DHS plans big Gresham expansion
The Oregon Department of Human Services is planning a new East Multnomah County office that will more than triple the size of its space, make it more convenient for people needing services and bring design innovations that can ease the stress of a visit.
"We are making our presence more available and more convenient, without clients having to travel," said Don Erickson, chief administrative officer for DHS.
The new three-story, 96,000-square-foot DHS building will be at 22200 S.E. Stark St. and will replace the current space at 355 N.W. Division St., which is 27,284 square feet.
About 107 child welfare workers will come from the Northwest Division Street office. About 50 staff members from the self-sufficiency program at the DHS office at 11826 N.E. Glisan St. will also move into the new building to relieve overcrowding there. The new Stark Street office has space for about 200 employees.
The DHS simply has outgrown its old Division Street building.
The agency had already whittled down the size of the cubicles in the Division Street office a couple of times over the last few years, from 8 feet by 8 feet to 6 feet by 6 feet or even smaller. File rooms and conference rooms were converted into office space for multiple staffers.
The new space "is a benefit to the staff too," Erickson pointed out.
The changing demographics of East Multnomah County has also caused greater demand for DHS services.
"The need in that general geographic area is just very high," Erickson said.
He explained the agency has invested heavily in outreach, meeting with community leaders, schools, social justice groups and nonprofits.
"We saw we had a higher need for local services than we had recognized in the past," Erickson said.
The new building will continue to house DHS child welfare services and self-sufficiency programs and the employees that work in these areas.
Among its many functions, child welfare services takes and assesses reports of child abuse. They ensure the safety of children and youth with family case planning and services. If a family requires a place for a supervised visit, the department can provide that.
Caseworkers can work with parents to examine, understand and address why a child is considered unsafe in a home. If families have lost custody of their kids, DHS works with families toward reunification.
Child welfare services also handles foster care in the state. They recruit foster families and place kids. They also work with adoptions.
Self-sufficiency offices provide help with food benefits (SNAP), cash for families (TANF), Medicaid, child care assistance, services for refugees and many other social services.
Self-sufficiency services also work with victims of domestic violence. They offer mental health referrals
With the added space, the DHS office is looking at possibly adding mental health and treatment services, skill building for children and youth, parenting skills programs and more.
The new building will feature large conference rooms that can be used for training, Christine Stone a DHS communications officer said.
Client services will be on the first floor and staff will be housed on the second and third floors.
The design takes into account the special needs of this sort of office, which can often be the site of emotional or tense meetings and encounters, such as in foster care situations.
The design of the building also provides extra privacy and safety precautions necessary for foster children, their biological parents, foster parents and others using child welfare services. Some of the windows will be opaque to protect privacy, design documents submitted to the city of Gresham said.
The building also will use trauma-informed design, Erickson said.
Some of the older DHS buildings, such as the Glisan Street office, which was a former Target store, did not use trauma-informed design principles, Erickson said.
"Don't get me wrong. It's a beautiful building, but it is difficult to navigate it. It has taught us a lot" about how to do things better, Erickson said.
"These days we are taking advantage of ground-up construction to use trauma-informed design and if possible, also in the landscaping," Erickson said.
The trauma-informed design will be attractive, aesthetically pleasing, decorated with local art and sound will be dampened, Erickson said. There will be signs telling folks exactly where they need to go for various services and what they need to do to access help.
The space will be "inclusive, safe, calming and welcoming," said Mandy Butler, the architect designing the building at Portland's TVA Architects. The firm has designed other DHS buildings and has an extensive expertise in trauma-informed design.
"The physical environment has a real impact of people's mood and behavior," she said.
The building will have lots of natural light and surfaces and a color palette that is calming.
The lobby design "will give people a place to collect their thoughts," Butler said.
The design also will consider small details.
"There will be a variety of types of chairs to accommodate people with different needs," Erickson said.
The calming, nature-oriented, trauma-informed environment will also be incorporated in an outdoor plaza.
Rainwater runoff from the building's roof will be collected into a landscaped bioswale. The water feature will not only filter the water, but will also include a little bridge crossing the swale.
DHS's Erickson said studies recognize that a large number of people have experienced trauma in their lives. Some cope with it just fine but some carry it with them for years.
Studies also show trauma "has measurable consequences for physical and mental health," he said.
"There is absolutely no downside to assuming that everyone has experienced trauma and design for that. Even if I haven't experienced trauma, I just get treated better," Erickson said.
The new building will sit on a 5.5 acre lot. Two buildings already in the area at the northeast corner, Plaid Pantry and Puff's Pub, will remain as they are, city documents said.
The main entrance is planned for Southeast 223rd Avenue, with a secondary entrance on Stark Street. There will be 286 parking places.
The Department of Human Services will not own the building but will lease it from Rubicon Investments, based in Medford.
DHS hopes to break ground on the office in the spring of 2020 and be open in the summer of 2021.
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