STREET LIVES: The Angel of Rock Bottom
Jenn Coon may be the future face of Portland's homeless solution.
As a peer support specialist, the 5-foot, 53-year-old plunges into the mass of humanity surrounding Portland's best known food line five days a week. At Blanchet House of Hospitality in Old Town, Coon's job is to triage the neediest of homeless people. They come for the coffee, and often stay for the lifesaving gifts of shoes, sleeping bags and maybe a Lyft to the hospital.
When food is being served, Coon is in the street, chatting with people. It's a lot of 'First name, how are you doing?' stuff. Some chat, some can barely speak, but Coon assesses their needs visually and in other ways.
Shoes are a constant request. There are dozens brand-new sneakers lined up in her upstairs office. They come from HavASole, a nonprofit founded by Rikki Mendias. He spent years in a shelter with his mother. When someone noticed his trashed shoes, they bought him two new pairs. Years later, as a sneakerhead, he started sourcing shoes for the needy, and Blanchet House is one of his west coast spots.
"Rikki was here, personally, to bring in 50 pairs of shoes," said Coon. "I've handed them out and I'm going to continue to hand them out. I gave him a spreadsheet and told them the sizes that I needed. And he was here within a week."
The shoes demonstrate the curse of abundance: there's plenty to go around, but it takes a huge effort to distribute it.
Coon has a few other spreadsheets. One just keeps track of the people she sees on the street. There is no universal file system for homeless people who bounce from shelter to hospital to rehab to tent. But she does her best.
"We do as much tracking as we can, but this is not a treatment center. We don't require any meetings. We do have a curfew, and we have random UAs (urine analysis for residents for sobriety)."
She has an excellent memory for faces, first names and behavior. If someone asks her, say, for a coat on a day when they are not giving out coats, she'll make an assessment.
"I say 'no' but give them an option. Like 'I don't have a sleeping bag, but I have a blanket.' Or, 'I have a coat.' Or, 'let me take a look.'" She calls this "Tough love, with options."
It's part of her belief that homeless people are so used to being overlooked, unseen or treated as less than human, that giving them basic respect opens them up to cooperation. The short-term goal is to meet their basic needs -- calories and clothing -- but the medium-term goal is to steer them toward services that can help them up from rock bottom.
It doesn't always go as planned.
On a recent March morning, Coon was helping a man named John. John had missed the lunch hour at Blanchet House. John, looking better than most in his black trench coat, long hair and beanie, wanted a warm blanket for the night.
"I got hit in the goddam jaw," he told Coon.
"Oh, honey," she said.
"I need something warm for tonight."
"I gave you a sleeping bag yesterday."
John complained some more but Coon was firm.
"No. I'm very short on blankets, John. Come back for dinner at 5 o'clock, OK?"
He grumbled some more.
"Do you want me to see if I have lunch for you?"
Coon went inside and brought out a spare lunch, and he thanked her.
Ten minutes later Coon was in the storage area, looking in the boxes of donated clothes for a bra to give to a toothless woman whose clothes were unsuitable for winter. Even when it's not clothing day, she helps those with dire needs, like for socks and underwear. Suddenly commotion started outside, in the Blanchet House doorway. There was John, trench coat flapping as he whaled on another man who was crouching on the concrete and protecting his head. John landed kicks and punches to the man's head for about 30 seconds, then backed off. Coons stepped out and brandished her phone, then called Downtown Clean and Safe, her preferred first responders. Another Blanchet House worker, Jon Siebert, the volunteer manager, came out and helped drive John away, and he melted back into the community.
She was completely unflustered.
On another morning, a young guy with matted hair and filthy clothes was sprawled on the sidewalk, his head propped up, dozing. She reminded him to eat. A fidgety old man waved an electric guitar neck around. Another guy, looking very rock-and-roll, with multiple rings and a shirt open to his navel, but no pants, tried on a pair of suede boots Jenn had been saving for him. "Do you like them? He likes boots with a heel," she said, hoping he would like some flats, too. Someone else was pushed up to the lunch window in a wheelchair. The bandages on his feet were brown and red with blood and he seemed agitated. She talked to him but he refused all help, including medical.
