The “scattered site” model: a history

NOTE:  The following is excerpted, with light edits, from an email from the author to the Portland City Council and other contributors to the effort to plan a new Homeless Services Center to replace the Oxford Street Shelter.  

Despite multiple explorations on the question of scattered vs. consolidated shelters, all of which have come to the same conclusion, the idea that the City of Portland should pay for multiple small emergency shelters persists.  I haven’t been to every meeting on this topic, but I’ve been to a lot, and my own thinking on this question has evolved as I’ve gained new information.  Here are some highlights:

In 2011, a group of dedicated people, including many who worked for organizations that serve the shelter population, and our current City Manager, met for a year as a Homelessness Prevention Task Force, producing this extensive Strategic Plan in 2012:

http://www.portlandmaine.gov/DocumentCenter/View/5496/Strategic-Plan-to-Prevent–End-Homelessness-in-Portland–Nov-2012-Update

It’s a long report, and many people, including myself, relied on news reports and the impressions of experienced stakeholders for a distillation of the key take-aways . One of these take-aways was that scattered, smaller shelters are preferable to a larger shelter.

Despite that impression, in 2015, the City explored teaming up with Preble Street on a consolidated shelter, to be located in Bayside, and the HHS Committee met about it on January 13 and March 10, 2015.  Minutes and packets can be found by going to this page and choosing “View More” on the right and selecting “2015”:

http://www.portlandmaine.gov/agendacenter/hhs-and-public-safety-committee-21/ 

The packet for the March 13, 2015 meeting has a page titled “Proposed Emergency Shelter Consolidation Study” on city letterhead, followed by a sample budget.  (It’s a long packet; this material is about 3/4 of the way through.)  Note the following:

“The study will also revisit data from Preble Street regarding the estimated cost of scattered site shelters from the Homelessness Task Force. Though this model was described as an alternative to a consolidated shelter, the costs appear to be prohibitively high and thus this model may be unrealistic given the current environment.” 

In the wake of this effort and in consideration of funding cuts and obstruction from the state level, the City Council then formed another task force.  My husband, Sean Kerwin, was a member of that task force, whose work included discussion about scattered vs. consolidated shelter models.  This group also faced the reality that the duplication of facilities, staff, and services makes a scattered approach prohibitively expensive, and the task force set to considering best practices.  This group’s work was then brought to an end, since it was apparent that their work would be duplicating much of what the previous task force had already accomplished, and the newly appointed City Manager, Jon Jennings, brought his knowledge and experience as tri-chair of that first task force. This document illustrates the overlap of the two task forces, and it’s useful to see the list of stakeholders who did not pursue the scattered shelter option as a feasible approach:
http://www.portlandmaine.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/2272?fileID=8846

Not only that, but the Strategic Plan actually doesn’t have much to say about scattered shelters being preferable.

In that 25 page plan, there are a few phrases like “other specialty shelters” and “other temporary housing” and “continuum of specialty housing” and “Regionalize the solution to homelessness in Greater Portland.”

What it does clearly recommend is: 

“a centralized intake process through which all clients who are homeless would be assessed…for diversion to housing, other specialized shelters or other housing situations…co-locating all service delivery partners within this centralized intake…”

So the “scattered shelters are better than a single large shelter” position is actually an inaccurate oversimplification of the recommendations of the Strategic Plan.  

(Also, a key element in the small-vs.-big narrative is being glossed over, which is the intake process.  A facility which manages the intake process and emergency housing for newly homeless people provides a different function than one which provides short-term housing for people who are up to speed on the “system” (such as it is) for accessing resources.  But both types tend to get lumped together as a “shelter.”  This blog post by City Councilor Belinda Ray clarifies this to an extent, while giving due credit to other service providers who have partnered with the city on specialty projects.)

Moreover, my understanding is that the family shelter here in Bayside will remain open, as will Preble Street’s teen shelter (also in Bayside), Florence House, and Milestone.  So we already have some small specialty shelters. They’re just all within a narrow,  2 mile long area on the peninsula.  If the small shelter zoning passes, other “specialty shelters” and “temporary housing” will be enabled across the city.

