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Ken Cowdery, champion for helping homeless, to retire
After 42 years working on the front line of the homeless problem, Ken Cowdery has come to a simple conclusion.
"The problem is so big and complicated that everyone has to work together to solve it — government, nonprofits and the private sector," he says.
Cowdery plans to retire from his current job as executive director of the Home Builders Foundation in January. In that capacity, he has worked to connect small operators of emergency shelters needing improvements with contractors and suppliers eager to donate their help and materials. Most of those in need are small faith-based organizations that are barely raising their monthly operating costs but are based in aging buildings that need work.
"I cannot say enough about the selfless dedication and commitment of the people working with those in need every day," Cowdery says. "And builders and suppliers see the problem in their own communities, and want to do something about it."
Cowdery was hired by the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland to run its charitable arm in 2012.
"When Ken took the job, he really turned the whole program around. The foundation has grown so much under Ken, it is a really a sizable factor in providing shelter beds these says," says Joe Robertson, the foundation's immediate past president and owner of Shelter Solutions, a residential construction company specializing in accessory dwelling units.
The importance of including government officials in the process hit Cowdery two years ago when he was trying to help the only shelter for families in St. Johns expand. Although the Community of Hope was working hard to raise the funds to increase its capacity, much of the money threatened to be consumed by nonessential building permit requirements, system development charges, and other administrative fees charged by Portland bureaus.
Cowdery was especially shocked by how much money the bureaus were charging because the City Council had recently declared a housing state of emergency intended to make it easier to open and expand homeless shelters, among other things.
"It just didn't make any sense. It was as though no one had told the bureaus what the council had done," Cowdery says.
Over the next few months, Cowdery visited with bureau employees and council members explaining the problem and pleading that the nonessential requirements and costs be waived. Commissioner Steve Novick was one of the first to agree, helping to ease a requirement to expand a sidewalk behind the shelter required by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which he oversaw. And Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who was in charged of the Portland Housing Bureau, eventually persuaded the council to waive the SDCs on such projects, something that had previously been approved for large affordable housing projects undertaken by such established social service providers as Central City Concern.
"Ken really had to step up with the Community of Hope. The city was making it really tough to complete the project. He did a lot of work that will also make a difference for other nonprofits and future projects," Robertson says.
When the Community of Hope formally opened its expanded shelter on Sept. 28, 2016, Cowdery was among those singled out for praise by director Linda Jo Devlaeminck.
"There were a lot of obstacles to overcome," Devlaeminck said at the reopening ceremony.
Ever since then, Cowdery says that whenever a shelter provider asks the foundation for help, the first thing he does is set up a meeting with its representatives and at least one elected official of the jurisdiction where it is located. He has found the officials are always eager to help and push for their government's nonessential requirements and charges to be waived.
"Builders are sometimes wary about government because of delays they've experienced on getting permits and cost of charges, so getting them all to sit down around the table is something the foundation is working hard to do," says Cowdery, who will continue to serve until his replacement is hired.
Long road to social service
Cowdery did not plan a social service career. After growing up in the San Francisco area, he enrolled in the University of California in Berkeley, where he majored in English and wrote for the student newspaper, The Daily Californian, during the Vietnam War era.
After graduating in 1975, Cowdery enlisted in Volunteers in Service to America, intending to serve needy communities. After being trained at a program at a housing development in Chicago, Illinois he was transferred to another one in Buffalo, New York where he counseled the young people who lived there. After a while, his supervisors noticed he could write and asked if he would write applications for grants to expand their services.
"They were almost all successful. Then at one point, they asked if I'd write a grant application to start a new nonprofit called the Allentown Community Center," Cowdery says.
When that was successful, Cowdery worked as the program director there, overseeing its neighborhood-based services, which included job training, senior services, child care, education, and housing rehabilitation. He became the organization's executive director in 1985.
Fifteen years later, Cowdery took the job that brought him to Portland in 2000 as executive director of New Avenues for Youth, which is based downtown. It provides an array of housing, case management, education, and job training services to homeless young people and those at risk of becoming homeless. Over the next 12 years, Cowdery recruited a highly regarded board of directors, led multiple $5 million plus capital and endowment campaigns, and grew the annual operating budget from $900,000 to $6 million through innovative fund-raising events and government contracting.
