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City program connects with homeless and follows through with resources, housing

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Christine credits Willie Shaw and the rest of the Gresham Homeless Services Team from keeping her and her husband from slipping back into addiction.One bad decision led to a four-year addiction, years of homelessness and the loss of a mother's children.

Christine and her husband, Jason, both became addicted to meth while living in Eastern Oregon. That addiction led to their children being placed in foster care and feelings of hopelessness. Both wanted to find a way, but they needed help.

"I needed the tools to stay away from meth," Christine said. "It is so hard as a mother to fail your children."

First they moved to get away from that negative environment, first to the coast before making their way into Portland. During a visit to Zarephath Kitchen & Pantry, Christine got a card for the Gresham Homeless Services Team. She didn't think it would go anywhere, having been burned by service providers in the past, but made the call and connected with Willie Shaw, homeless services provider.

"I don't know how many times Willie has come to our rescue," Christine said. "Without him we would have turned back to addiction."

The city helped the couple into an apartment by paying the first year of rent. Now with steady jobs, Christine and Jason have been reunited with their children. And now celebrating seven months of sobriety, their household is filled with kids and laughter.

"Willie deserves a plaque in the middle of Gresham," Christine said with tears in her eyes. "You have been an angel in our lives, and never judged us."

That is just one of many success stories thanks to a unique program in Gresham — a Homeless Services Team that works to move chronically homeless people off the streets and into housing. First created in 2017, the group is larger than ever and has found its stride.

"We are different from other communities — we lead with offering resources and connections," said Jessica Harper, community services manager. "We are proud of the success we have had."

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Greshams Homeless Services Team offers a unique approach for a municipality — building connections and offering support to the chronically homeless. It's powered by a passionate team with a diverse mix of backgrounds and skills. There is Harper, who knows how to navigate city hall and clear red tape; Kevin Dahlgren, the senior homeless specialist with decades of experience in the field and addiction aid; Shaw, a housing guru who has many contacts to draw upon; and JP King and Chris Perkins, homeless services specialist and public utility worker, who both have lived-experience of being homeless.

What connects them is a desire to truly find homeless individuals help, rather than just offer lip-service and platitudes.

"You have to assume the person needs or wants help," Dahlgren said. "There is nothing compassionate about allowing someone to be on the streets."

One morning King was taking a short break in a grocery store parking lot when a woman approached him, desperately looking for someone who could help her find housing.

"I just showed her my badge and she started crying," King said. "She said, 'God sent me to you.'"

One week later he had her in a new apartment.

Another case had Shaw and King cross paths with a homeless man living on the Springwater Corridor Trail. He was working multiple jobs as a line cook at several local restaurants, and none of his employers knew he didn't have housing, desperately keeping his paychecks safe. The team secured an apartment for him.

"Now I am more relaxed and happy," he said. "I don't have to think about where I am going to sleep each night."

All this is a stark contrast to just five years ago. Gone are the tents along the Springwater Corridor Trail and the massive, one hundred person encampments that had begun to resemble small towns in the natural areas.

Last year the team conducted a rough count of the chronic homeless in Gresham and found 43 individuals. This year the official county count has yet to be completed, but Gresham is confident the number is well below 100 on any given day.

"Right now the number is manageable for this size of team," Dahlgren said.

While tent camping is way down, they have been seeing more RV or car campers along the roadways. There are also the steady reports of folks sleeping in doorways, and "apartment dumping," when a person's belongings are left in a big heap following an eviction.

"Right now every homeless person in this community knows someone on this team by name, because we go out every day and talk with them," Shaw said.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - The citys homelessness team offers resources, housing and more to clients. Making a difference

Debbie was chronically homeless for 27 years, living in and out of her car around the region. Statistically experts say that type of person should be impossible to get into housing.

But the Gresham team found a way.

"It took some convincing because it is scary," Shaw said. "But now we talk a lot, we are like family. Once a week I take her to get food boxes or other supplies."

"She is the reason I fell in love with this work," he added.

Debbie affectionately calls Shaw "Mr. Hustle" because he was willing to jump in with both feet to help her. That was a stark difference from what she faced in the past.

"If I didn't have Willie I wouldn't be here right now, I didn't have anyone else in my life," she said.

A serious of traumatic events led Debbie to a dark place — hit by a drunk driver, losing her husband to an illness, having her RV stolen.

"Now I have a roof over my head," she said.

The team gets connected with the homeless in one of two ways — through their daily rounds of the city and any reports from the public.