Given all of this, it’s time for references to smaller shelters to more accurately reflect the intentions of the Strategic Plan and the widely-recognized reality that it’s prohibitively expensive to accomplish the same goals from multiple locations vs. a single location.  More recently, service providers have also expressed concern about clients “falling through the cracks” in a multi-location model.

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Opinion: YET ANOTHER TASK FORCE?? AYFKM?!?

[NOTE:  As a site admin, I’m a frequent poster on this web site, but most posts with my byline are on behalf of BNA as a whole, or on behalf of specific individuals as noted.  This one is from my own POV.  – Laura C]

As a resident of Bayside for 10 years, a member of BNA for almost as long, and Vice President of BNA for about 6 years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time at City Hall; in community meetings; in meetings with elected officials and city staff; listening to and in discussion with social services providers from many nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and community initiatives; learning from and working with neighbors who have lived here for decades; and, of course, living in community with people experiencing homelessness.  Does this make me an expert on solutions to homelessness?  No, of course not.  But I know much more than I did 10 years ago, and I wish more people could go through that learning curve more quickly than I did, because that experience counts.

After years of work by a dedicated committee to find a practical solution to Portland’s hopelessly outdated and overwhelmed Oxford Street Shelter, some people without much experience are now calling for…yet…another…task force.  (Sigh.)

We have a task force NOW.  It’s made up of the people who have been showing up for the hard work and hard conversations for years:

  • People who work with homeless and at-risk individuals on a daily basis and know what is needed, in practical terms, to serve this population and empower individuals to take the steps toward long-term positive change.
  • Residents (both long-term and short-term) of Bayside and neighboring communities who have been participating in the public process that has been going on for years, who know what has gone wrong here and are sharing that information in order to get it right.
    • (For those just joining us, it has less to do with “where homeless people belong” and more to do with the density of need and risk, the ratio of long-term residents to transient individuals, a maze of one-way streets, hopelessly inadequate facilities, and a problematic situation that was allowed to fester and grow into a crisis.)
  • People who have devoted their personal time to sit on previous task forces, like this one and this one, and produced work products full of information and recommendations, like this, and who continue to participate in the process.
  • Members of the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee and staff of the Health & Human Services department, who have suffered the slings and arrows of public outrage in order to move their work forward, and produced or made visible a significant volume of data, experience, knowledge, and recommendations.
  • Members of the Portland City Council who have attended those Committee meetings, participated in previous iterations of that committee, diligently dug into the work done already, advised on history and policy in order to move the discussion forward, and otherwise invested their own time & energy into understanding the many factors involved in this important decision.

What would a new task force accomplish?  

Aside from interrupting work in progress, delaying practical positive change, and perpetuating a situation many describe as inhumane, what’s wrong with bringing in some “fresh voices?”  What could we expect from such a task force?

  • Unworkable solutions
    Solutions proposed or supported by those in favor of Yet Another Task Force (YATF) include locations in current, active use for incompatible purposes, like fire stations, gyms, and the Portland Expo.  I’ve heard far too many statements that start with “Why don’t they just…” as if there is some simple, obvious solution to the complex and intersecting factors that have led to the current need.
  • Ignorance of the most basic facts and current conditions
    In discussing these issues and this process with those who are new to them, including people pushing for YATF, the number one stumbling block is the need to clarify to people that the Preble Street Resource Center (at 5 Portland Street, and run by one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Maine) IS NOT the Oxford Street Shelter (at 203 Oxford Street, and run by the City of Portland), and/or that these are 2 separate facilities and managing bodies.

