Homeless for now: Portland's Blanchet House at 70
Blanchet House of Hospitality operates where the rubber meets the road when it comes to interacting with the people experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit turns 70 this year and still serves the neediest. It feeds all-comers, and provides beds for up to 50 people downtown and 20 at a residential farm outside the city. Staff train them in food preparation in order to regain soft job skills, find work and move on to permanent housing. Blanchet House is such a Portland institution that it currently has an exhibition at the Oregon Historical Society.
While the atmosphere inside is safe and cheerful, the streets outside have a concentration of meanness and desperation. Thirty to 40 Blanchet House volunteers per day serve food from behind plastic shields at two open windows. The indoor dining room used to be welcoming, with clean cafeteria tables, good food and the staff treating homeless people like restaurant patrons, not beggars or inmates. The pandemic drove food service to the street, to minimalize the spread of coronavirus, but on May 2, indoor service will resume.
At Blanchet House they don't turn anyone away from the food window. All sorts show up. Whether it's the dapper young man who always wears a three-piece suit with a tie pin and a fedora, or someone in nothing but a blanket. Servers smile, make eye contact, use first names and dispense grits in cups or hot meals in foil packets.
In a first-floor storeroom, large glass-fronted coolers hold food from businesses and retailers. There's a cart stacked with boxes of potatoes, and bins of apples and sprouts. Besides feeding hundreds of people per day, Blanchet House operates a food clearing house for other nonprofits.
Coordinator Jennifer Ransdell sends out a daily spreadsheet saying things like "We have X hundred packs frozen fish from Trader Joe's, and flats of apples from Pacific Coast Fruits." Then, it's first come, first served, as nonprofits reply by email, saying what stuff they would like to pick up.
On a recent tour with Blanchet House spokesperson Julie Showers, an intern, Etta Moen, was assessing the haul. Moen said Our Streets, a mutual aid group that offers 600 meals per day to eight tent camps in north Portland and in tiny villages, had requested potatoes.
As Showers put it, "I think the pandemic created a sense of urgency. It also created more need, because so many services closed during those early days, but we never closed. We were seeing a spike in people coming to us for food. During the pandemic we are serving 2,500 meals a day. I think a lot of people are mobilizing to help. They don't want to sit back and watch people suffer."
Blanchet House is in the eye of the storm, not just of wandering homeless people, but the well-intentioned Portlanders who make up the city's rainbow of nonprofits and mutual aid groups. Whether it's the Oregon Convention Center, which has to create a minimum number of boxed lunches which often go unclaimed, or the group Free Fridge PDX, which stocks free outdoor fridges in neighborhoods, they all have time-sensitive needs. Outside the front door there's a constant coming and going of cars dropping off and picking up supplies.
Volunteer Heidi Price was handing out coffee, milk, rolls and care kits of toiletries at the serving hatch beside the main entrance. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Price found she was missing human connection and asked her friends about volunteering. One of them suggested Blanchet House. She said she's grown to love her Friday sessions.
"They're so appreciative, I love it," she said of the patrons and the staff.
She still had an office to go to, but she craved human contact. "I'm a certified veterinary technician at OHSU Primate Center. OK, I am a monkey nurse," she quipped. Asked why people with comfortable incomes want to get down in the nitty-gritty instead of donating money, Price said, "I just really wanted to hang out with other humans and do something that could actually help. This is another community for me now. I was really nervous when I first started coming down here … the camps really scared me, and I was a little intimidated to park here. But I've gotten to know several of the people and I look forward to seeing them."
She added that the food is good — it doesn't seem like leftovers. Even 30-second interactions at the coffee window, where she gets to know people's orders, are rewarding.
Price has no unified theory of ending homelessness.
"Honestly, I'm not one of those people that have done a lot of research into what the solutions are," she said. "This is a little bit I can do to help and that's what I've done."
No hard food
The older Blanchet House is still next door. Bricks are falling off it and it's slated for demolition. The new Blanchet House, built in 2012 for $12.9 million, houses up to 50 men who pledge to be sober. The food preparers are a mix of volunteers and residents, but the head chef, Shannon Chasteen, is a pro. Every day is like Iron Chef as Chasteen checks what random ingredients have shown up at the door.
"We usually cook the protein and the vegetable together so that it gets nice and tender and easy to eat," said Chasteen. "And then I serve it on top of a starch with a side salad dressed with a homemade dressing."
Showers explained, "A lot of people experiencing homelessness are really suffering with dental problems, so we've learned over the years that soft foods are better."
So, no croutons or corn on the cob. Instead, stew and salad. And always a dessert, a little treat to make people feel human.
Chasteen was a deputy chef at Portland Five Center for the Arts, including backstage catering and managing the Keller Auditorium restaurant. Then, after 11 years, she was furloughed by the pandemic in 2020.
"I started volunteering here and I fell in love with what they were doing here and I decided to transition to this position," Chasteen said.
Of the huge variety of ingredients that changes through the day, she says "It's kind of like black-box cooking every day."
Roast potatoes are always a winner. A single jackfruit, however, stumped her.
The mood is convivial. "I do a large meal for the population outside, which is more of a streamlined menu. I have more variety once we've finished feeding the folks outside, then we all sit down for a meal inside, the volunteers and residents and staff."