Former Duck and Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington and his wife Emily (a nurse) founded the Harrington Clinic inside Blanchet House, where guests can get foot care or other care. These are some of the worst cases doctors will see, from pavement pounders who sleep unwashed in damp tents.
The commonest drug use Coon sees is methamphetamine (which can keep a user awake for days and causes paranoia) and opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. In her 30s, Coon got hooked on painkillers after surgery. "Then somebody said, 'Here, try this heroin, it's cheaper, and it's easier to get and you don't have to go to the doctor.' One thing led to another, and I was hooked on heroin. I chose drugs over my children. Luckily, they were with their dad, so they weren't in the system at all." She is haunted by that abandonment, but they are 25 and 21 now and back in her life.
Coon has what's called lived experience. She spent several years homeless and hooked, sleeping in doorways, doing heroin and meth, stealing and eating out of garbage cans. Southeast Portland, where she was raised, was her turf.
"I remember waking up one morning, I was frozen to the ground. I slept in a church entryway for quite a while and I thought, 'Oh, this is great.' But that didn't last very long. I wasn't one to ask friends or family for help. I had so much shame. I've done things that I'm not proud of." Coon almost lost her hand to an abscess, and she was treated for hepatitis.
"It's every man out for himself or herself and it's a very thankless life. People, they'll stab you and then have you over for dinner."
She is in recovery, so she gets the clientele.
"To be an addict is a full-time job. It's tough to continue to stay well. To be sick (in drug withdrawal) is a horrible feeling." She adds, "I've been Narcanned twice," referring to the opioid antidote, a nasal spray. "I remember, because when I came out of it, I was sober and that makes you mad. People get mad when they get dope sick."
Coon got clean by fatigue. One hot, day when she was sick of feeling sick, she pushed her shopping cart three miles to the CODA rehab clinic and stayed four months.
Police a last resort
Although she often gets close to people to talk to them, Coon often assumes a cautious position. She will step into the road to avoid having certain people get behind her. On another morning she pointed out a young man. A few days earlier he had pulled a knife on her, but she escaped inside by using her door pass. She prefers to call Portland Clean and Safe to deal with most confrontations, but as a last resort she will involve the police, and did with this guy. He wasn't supposed to still be there, but if he caused no trouble, she would keep quiet. Coon is pressing charges, partly because he threatened other staff, too. The man looked distracted and passed by her a few times, seeming not to notice her.
"I struggled with that because I don't come to work to put people in jail. I come to support people. But he was totally unprovoked." It turned out he had warrants for violence. "I just hope that he gets the help he needs."
She worries about retaliation. "Snitching is terrible. I want to remain the good guy. I want to remind the people that we're on their side, just because of retaliation. Even our executive director has had people lunge at him."
Blanchet House residents must work in the kitchen for their first three months, then get an outside job. There is no rent, so they can save. Coon knows of one guy who saved $20,000 from his job and moved on to an apartment.
She showed off a framed note on a napkin from a resident.
"Thank you for never looking down on us. I mean, I know you're short, but your love is gigantic."
"I love it. It just made my day," Coon said.
'A lot of them' armed
Being homeless in Portland has its rules. A stranger can't just pitch a tent with others. Introductions must be made. Another street rule is never look in someone else's tent. Not just poke your head in, but even glance as you go past.
"They'll catch your tent on fire," says Coon. The rules are like prison, and in some cases they come from prison.
Coon shows a security camera video of a fight that happened that morning. It was three-on-to-one. The one was curled in a ball in the same Blanchet House main doorway. A Blanchet House employee in the background kept cleaning, because he is not security.
Coon has a disarming presence: she oozes empathy, yet is firm. She seems to repel aggression. And it's out there.
"I was told that when a lot of the folks outside got their stimulus (check), they bought a gun. There's been a lot more shooting, so that would support that theory. I do think a lot of them are armed. Just the other day, a lady was walking by with a machete, and I said, 'Would you like some lunch? And can you please put the machete away?' And she said, 'OK.'" Coon reflects: "It didn't even occur to me how that could be traumatizing to someone else until later. But to me, nothing surprises. It's pretty bad out there."
She said a 75-year-old resident was just beaten up on the MAX by muggers and ended up in the intensive care unit. "It's so dangerous to go outside. It's so dangerous to be out there."