    • Another common unproductive conversation is one that starts with the strongly held opinion is that “Housing First is a better solution,” without any knowledge of recent and current Housing First projects, or the fact that most people get into that housing via the emergency shelter.
    • There are real, difficult discussions that need to take place to move this work forward.  We don’t have time to waste on these fundamental misconceptions.
  • Short attention spans
    One group of self-appointed “solution seekers” made a loud & visible fuss early on in the site selection process, and while they promised “Our intent is not to derail the Barron Center proposal and walk away,” they haven’t presented updated information or opportunities to participate since that location was eliminated…such as the Council vote that’s set to take place this month.NIMBY_website
  • Good old run-of-the-mill NIMBYism
    Part of the reason solutions have been long in coming is that there is strong resistance to locating a shelter near…anyone or anything.  No task force is going to change that, and in fact it’s more likely to perpetuate the problem, since the most likely participants of a “diverse, city-wide” resident task force would be residents of the wealthiest residential neighborhoods, who have the time, agency, and motivation to keep such a facility away.  Many people have described this as a “city-wide issue,” but the sad reality is that the vast majority of Portland residents have only gotten involved when a location was proposed nearby.

We don’t need Yet Another Task Force to learn AGAIN what makes these decisions difficult, or to re-hash old arguments and AGAIN come up against the tangible realities that have led to those decisions.  This is, and always has been, a public process; there are more decisions down the road, and anyone with something to offer can contribute to the conversation; that doesn’t require a new task force.

The Portland City Council has the information, resources, and access to expertise and experience that it needs to do its job.  They just have to do it.

Featured

Siting the New Homeless Services Center: Info and Resources

The BNA has spent years advocating for improved services for people who are homeless and at risk, and for the safety and civility of our community.  These goals go hand in hand.

The upcoming City Council vote on siting a new Homeless Services Center is the latest step in a long process undertaken by the City of Portland to address the concerns of Baysiders, service providers, and those who need these services.

This change is, quite reasonably, raising concerns across the city, and many people are on a steep learning curve to understanding both the current situation and the plans for change, both of which have been years in the making.  We hope you find the following digest and links helpful.