Peer support specialists stand in the street helping people, giving them clothing or connecting them to services. On a recent morning, Jennifer Coon chatted with a man she'd given a blanket to the night before. He wanted a sleeping bag but she said no. He was charming and she invited him to return for dinner.
"It's tough love," Coon said. "You connect and they remember how you respond to them and come back. And maybe a little motherly instinct as well. And it's recovery. I'm in recovery. I was eating out of the garbage can and shooting up heroin. Now I have a great apartment and my kids are back in my life and I have a job I'm proud of."
Ten minutes later the man she'd given a blanket to was beating up a younger man who was curled in the fetal position in the doorway. Coon went outside and called Clean and Safe, and a staff member shooed the aggressor away.
Skid row 2.0
The modern Blanchet House sits in the dead zone around Northwest Glisan Street and Third Avenue. It's always been skid row, according to 94-year-old Jim O'Hanlon, Blanchet House's only living co-founder out of nine. The area where the MAX train spills off the Steel Bridge into Old Town, blocked by train tracks and empty lots, is peppered with tents and pallet shacks. The Old Town camping scene is always shifting: In March most of the tents on the east side of the former Greyhound Station shelter were cleared away, temporarily. But Blanchet feels like an island in the stream.
O'Hanlon's son, John, recently brought him in a for a visit. Jim O'Hanlon can still rattle off the names of priests and padres from the mid-20th century. He explained that he and "some guys" from Columbia Prep went on to the University of Portland. In 1948 they wanted to start a fraternity. The priest in charge, the Rev. Francis Kennard, said no, but they could start a club, as long as it did good works.
Day vs. night
"We copied their three-step deal," O'Hanlon said of Dorothy Day's houses of hospitality, which arose in New York City for feeding the poor. "First thing was they had to start a club that would be downtown to feed the poor. Then, after the men were there for a while, to get them out of the slums, they had to have a farm. And after they were all dried out, they had to come back and try and get a job. So, we bought a house on Northwest 18th and Couch, and it's still there. We bought a farm near Newberg and it's still there, still doing good."
The long-term transitional residential program is a nine-months long, although some residents can stay longer. The Blanchet Farm's residential program focuses on individuals with substance addiction. Part of their restoration is working on the farm and taking care of the therapeutic animals.
O'Hanlon's sighs when asked for his plan for reducing Portland's current peak homelessness,
"Find jobs for these guys, that's one thing. Definitely. I don't know. Have the city participate more. Have them maybe have a house of hospitality, where they can put in a lot of people. We feed a lot of people here. They figure 900 to 1,000 a day and they don't open on Sunday."
So, build more shelter beds?
"The city's always saying they are going to do something for the homeless and they get a big vote for it, but they never do. They could build a big place like Blanchet," O'Hanlon said.
He says nonprofits have small budgets and can't handle the volume. "We have to put the money up. It's all donations," he said.
O'Hanlon remembers as a young man seeing homeless men lined up around the block, waiting for meals. He has no idea where they went after that.
"When we got started, Father Kennard and another priest got talking to a guy, who had a building. That was Tom Johnson, who ran houses of prostitution and gambling joints. He said 'I'll rent you the first floor for 35 bucks a month.' We said, 'We'll take it.'"
They expanded to the second floor the next year to make a dorm, for another $35 per month.
"The idea is: We don't question anyone. If they are sober, they can come in and get a meal, and then get out. The idea was to see Christ in everybody that's going thorough that line and treat them accordingly," O'Hanlon said., "And that's what we did."
One thing the public needs to know about people who are willing to live in tents and doorways is they are probably too traumatized to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Blanchet House's executive director since 2019, Scott Kerman, sat at one of the dining tables and explained what people don't understand from looking through the media or their car windows. Meals are an entryway to helping people.
Once fed, he says. "They may finally get to a point where they say, 'I need to get off the street, how do I get into this program?' If they have a substance abuse disorder, we will say, 'Let's get you into a program. And you can do your 90 days or whatever it is, and we can move you in.'"
Blanchet House gets people referred from prison, from treatment centers and from other shelters. They use cross referrals to try to find people a suitable place.
Seat at the table
Blanchet House does two things. One, it gives people shelter and gets them ready for the job market, slowly, a few at a time. And two, it triages the hungry, distressed and the unsheltered on the streets, a few hundred every day.
"This has been a really difficult couple of years, (especially) for people in recovery," Kerman said. "We're seeing a lot of escalated mental health crisis. What we see time and time again, is just trauma. People who come to us for services for housing, people who are coming to us for meals, have experienced such significant trauma in their lives, unresolved trauma, and then of course, being houseless and the pandemic and growing heat waves and other weather crisis events, it's just a consistent re-traumatizing. It's like compound interest in your savings account."
Kerman adds, "And we can't throw enough mental health services at folks right now. It's probably our No. 1 challenge."
Kerman says early childhood trauma and transgenerational trauma are real.
"We all experience tragedy in our lives. I imagine, you and I, we have support systems," he said, "I would have to burn through a lot of sofas of friends and family before I find myself living in my car, but that's not true for a lot of people. In this cycle of housing and food insecurity, it's not as simple as just 'Go get a job.'"
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