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Downtown site eyed for peer-run mental health shelter and homeless services center.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY - Built in 1907, the Bushing & Co. building at 333 SW Park Ave. needs major renovations before it can become the mental health shelter and resource center that Multnomah County envisions.After spending $5.8 million on a building south of Burnside Street to provide shelter and services to homeless people in downtown Portland, county officials are passing the hat to find money to fix the building and then operate it.

But so far, the city has not made a firm commitment and a bill expected to provide needed funds is stalled in the Legislature.

The Bushing & Co building is expected to cost at least $15 million for renovations, including a seismic retrofit. Chair Keborah Kafoury has said though a spokeswoman she prefers that option to a new building on the site, which would cost closer to $24 million. Regardless, the facility will cost an estimated $5 million per year to operate, according to an internal county estimate first published by Willamette Week.

And critics like lawyer John DiLorenzo have complained the location, at 333 S.W. Park Ave., is centered in an area slated for redevelopment. "Aren't we planning to make that part of town a revitalized area?" he said.

"We are experiencing a lot of pushback," Kafoury said at a recent talk on homelessness organized by the Oregon Health Forum. "I will also say that we're also experiencing a lot of support. … We know what we need to do. We just need action."

Backers of the proposal, like county mental health manager Neal Rotman, said this sort of facility has been a goal for years.

Unlike some shelters, it will be "no-barrier," where it's OK to be under the influence of illegal narcotics. Unlike the typical clinic, visitors won't have to agree to any programs to access a variety of needed services for homeless people, such as showers, internet access and a mail drop. And it will be managed by peers with experience in mental health problems. In short, it will be structured to be appealing to people who are turned off by the requirements and bureaucracy of typical services.

"This really is just about trying to get people the resources they need," Rotman said. "So they're not impacting the community the same way."

Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, who has been a driving force behind the idea, said, "We have a really big problem downtown that businesses cannot just continue to ignore and abide. ... The idea behind this is to assist downtown businesses, to get these people some help and get them off the streets."

Pitched to city

Documents obtained by DiLorenzo, who won't name his client, show that county officials and other advocates have pitched the project as filling a need set out in Portland's settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required improvements to services for people wrestling with mental illness.

The settlement calls for the creation of one or more drop-off or walk-in centers for "individuals with addictions and/or behavioral health service needs. All such drop off/walk in centers should focus care plans on appropriate discharge and community-based treatment options, including assertive community treatment teams, rather than unnecessary hospitalization."

Two previous projects pitched as fitting those needs, including a drop-off for police to serve as an alternative to jail, have not worked out as planned. The Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center, set up by the county in 2011 and partly funded by the city, is rarely used by police. The Unity Center for Behavioral Health, set up two years ago and "penciled" in as fitting the need, as Renaud put it in an email, hasn't done the trick either, according to advocates and city and county officials.

The resource center slated for Bushong is unlikely to fit what police want — a secure drop-off in which people are inducted into treatment, Renaud says. But he and county officials still say another option would be helpful.

In an interview last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler said that "conceptually" he likes the idea behind the project, but "I need to see more details."

That's a problem because documents show the county is hopeful the city could pick up as much as half the ongoing operating costs, or about $2.5 million per year.

Documents obtained by DiLorenzo show that county officials are wrestling with what they consider to be "tepid" interest by the city in spending on behavioral health issues among the homeless. Meanwhile, one advocate reported that staff for both Wheeler and Kafoury consider their relationship to be "terrible right now."

Still another obstacle is potential pushback to the project from neighbors like parking magnate and developer Greg Goodman, who has plans to build a luxury hotel nearby. The documents show Renaud has counseled county officials to avoid using the word "shelter" to describe the project, though internal documents repeatedly refer to a shelter as being part of its services — to avoid "pushback."

"It's a word which triggers negative and fearful associations for police, neighborhood representatives, and surrounding small businesses - who will stop the project if it is a "shelter," Renaud wrote in one email to the county. "Using 'shelter' is a self-imposed death sentence."

Asked about this advice, Renaud says the term "shelter" does not do justice for the more intensive approach envisioned

Rotman said the first two floors will be used for services and programming, as will be the adjoining parking lot. The third floor will include 40 to 45 mental health shelter beds, and the fourth floor will be dedicted to 20 to 22 units of transitional housing.

Camping and congregating on the street in nearby blocks will be discouraged.

"This has got to work in a manner that we don't impact the neighborhood, we don't impact our general community and the businesses around it very much," Rotman said.

Complications lie ahead

Kafoury has characterized Willamette Week coverage of the funding questions raised by project opponents as unfair and missing the point. Given the pressing needs faced by Portland's sizable population of people who are homeless or mentally ill, she is determined to make the county's new "resource center" work.

That said, the funding questions are significant. Multnomah's recent budget allocated $11 million for the project, but had to make significant cuts in a year that could eventually seem rosy if the country enters another recession. And the county has a limited pool of available funds with more needs than it can afford, county documents show.

Those competing needs include animal services, redevelopment, needed radio replacements, broadband other shelter needs, and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

The county is hopeful of trying to secure funding from local hospital systems and other corporations.

There's also a bill pending in the Legislature, House Bill 2831, that would require the state to provide several hundred thousand dollars a year in greater Portland for peer-respite services of the kind the new center aims to offer. That bill is sitting in the budget committee of the Legislature and needs to have a hearing by the end of the week, or it dies.

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