  • Bayside hosts several shelters and service providers.  One of them is going to close.
    Zoom into this Google map and look around, and you’ll find the City of Portland Oxford Street Shelter, the City of Portland Family Shelter, the Preble Street Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter, the Preble Street Resource Center, the Portland Social Services Department, and numerous other social services provided by organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and local and regional providers. When the new facility opens, the Oxford Street Shelter is going to close.
  • We have a situation.  We need a system.
    “Everyone agrees the situation needs to change” is a common refrain from all quarters: service providers, politicians, city officials and staff, police officers, healthcare workers, business owners, homeowners, renters, currently homeless people and previously homeless people.  The social ills of Bayside and Portland are not a result of “the shelter” or “the homeless.”  They are the result of a Frankenstein-like hodgepodge of services which have become overwhelmed by the opioid crisis and federal and state budget cuts, and exploited by criminal predators.  Shelter stayers have to walk here and there just to get a meal, through a gauntlet of risks and often with all of their belongings.  A modern, dedicated facility in a new location will provide the resources that homeless people and service providers deserve, and disrupt entrenched patterns and habits that contribute to the undereffective and dangerous situation we have now.
  • The city and many other stakeholders have been working on this for a while.
    Back in 2012, a dedicated task force spent a year focused on homelessness and related issues, producing this Strategic Plan. The plan involves much more than a shelter, but on that topic, the recommendation is “a centralized intake process through which all clients who are homeless would be assessed…for diversion to housing, other specialized shelters or other housing situations…co-locating all service delivery partners within this centralized intake…”  The new service center will benefit from the recommendations in this plan, plus additional extensive research done in the years since.
  • The new facility will be nothing like the old facility.
    The Oxford Street Shelter is basically a multifamily house, on a residential street.  It doesn’t even have its own driveway.  It doesn’t serve food or have laundry facilities. When it opened in 1989, it had 50 shelter beds.  It currently serves around 150 people at a time, in a space that wasn’t designed as a shelter.  The new facility, no matter where it is built, will be designed for its intended use, in accordance with current best practices, and in line with new zoning standards (see next point).
  • The rules for running an emergency shelter have changed.
    In June of 2017, the conditional use standards for emergency shelters were amended. Previously, there were only two conditions: the facility had to comply with the city’s Comprehensive Housing Assistance Plan and be registered with the City. Now, all emergency shelters are required to have a Management Plan that outlines “Management responsibilities; Process for resolving neighborhood concerns; Staffing; Access restrictions; On-site surveillance; Safety measures; Controls for resident behavior and noise levels; and Monitoring Reports.”  Also mandatory are Metro access, on-site support services, space to conduct security searches, bike storage, a screened outdoor area, and laundry, kitchen, and pantry access.
  • Services will be co-located, and transportation will be available.
    The benefits of on-site meals and laundry are obvious.  Plans for the new facility also include “a wide range of services including:  health and mental health care, substance use treatment, housing assistance, peer support, case management, employment assistance, and more.”  But obviously, every provider in the region can’t be co-located, so the new plan includes a shuttle, so people can maintain relationships with providers they know, and existing options like taxi vouchers and a city van will be continued.
  • The city is already taking action.
    In recent years, the city has budgeted for and implemented as many best practices as possible in the current location. Lockers, additional restrooms, and trained security staff have been added in response to neighborhood input. Staying open 24 hours means guests are no longer forced to leave the shelter during the day. Community Policing efforts have grown, including new foot patrol officers. And the Portland Opportunity Crew offers an alternative to panhandling and a path to employment.
  • Siting a facility that helps the homeless is hard.
    Setting aside the challenges related to stigma for a moment, any facility designed for this purpose has physical and logistical requirements that exclude many locations that might otherwise be desirable. Space is needed for beds, lockers, dining, supplies, staff offices, private conversations, computer work, group meetings and activities, and healthy outdoor space. Clear sight lines are important for the security of all. Each additional floor means expenses of stairs and elevators, plus additional logistical concerns and security staff, so a large footprint is required. Any facility serving a large number of people, whether it’s a homeless shelter or a high-end hotel, needs to consider the impact on adjacent communities. Here in Bayside, we see firsthand the results of drawing arbitrary lines for where such a facility “belongs.” Feelings of community or isolation aren’t just driven by geographic location, and all neighborhoods share a responsibility for providing solutions to the complex problems that lead to, and result from, homelessness.  Most importantly, location is only one of many considerations in creating an effective facility for this purpose.
  • This is not “The Fix.”  It’s a step.
    The current crisis didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed all at once.  Other steps initiated by the Strategic Plan such as the Long Term Stayers Program and new Housing First facilities have already produced positive results.  Future plans include small shelter zoning and licensing, which will enable the creation of short-term housing for smaller numbers of people and specific populations such as veterans, the LGBTQ community, survivors of domestic abuse, etc.  This facility does not prevent ongoing improvements; it enables them.
  • We’re here for you.
    Members of the BNA have been involved with these issues for years.  We don’t claim to be experts, but we’ve lived much of the history and difficulty that has led to this point.  We’ve spent hundreds of hours at City Hall, worked closely with the staff of the Oxford Street Shelter, and have had many hours of conversation with people who will be impacted by this change. The current situation is not sustainable, and we will not stand for it to continue, here or in any other neighborhood. Whatever your interest in this initiative, our door is open, and we encourage robust debate on this very complex topic. Given the urgency of need, it’s critical that discussion is focussed on relevant facts, not rumors or exaggerations, but we respect all points of view.

We look forward to conversations with all concerned parties.  Contact us at bnaportland@gmail.com or visit us on Facebook.

