It was supposed to be a two-year gig. Kathy Oliver ended up staying for 38.
The executive director of Outside In — which offers housing and wraparound services to homeless youth, plus a clinic for the unsheltered — hung up her crown on Saturday, June 30.
Oliver, 68 and with a Ph.D. in urban and public affairs from Portland State University, talked to the Tribune about serving the homeless, a recent unionization effort and her border collie, Zed.
TRIBUNE: What was Outside In like when you joined?
OLIVER: The agency was in a funky, dilapidated two-story house on the corner of 13th and Salmon. The clinic was in a cinder-block building attached to that house.
We outgrew it and (raised) $5 million in two years, and built this building debt-free.
TRIBUNE: There are plenty of negative stereotypes about the homeless. Are they true?
OLIVER: I don't know of anybody who chooses to be homeless. I've not met that person yet.
People think that trying to help people is enabling. I hear that, especially (about) the syringe exchange — that we're just enabling them to take drugs. If we give them food and medical care, we're just enabling them to stay on the street. Really, we're trying to move them towards health and the life they want to have.
TRIBUNE: Outside In pushed back against several anti-gay ballot measures in the 1990s. Take us back to that moment.
OLIVER: We took very public stands on those. We organized our neighbors, wrapped our entire block with a yellow ribbon and called it a hate-free zone. We put a billboard on top of the building, which was kind of illegal.
I always was focused on the clients and what they needed. When I looked at the homeless youth, each year 30 to 40 percent were LGBTQ, and that's still the case.
TRIBUNE: Are things different now?
OLIVER: In general, I think the world has changed. Gays and lesbians can get married — we didn't think that would happen in our lifetime.
On the other hand, discrimination has not changed. It's still a major reason for getting kicked out of your family. (Now) more youth identify as trans. Society is not kind to them.
TRIBUNE: Your service overlapped with the worst of the AIDS crisis. How did that begin?
OLIVER: Two women came in for prenatal care and ... they both tested positive for HIV, which at that time was a death sentence for them and their babies.
One had been an IV drug user, and one had been the partner of a drug injector. Both had started turning their lives around, and then this ... It was devastating, clearly for them, but also for us.
TRIBUNE: Go on.
OLIVER: I decided that we needed to do whatever we could to protect our clients, and the obvious thing was to give them condoms and give them sterile syringes.
Our insurance company took issue with us opening a needle exchange, and said if we did they'd cancel all of our policies. It took years to find another carrier.
TRIBUNE: Outside In quietly unionized earlier this year. How have you responded?
OLIVER: I won't be coping with it (because) I'm leaving. I expect it to go smoothly.
We're not putting up any roadblocks or fighting it or opposing it — that's not our position. We hope to partner with them.
TRIBUNE: Your clinic offers Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture alongside traditional Western medicine. Why?
OLIVER: Because they're generally not available to people living in poverty, and that kind of disparity bothers me. So like in the kitchen, we don't just serve one thing, because people want to have options and choice.
TRIBUNE: Your walks with Zed — which stands for Zee the Executive Dog — are well-known in downtown Portland. Tell us about this border collie.
OLIVER: The staff named him. I was outvoted. I was going to name him something else: Bosco.
He knows 75 words and phrases, and he knows when I'm talking about him.
He'll do pretty much anything I ask him to do. I'm always parking the car and I forget where I park it. He never forgets. We can be a half-mile away and he's on the job.
No longer OUTSIDE looking IN
Established in 1968, Outside In offers aid to about 6,000 homeless youth and adults each year from its four-story headquarters at 1132 S.W. 13th Avenue in downtown Portland.
Services involve a health clinic, drop-in center, kitchen, daycare center, needle exchange, tattoo removal program, and about 80 units of housing for those under the age of 25. Other services include case management, mental health and substance abuse treatment and a school-employment program.
Outside In also operates a school-based health center at Milwaukie High School and job training via the Virginia Woof doggie daycare on West Burnside Street. The nonprofit is drawing up blueprints for a 32-unit housing project on Burnside Street in the Rockwood neighborhood.
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