Here's a familiar refrain for those working at the crossroads of homelessness and medical care: "Housing is health."
In East Portland, the mantra has materialized as Central City Concern's latest facility, the Blackburn Center, which opened its doors Tuesday, July 9, next to the East Burnside Street MAX stop at 122nd Avenue.
The hulking, six-story structure will offer beds to at least 175 Portlanders — with a mix of units for those fresh out of hospitals or detox programs, sober living spaces for transitional patients and rent-supported flats with work requirements. A two-story, 40,000-square-foot clinic and pharmacy is expected to provide mental, addiction and primary medical care to 3,000 annually.
"It's unusual for us to have all these things in one building," Central City Concern CEO Rachel Solotaroff, M.D., said in an interview. The goal: "Comprehensive solutions to ending homelessness."
Central City Concern — a 900-employee nonprofit with operating expenses of $75 million last year — no longer restricts itself to the Rose City's core. The first two buildings created by CCC's 2016 initiative, Housing is Health, were the Hazel Heights apartments at Southeast Stark Street and 127th Avenue, and the Charlotte B. Rutherford Place complex on North Interstate. A fourth project is planned at Southeast Division Street and 113th Avenue.
Oregon Health & Science University, Legacy, Providence, Adventist, Kaiser Permanente and Medicaid/Medicare provider CareOregon chipped in $21.5 million for the initiative, which will create 379 units total. The Blackburn Center cost $52 million.
"It's a bit of an out-of-body experience," joked Ed Blackburn, who spent 26 years with the 40-year-old Central City Concern and retired as CEO. "It's particularly gratifying knowing so many people are going to get well here."
Officials packed the light-filled atrium and two overflow viewing rooms for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Both Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler gently ribbed Blackburn for downplaying his namesake achievement.
"You may not know this, but people are looking to us as a community for leadership," said Wheeler. "You can't just have one-off services."
"This idea that housing is health," noted Kafoury, "it's fast becoming a reality."
Besides city, county and local hospitals, major funders of the project include Oregon Housing and Community Services, U.S. Bank, Oregon Health Authority, Metro, Energy Trust of Oregon, The Collins Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Portland General Electric Foundation, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Low Income Investment Fund, The Standard, and Wells Fargo Foundation.
For architect and project manager Mariah Kiersey, of local firm Ankrom Moisan, the challenge was "access to light" and finding enough elbow room to fit every users' potential needs.
What she terms "light gaskets" slice through the building at intervals, breaking up what would otherwise be monotonous 300-foot-long corridors. The Scandanvian-influenced facade incorporates metal shingles with wood-concrete accents for a "homey" touch.
Instead of opting for the flat-roofed design used by most apartments, Kiersey opted for a traditional triangular gable roof.
"You ask a kid how to draw a home," the architect explained, "they're always going to draw a gable."
Central City Concern's new Blackburn Center will offer 175 beds, eventually — and like other facilities, the design allows patients to literally move up onto a higher floor as they progress through treatment programs. Here's the rundown:
• 51 units for patients who have exited a local hospital or detox facility, and have nowhere else to go.
• 80 single-room-occupancy units on floors four and five, with shared bathroom and kitchen areas for those participating in drug recovery and other treatment programs.
• 34 studio apartments on level six, which will require rent and can serve as a permanent home.
• 10 units offering end-of-life palliative care are planned, but the legislative funding mechanism did not reach the finish line during the 2019 session.
Central City Concern has about 900 employees, and roughly half once needed the nonprofit's services.
Lisa Greenfield is one of them.
Born in Portland, her life spiraled out of control due to drug addiction. She burned bridges with her family and ended up homeless, living on the streets in the same stretch of East County that now hosts the Blackburn Center.
"It was really terrifying, especially as a young woman," Greenfield, 27, told the Tribune. "I didn't care that I was homeless, because I was loaded, and I could stay up all night, because I was loaded, and protect myself."
After leaving the Hooper Detox Stabilization Center one day, she was directed to CCC's Eastside Concern, where she was treated for her drug addiction with suboxone. CCC offered her a spot at one of the 180 units at the Richard L. Harris Building, 8 N.W. 8th, known colloquially as the eight-by-eight.
"Central City Concern realizes that housing is so important for stability," Greenfield said.
She was clean at age 24, and began working as a front desk janitorial worker for CCC, who later paid for more job training and driving lessons. Now she works as a peer support specialist, helping more people become like her.
"I was able to go back and give back."
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