Resources:

Featured

BNA Barron Center Site Support Letter

From: Sarah Michniewicz <sarahmichniewicz@me.com>
Subject: BNA Barron Center Site Support Letter
Date: July 8, 2018 at 2:49:00 PM EDT
To: Belinda Ray <bsr@portlandmaine.gov>, Ali Pious <pali@portlandmaine.gov>, Brian Batson <bbatson@portlandmaine.gov>
Cc: Nicholas Mavodones <nmm@portlandmaine.gov>, Justin Costa <jcosta@portlandmaine.gov>, Cook Kim <kcook@portlandmaine.gov>, Jill Duson <jduson@portlandmaine.gov>, Spencer Thibodeau <sthibodeau@portlandmaine.gov>, Ethan Strimling <estrimling@portlandmaine.gov>, Jon Jennings <jpj@portlandmaine.gov>, Michael Sauschuck <mjs@portlandmaine.gov>

 

July 7, 2018

Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee
City of Portland
389 Congress Street
Portland, ME  04101


To Councilors Ray, Ali and Batson,

The Bayside Neighborhood Association supports both the proposal to build a new homeless services center, and to locate it on the Barron Center campus.

The BNA advocates for the Bayside neighborhood where the current Oxford Street Shelter, along with a large number of Portland’s essential social service providers, is located.  This facility has been inadequate for many years and is unable to properly carry out the City of Portland’s stated obligation to do the vital work of caring for our most vulnerable citizens.

The current model of serving the homeless with mats to sleep on in one location and food, medical care, and various other necessary supportive services scattered around the general vicinity is outdated, ineffective and inhumane.  Although this system may have been sustainable when the number of clients was much lower and their needs less intense, it has broken down irreparably in the face of economic challenges, the opioid epidemic, reduced access to health care, and numerous other factors.

As demand has outstripped resources, the Bayside neighborhood has disproportionately borne the impacts of hosting a population whose basic needs are often unmet, the opportunists that are drawn here to prey on them, and the behaviors that accompany such stressors.  Building an adequate and humane homeless services center is a vital first step toward achieving the balance to which every citizen and neighborhood in Portland is entitled.

The BNA has invested a great amount of time and energy over the years, and especially in the last few, educating ourselves in order to understand the situation in our neighborhood.  Through emails, phone calls, and meetings, conversations with city staff, social service providers, shelter clients, neighbors, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, judges, elected officials at the local, state and federal levels of government, and residents and leaders of other neighborhoods, we are intimately involved in seeking solutions.

Our endorsement of the proposed facility at the Barron Center campus is therefore based on our understanding of the careful work and thoughtful consideration that has gone into its selection, and considers the following factors, most of which are mandated by the revised emergency shelter conditional use standards:

• Best practices: Research by councilors and city staff into effective service delivery models; consultation with homeless services providers; surveys of shelter clients; site visits to well-regarded homeless service facilities in Boston; building to accommodate delivery of necessary wrap-around services; clear site lines; on-site meals and laundry; voluntary adoption of multiple best practices at the existing city shelter.

• Accessibility: Proximity to existing transportation infrastructure and bus routes; plans to incorporate a dedicated shuttle in addition to existing modes of transportation provided through taxi vouchers and city vehicles as needed.

• Financial factors: The use of city-owned land; planned space for partner providers to deliver preventative, routine, and follow-up care to reduce the need and cost of emergency services; existing funding for necessary upgrades to sidewalks, lighting, streets and safety features; potential for public/private partnership to finance construction, potential reduction in expenses for city services such as emergency response, policing and street sweeping.

• Established Infrastructure:  Existing kitchen and laundry facilities at the Barron Center; existing water, sewer and utility access; and existing vehicle access to site reduces construction costs.

• Visibility: Prominent location and campus setting promote clients’ sense of social inclusion while providing privacy via on-site services and a screened courtyard.

•Safety: Shielding a vulnerable population from the volatile and unsafe environment that was allowed to grow unchecked in Bayside; providing a stable and private base from which to work on housing, employment and recovery; an invested neighborhood with many “eyes on the street.”