"We treat reports seriously," Dahlgren said. "The faster we can get there and talk with them, the faster we can solve the problem."

Every person the team works with is different. Some struggle with addiction or mental health issues, while others may be estranged from their families. An unexpected medical bill or raised rent could be the reason they are on the street. Bad breaks, run-ins with law enforcement, inability to keep a job — there is no one type of homeless person.

"Every single person is case by case," Shaw said. "You have to follow through — if you don't you are never going to help anybody."

"We are working them through their trauma," Dahlgren added.

And not everyone is ready to get immediate help. The team works with many chronically homeless who require months and years of connection before they are truly willing to move into housing.

"In that first conversation you put that seed in their brain," King said. "Eventually it will click for them."

"There will always be that small group of homeless who continue to want to live on the streets," Dahlgren added. "This work may take a lifetime."

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Greshams homeless services specialists make daily rounds to check in with folks sleeping on the streets. No one will name names, but adding to the difficulties in finding folks help is the damage and mistrust wrought by other regional organizations and municipalities. Not everyone is operating like Gresham, and that has led to broken promises and the lack of follow through.

"We try as a team to negate that as best we can," Shaw said. "They are always surprised when we do follow through."

"We hear from clients that they have been promised things in the past and never heard back," Harper added.

Gresham is about robust advocacy. They work with property owners and businesses to secure housing and jobs. There is wraparound mental health and addiction services, transportation, cell phone lending, opportunities to reconnect with family, and constant check-ins, sometimes even a year past getting a person into housing.

"We are empowering an individual to meet their fullest potential," Dahlgren said. "You have to assume they can reach it — not just say we need to take care of them for the rest of their lives."

Just recently Shaw formed a partnership with a local temp agency, so now he has access to thousands of jobs for his clients.

"I can get them working tomorrow," he said.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Kevin Dahlgren, left, and Willie Shaw both said that supporting homeless is more than a job, it is a passion. Creating stability

There is a misconception some well-intentioned people have that it is best to let homeless people be, or to offer some small donation of food.

"Some with big hearts on their sleeve will make that effort to help a homeless individual on their own," Dahlgren said. "We would prefer to be that sole provider of services."

Because of the city's access to resources, they are able to begin the process of connecting with the person and getting them the resources and housing they need to thrive.

"It is not just socks and sandwiches, we are trying to get people into housing," Harper said.

So folks are encouraged to report any homeless camps or activity via the My Gresham Application, which is the quickest way to connect with the Homeless Services Team.

A local hotel faced that after a huge encampment of several individuals cropped up along the railroad near Halsey and 181st. As the camp became more entrenched, dangerous activities began to take place, punctuated by a fire that was set feet from a natural gas pipeline.

"We wanted to see what support was available, because we were concerned about the campers' safety," said Lauren Remington, the hotel general manager. "We never thought the response would be so prompt."

The team was out that same afternoon connecting with the campers. While not all were ready to begin the housing process, the space was cleared. One couple, Tara and her fiancée James, were part of that camp and accepted the help after meeting with the team.

"I was standoffish at first, but Willie told me, 'I got your back,'" Tara said. "Now I am ready to settle down, get married, and move into a home."

Other ways to support the Homeless Services Team is through donations of items or gift cards. Learn more at greshamoregon.gov/homeless-services/

"We have done remarkable work for a city this size," Dahlgren said.

This summer the team got a taste of what a near-perfect system could be. The county debuted Move in Multnomah, which offered a $4 million pot for service providers to use for one year of rent. With a partnership with Cultivate Initiatives, Shaw was able to house 30 adults and 15 children in the months of June and July — far more than any other organization. And though it wasn't a requirement to access the funds, Gresham continued to bring that wraparound mindset.

"That was my idea of how services should work," Shaw said. "Find someone in a predicament, link them to resources and then come through with funding help."

"It felt really good to fix their problems," he added.

The dream would be for Gresham to have a pool of its own resources that could be used for rent and other resources. Too often the team has to rely on generous donations, or go out of pocket to help clients.

But even with limited resources, the Homeless Services Team is making a positive impact. One afternoon Shaw bumped into a property manager who has accepted several renters through the city.

"She asked, 'Willie, why are you always smiling and happy — don't you ever take time off,'" Shaw said. "This doesn't feel like a job, I am happy to come in every day."

"This isn't a job, it's a cause," Dahlgren added. "You have to believe you can make a difference."


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