He also developed two Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream franchises and a clothing design business that serves as both job training and revenue generating enterprises for the agency.
While there, Cowdery also realized Oregon's foster care system is seriously flawed. Up to 30 percent of the agencies' homeless clients had been taken from foster homes and released downtown when they turned 18, the maximum age to be a foster child in state custody, except for a small percentage who receive extended foster care until 20.
"I'd say 30 percent of young people on the streets simply aged out of the foster care system with no place to go," Cowdery says.
In 2012, Cowdery was hired as executive director of the Home Builders Foundation, a job that required a different set of skills to help a different set of clients. Instead of working at a nonprofit directly serving the poor, Cowdery found himself raising funds and recruiting volunteers in the home building industry to help small nonprofit organizations maintain, repair and expand their buildings. Most of the nonprofits operate small shelters in older buildings for such clients as homeless families and victims of domestic violence fleeing their abusers. Many are operated by faith-based organizations with limited fundraising skills.
Since 2005, the foundation has built more than 90,000 square feet of shelter space, valued at nearly $8 million, accommodating over 550 homeless men, women, youth and families with children each year. In many cases, the volunteers did almost all the work with donated materials. In other cases, they helped large contractors hold down their costs on big projects.
Two current projects serve as examples. One is a domestic violence shelter being completely renovated for Clackamas Women's Services, mostly with donated labor and materials. The other is New Meadows, a multi-generational housing project to reunite foster children with family members in Portland where the foundation is assisting a large contractor.
Although most of the foundation's work was originally done in Portland, Cowdery says that during his five years at the foundation, it has spread outside the city and is now mostly taking place in such communities as Beaverton, Milwaukie and Oregon City.
"Suburban communities have come to realize they have their own problems and need to step up and do something about them," Cowdery says. "And we like working in smaller communities because you can have a big impact on their problems."
Village of Hope is typical project
When it reopens early next year, the Village of Hope will be the newest and largest shelter for victims escaping domestic violence and their children.
The spacious, three-story home now nearing completion will allow Clackamas Women's Services — the nonprofit organization that operates the shelter — to house up to 15 families at a time. The custom design will allow staff to easily interact with the residents, while such features as separate refrigerators for each family will minimize disputes between them. It also has both indoor and outdoor play areas for children.
"The house now fits our operational model," says Chris Wilhite, the organization's director of development and communications.
Walking through the nearly completed home, CWS Executive Director Melissa Erlbaum remembers how hard it was to efficiently serve the residents in the previous shelter, a 115-year-old farm house with an inconvenient layout that had been remodeled several times but still needed a lot of maintenance. It was torn down to make way for the new, much more energy efficient Craftsman-style home.
"Now we'll be able to spend more of our time building relationships," Eribaum says.
Clackamas Women's Services, which operates the shelter, only needs to raise $50,000 more to finish the $1.7 million project, which is also being supported by Clackamas County and the Home Builders Foundation.
In addition to supplying volunteer labor and donated materials, White says the foundation played a critical role in the decision to replace the original shelter instead of remodeling it again.
"When we first met with them, we thought maybe the house just need a new coat of paint. But they took a look at it and said, why don't you think big? It was a hard decision, but it was the right one," says White.
Foundation Executive Director Ken Cowdery says area home builders have helped many shelters run by nonprofit organizations with maintenance, repairs and expansions over the years. But those in the construction industry can also tell when a structure is past the point of diminishing returns. That's when the foundation's support really pays off by reducing out-of-pocket expenses and lobbying local elected officials to waive fees and speed up the permitting process.
Erlbaum also praises the Clackamas County Commission for its support. He is especially thankful to Commissioner Paul Savas, who took the lead in reducing costs and cutting red tape, and Chair Jim Bernard, who personally donated $5,000 to the project.
Clackamas Women's Services was founded 32 years ago with the support of the commission and provides a range of confidential shelter, counseling, mental health services for adults and children impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, the sex industry, stalking and elder abuse. It also operates a crisis hotline at 888-654-2288.
To learn more and donate to shelter project or other operations, go to: www.cwsor.org.