• Neighborhood prioritization: Amended conditional use standards that require a management plan with provisions for working with the surrounding neighborhood; permanent positions for current trained security staff, which have served to improve conditions around the existing shelter; plans to continue the OSS “Hotline” for neighbors to reach out with questions or concerns; street outreach positions to engage potential clients and support the surrounding neighborhood; strong, clear, responsive and adaptable community policing standards; experience with community engagement and collaboration to maintain existing quality of life.  

Please note: Neighborhood engagement and safety is a non-negotiable priority for the BNA, and our continued support is predicated on the robustness and effectiveness of the above measures.   

• Community amenities: Plans for a public health clinic and community policing/police substation to benefit the neighborhood and fill community needs; appropriate architecture to complement existing structures and add value to the neighborhood.

• Equitability: Engaging other areas of the city to support the goals of the new comprehensive plan, our shared interests, and the common good.

•Completing the picture: Asking other communities to participate through reimbursement and by caring for their own population; continuing the exploration of small shelter zoning to augment a coordinated entry model.

While at one point it may have been feasible to correct the deficiencies of the existing city shelter, that opportunity is long past.  The toxic and increasingly dangerous conditions that have been allowed to flourish in Bayside make the city’s social obligations far more difficult and costly than they should be, and normalcy almost impossible for residents, visitors, providers, and social service clients alike.

The current situation is not sustainable, and we will not stand for it to continue, here or in any other neighborhood.

The BNA firmly believes that these conditions are not simply the result of hosting the city’s shelter and so many other social services, but of an entrenched and fearful mindset that has kept better options from being pursued in the past.  Indeed, there has long been an attitude that there are no better options.  The selection of the Barron Center campus site is proof that current city leadership is ready to change that narrative, and is willing and able to act.

We urge you to vote to recommend to the full council that the new homeless services center be sited on the Barron Center campus, and to move forward at the pace that this emergency situation demands.

Sincerely,

Sarah Michniewicz
President, Bayside Neighborhood Association

 

New Homeless Services Center: Info and Resources

The BNA has spent years advocating for improved services for people who are homeless and at risk, and for the safety and civility of our community.  These goals go hand in hand.

The recently announced plan to locate a new homeless services center on the Barron Center campus is the latest step undertaken by the City of Portland to address the concerns of Baysiders, service providers, and those who need these services.

This change is, quite reasonably, raising concerns across the city, and many people are on a steep learning curve to understanding both the current situation and the plans for change, both of which have been years in the making.  We hope you find the following digest and links helpful.