Chatting with her fellow peer support specialist Todd Wright, she notices dried blood on his vest. Wright explains there was a quarrel the day before, over a woman stealing someone's bag and then "acting out."
"You know that's a felony? Bodily fluids," says Coon. She says he's within his rights to involve the police. "She'll continue to behave that way as long as we allow it. But I'm with you," she said to Wright. "It's tough. The whole retaliation thing. Is it worth it? Because we don't want to be retaliated with."
Coon believes sweeps don't work with this population. "We get a lot of the fallout here. People get angry, hostile, and then it's an urgent issue: 'I need a tent, I need a sleeping bag. I need, I need, I need …' and they're freaking out with Todd and I."
Just then, a relatively well-dressed young man in Ray Bans gingerly inquires about a free sleeping bag. He says he's new in town and is in recovery. Todd leads him off to the storeroom and finds him one.
When she graduated from her four-month rehab, Jenn Coon went to Jean's Place, a women's shelter.
"I was not ready to go out in the big, bad world. So, I went to a women's shelter for six more months. And that's like, 'Here, you can get a job and save your money.' And I'm still in the apartment I got when I left there."
Many people complain (online) about wasting money on the "homeless-industrial complex" and its multiple nonprofits and government agencies. Asked why it worked for her and not for some people, Coon said this:
"I think a lot of it is the dual diagnosis that they're missing. It's not just addiction, it's not just mental illness. It's a combination of the two." The result is people on the street self-medicating with street drugs and only getting worse.
"They are chemically imbalanced already and then they're putting drugs in their body, and then you have sleep deprivation and malnutrition, and then you give them a weapon. It's just a whole bad situation erupting. There are resources, but a lot of people don't advocate for themselves."
Next rung up
The bigger part of Coons' job is advocacy. She says you really have to help homeless people through the bureaucracy to get them help. She walks people to shelters, to Central City Concern, to clinics and Legal Aid Services of Oregon. She took dozens of people to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She spends hours trying to place people on the next rung up the ladder. She recently spent 10 hours on the phone getting a woman, who was found on a park bench by a good Samaritan, into the Bybee Lakes shelter. She went there in a free cab, funded by the Old Town Association.
It's called "continuity of care," and it's needed because the legendary cracks people fall through are everywhere.
Both Wright, who moved here from New York two years ago, and Coon got their Peer Support Specialist (PSS) certifications from Transition Projects Inc. Actually doing the work is a lot harder than the curriculum makes out, Coon noted. She estimates two-thirds of the people she sees are addicted to something, and they all need an advocate.
Coon is employed by Blanchet House, and Wright is contracted from the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon. Last year the association sent five peer support specialists, and they all left within weeks, burnt out, according to Blanchet House spokesperson Julie Showers. Seeing the parade of homeless people, in active drug use, was too much for them.
One thing about lived experience: If you are in recovery yourself, like Coon, you need great strength to be around so much active use.
"When Jenn came, she like was an angel and just immediately connected and knew how to talk to people. We hired her from MHA, full-time," Showers said. Now there is new funding from the city to hire a team of peer support specialists, perhaps five more, by 2023.
"So, people like that woman who showed up can get permanent shelter. But you can't do that on your own. You need someone like Jenn with that knowledge," sad Showers.
Coon also spends a lot of time checking in with people and building relationships.
"We never minimize what they're saying. Because people just want to be heard, right? That's really all they want, is to be heard. And not to be discounted or minimize what they need," said Coon.
Hearing them isn't easy. Coon's team fondly call one guy Unicorn, because he always wears a unicorn hat. He couldn't speak, only grunt, but they just found out his name is Scotty.
Coon wishes they could help themselves.
"So many people, they'll get out of the hospital on the street. And they have a brand-new head wound with stitches and just things that they shouldn't be living in a tent with. And I'm like, 'Why?' If you advocate for yourself, and you say 'Listen, I'm homeless. I can't be on the streets,' yeah, then you'll get more services."
Blanchet House of Hospitality
Address: 310 N.W. Glisan St., Portland
Free food: Breakfast, 6.30-7.30a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m.-12.30p.m.; dinner, 5-6 p.m.
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