel of the outdoors can relax, smoke and leave their bags.
The BHRC will be operated by the Health Department in partnership with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. According to their website, "The facility will offer respite, in particular, for people experiencing homelessness downtown — providing laundry and showers, food, peer-led resources, and shelter and transitional housing."
The county prefers the broader term behavioral health to mental health, because it covers drinking and drug problems, as well as mental illness such as schizophrenia and depression.
It is a place to address the chronic mental health problems that make it difficult for someone to find and keep housing, with the idea that someone must become stable before they can successfully get an apartment, treatment or a job. That is the kind of acute care that the members of the public say they favor.
It aims to be not like Bud Clark Commons on Northwest Broadway, but to treat the sort of people who camp outside Bud Clark Commons.
"Those who have a hard time in traditional day spaces, and who struggle to come inside because of their behavioral health issues," said County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti. "There has never been a peer-led multi-faceted center designed for them."
Heads on beds
The county and city have doubled the emergency shelter's capacity since 2015, but not that has not been enough to keep up with the growing homeless population. The Portland Bureau of Development Services' Design Commission recently said that Carleton Hart Architecture's design for the outdoor plaza would make that side of the property "inactive."
They worried that it's already a forbidding block, with the CenturyLink building, which has no windows, and the Union Bank Tower and closed down O'Bryant Square (AKA Paranoid Park). Commissioner Don Vallaster called it a "lifeless" area and said the plaza's fence would add to it. Although another hearing for the plaza design will be held on Nov. 5, the rest of the design was approved.
Brett Taute is the project manager at the facilities and property management division for Multnomah County. He works on large capital projects like the Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters in Old Town, which has a tent camp next door.
The property at 333 S.W. Park Ave. was purchased in 2019 to develop a Behavioral Health Resource Center. The County had 10 years to look at how the program can fit inside the building and the adjacent parking lot.
"We're just doing a seismic upgrade, and renovating the existing building, from the basement to the then a partial fifth floor, and putting in a new roof," said Taute.
The RFP brought in Mortenson Construction as the general contractor (CMGC) in the fall of 2019. "That's really when we initiated our design process," added Taute.
"The third floor is kind of like a fairly traditional term for homeless shelter," said Corey Morris, a senior associate with Carleton Hart Architecture. The fourth-floor transitional housing will be more like an SRO (Single Room Occupancy hotel).
"A lot of times, participants need to move on to their own place." They can learn life skills in a demonstration kitchen, and the outdoor plaza can also be used for community events and outreach to the neighborhood.
The building's program "evolves" vertically.
"If people want to participate in this, and they can evolve, and they can move into other spaces," said Morris.
The drop-in center will face Park Avenue and have a café-style approach with big windows for a visual connection. Morris's team has used trauma-informed design to accommodate people who might be triggered by blind corners and people coming up behind them. There are hooks that break away so people can't hang themselves, lots of natural lighting that does not feel institutional, no jarring geometric patterns, and a general sense of decluttering.
They also learned some lessons from Bud Clark Commons about durable finishes and the use of outdoor space.
From designing other shelters for the county, Morris learned something valuable about individual showers.
"Not only does it give people a little more privacy and a little more dignity, but it actually moves people through pretty quick. You think they'll be in there forever but I found that actually it keeps things moving."
Multnomah County behavioral health specialists Ebony Clarke and Christa Jones explained to the Business Tribune how the center will work.
"Our goal is to more intentionally address the issues of those who are impacted by severe and persistent mental illness that are impacted by chronic homelessness," said Clarke, director of Mental Health and Addiction Services at the County.
"This is our first targeted attempt to really look at from a holistic standpoint."
The services will be peer-led, which means many of the staff, whether they are booking people in, helping them get a shower or making a psychological assessment, will have been homeless themselves once.
"The drop-in shelter is where when someone comes in, they can put their backpack in a locker, get a sandwich, dry off, make a call to their sister. And then also just be with like-minded folks who have had similar experiences," added Clarke.
Hierarchy of needs
Once they greet people in and sort out their immediate needs for food and shelter, they hope to build a sense of belonging, so they come back. The center should help them think about what services they need to get stabilized.
"Then they can get to greater places of emotional wellness and healing, thus, also been able to address some of these issues that have led to chronic homelessness," said Christa Jones, Operations Manager for Mental Health and Addictions at Multnomah County.
No one will be turned away from the drop-in center, but the bridge housing is targeted at a group that has traditionally been hardest to house. They might be in the shelter part of the building for up to 45 days while they get stable.
"Our priority and focus is really on serving the severe and persistently, mentally ill who are impacted by chronic homelessness."
Jones made it clear this is not an emergency room, however. If someone is experiencing a total breakdown and threatening to harm themselves, the police might take them to psychiatric emergency services.
"This is a peer-led, peer run Behavioral Health Resource Center. No clinical or treatment services will be provided, but folks can get connected to treatment services."
"In 2019, the county bought the building for $4.34 million and an adjacent parking lot for $1.5 million. Construction to build out the project is projected to cost $17- $20 million.
The Board set aside $11 million for the first phase of construction to cover the costs this fiscal year. Then COVID-19 hit, and there was considerable uncertainty about the future given the economic fallout and impact on revenues.
But the Chair is committed to this and fortunately, not only had the Board set aside a substantial amount, but borrowing rates have remained at all-time lows. We are currently planning on financing the remaining balance (estimated at slightly less than $10m) in fiscal year 2022 as those rates bode well for the project. We are going forward 100 percent."
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