  • Bayside hosts several shelters and service providers.  One of them is going to close.
    Zoom into this Google map and look around, and you’ll find the City of Portland Oxford Street Shelter, the City of Portland Family Shelter, the Preble Street Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter, the Preble Street Resource Center, the Portland Social Services Department, and numerous other social services provided by organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and local and regional providers.  When the new facility opens, the Oxford Street Shelter is going to close.
  • We have a situation.  We need a system.
    “Everyone agrees the situation needs to change” is a common refrain from all quarters: service providers, politicians, city officials and staff, police officers, healthcare workers, business owners, homeowners, renters, currently homeless people and previously homeless people.  The social ills of Bayside and Portland are not a result of “the shelter” or “the homeless.”  They are the result of a Frankenstein-like hodgepodge of services which have become overwhelmed by the opioid crisis and federal and state budget cuts, and exploited by criminal predators.  Shelter stayers have to walk here and there just to get a meal, through a gauntlet of risks and often with all of their belongings.  A modern, dedicated facility in a new location will provide the resources that homeless people and service providers deserve, and disrupt entrenched patterns and habits that contribute to the undereffective and dangerous situation we have now.
  • The city and many other stakeholders have been working on this for a while.
    Back in 2012, a dedicated task force spent a year focused on homelessness and related issues, producing this Strategic Plan. The plan involves much more than a shelter, but on that topic, the recommendation is “a centralized intake process through which all clients who are homeless would be assessed…for diversion to housing, other specialized shelters or other housing situations…co-locating all service delivery partners within this centralized intake…”  The new service center will benefit from the recommendations in this plan, plus additional extensive research done in the years since.
  • The new facility will be nothing like the old facility.
    The Oxford Street Shelter is basically a multifamily house, on a residential street.  It doesn’t even have its own driveway.  It doesn’t serve food or have laundry facilities.  When it opened in 1989, it had 50 shelter beds.  It currently serves around 150 people at a time, in a space that wasn’t designed as a shelter.  The new facility, no matter where it is built, will be designed for its intended use and based on current best practices.
  • The rules for running an emergency shelter have changed.
    In June of 2017, the conditional use standards for emergency shelters were amended. Previously, there were two conditions: the facility had to comply with the city’s Comprehensive Housing Assistance Plan and be registered with the City. Now, all emergency shelters are required to have a Management Plan that outlines “Management responsibilities; Process for resolving neighborhood concerns; Staffing; Access restrictions; On-site surveillance; Safety measures; Controls for resident behavior and noise levels; and Monitoring Reports.”  Also mandatory are Metro access, on-site support services, space to conduct security searches, bike storage, a screened outdoor area, and laundry, kitchen, and pantry access.
  • Services will be co-located, and transportation will be available.
    The benefits of on-site meals and laundry are obvious.  Plans for the new facility also include “a wide range of services including:  health and mental health care, substance use treatment, housing assistance, peer support, case management, employment assistance, and more.”  But obviously, every provider in the region can’t be co-located, so the new plan includes a shuttle, so people can maintain relationships with providers they know.  The Barron Center location is also on a major Metro line, and options like taxi vouchers and a city van will be continued.
  • The city is already taking action.
    Over the past year the city has budgeted for and implemented as many best practices as possible in the current location. Lockers, additional restrooms, and trained security staff have been added in response to neighborhood input. Staying open 24 hours means guests are no longer forced to leave the shelter during the day. And the Portland Opportunity Crew offers an alternative to panhandling and a path to employment.
  • Siting a facility that helps the homeless is hard.
    Setting aside the challenges related to stigma for a moment, any facility designed for this purpose has physical and logistical requirements that exclude many locations that might otherwise be desirable. Space is needed for beds, lockers, dining, supplies, staff offices, private conversations, computer work, group meetings and activities, and healthy outdoor space. Clear sight lines are important for the security of all. Each additional floor means expenses of stairs and elevators, plus additional logistical concerns and security staff, so a large footprint is required. Any facility serving a large number of people, whether it’s a homeless shelter or a high-end hotel, needs to consider the impact on adjacent communities. Here in Bayside, we see firsthand the results of drawing arbitrary lines for where such a facility “belongs.” Feelings of community or isolation aren’t just driven by geographic location, and location is only one of many considerations in creating an effective facility for this purpose.
  • This is not “The Fix.”  It’s a step.
    The current crisis didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed all at once.  Other steps initiated by the Strategic Plan such as the Long Term Stayers Program and new Housing First facilities have already produced positive results.  Future plans include small shelter zoning and licensing, which will enable the creation of short-term housing for smaller numbers of people and specific populations such as veterans, the LGBTQ community, survivors of domestic abuse, etc.  This facility does not prevent ongoing improvements; it enables them.
  • We’re here for you.
    Members of the BNA have been involved with these issues for years.  We don’t claim to be experts, but we’ve lived much of the history and difficulty that has led to this point.  We’ve spent hundreds of hours at City Hall, worked closely with the staff of the Oxford Street Shelter, and have had many hours of conversation with people who will be impacted by this change. The current situation is not sustainable, and we will not stand for it to continue, here or in any other neighborhood.  Whatever your interest in this initiative, our door is open, and we encourage robust debate on this very complex topic. Given the urgency of need, it’s critical that discussion is focussed on relevant facts, not rumors or exaggerations, but we respect all points of view.

The BNA supports the new shelter redesign and relocation proposal; read our letter here.  We look forward to conversations with all concerned parties.  Contact us at bnaportland@gmail.com or visit us on Facebook.

Resources:

Meet Your Neighbor: Nolasque Israbahenda

By Alicia Harding

 

Photo of Nolasque Israbahenda by Alicia Harding
Photo of Nolasque Israbahenda by Alicia Harding

When I work out in the area overlooking the pool at the Portland YMCA I notice Nolasque Israbahenda, the swimming instructor. He greets each child coming into the pool area with a smile and big hello that says, “Hey, special person, happy you’re here.” I watch him going out of his way to help adjust a life jacket or to make sure each swimmer’s needs are being met. He radiates a cheerful friendliness.

 

On first meeting I would never have guessed that here is a man old enough to have a son in college. Everything about him–his slender physique, nearly beardless chin and, of course, his terrific smile–suggests a much younger man. When I had the opportunity to speak with him I revised that first impression to include a man of substance who has led a complicated and full life.

He readily agreed to talk to me. As with any American, my first question (after struggling with the spelling of his name) is “Where are you from?”

Burundi is a small landlocked country in the heart of Africa with a population of 10 million. It was once part of what was called the Belgian Congo, as was Rwanda. Both countries suffer from similar problems. They share similar languages, the same tribal groupings, and the legacy of a brutal imperialistic ruler. (Quite possibly King Leopold gets the award for being the most inhumane sovereign in colonial history–a not-much-coveted award for which their were many contenders.)

Burundi is a poster child for all the problems that beleaguer Africa today. It has a one-crop economy dependent on world prices of coffee and tea, out-of- control population growth (almost half the population is under the age of 15), an infant death rate of 6.9% (Germany .034, U.S. .06, England .04), and a per capita income of $900 per year. That’s about .43/hr. based on a 40-hour workweek. Burundi’s ranking is 180 out of possible 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index (U.S 5, Norway 1).

Mr. Israbahenda came here seeking sanctuary from war. While he says there are no conflicting ethnic groups in Burundi (“one Burundi, one language”), the continuing violence counters this optimistic view. The first democratically elected president was assassinated after only 3 months in office, throwing the country into a prolonged civil war between Hutu and Tutsi peoples. The current president thwarted the constitution when he was elected for a third term. Assassinations continue to plague the government.

While we who were born in the U.S. tend to see all immigrants from Africa as having the same experiences, that is not the case at all. Mr. Israbahenda’s situation is much different from that of many Africans. He came here three years ago with his wife and three sons, not as a refugee, he said, but seeking political asylum. Many immigrants have spent long years in refugee camps and had very few educational or economic opportunities. Mr. Israhabenda has a university education and once held a good job in the financial office of a multinational nonprofit company. He brings with him strong computer and math skills.

His job here is of a very different nature. He is likely the only lifeguard in the state who has a degree in economics. Mr. Israbahenda speaks three languages–Kirundi, French, and English–but limited fluency in spoken English is an enormous barrier to getting a job. Few immigrants are able to work in the field for which they were trained in their native countries. Building on what had been his volunteer interest in Burundi, Mr. Israhabenda took the job at the Y.

He does not dwell on problems of adjusting to a new country, possibly because he lived in a city, the capital, Bujambar, and cities tend to have a universal similarity. Burundi has a rural economy so it is not surprising that, as Mr. Israhabenda says, there was more natural food available, but it is similar to what we eat, although prepared differently.

He is very interested in the neighborhood and would be open to being involved in the Bayside Neighborhood Association when his work schedule permits. His concerns are the problems of young people smoking and not giving their full attention to school and of the lack of parental involvement in their children’s education. His advocacy for the Y–“They have lots of good programs”– as a valuable alternative for these kids and for all children might be one solution

During the course of our talk Mr. Israhabenda repeatedly told me how kind people are in the U.S.. His answer when I asked what surprised him about this country? “There are so many dogs.”

If you see Mr. Israhabenda out and about, take a moment to say hello. You will be well rewarded by meeting a person worth knowing.