House of Umoja bounces back

From the Portland Outlook, November 2, 2009

Over the last two decades, northeast Portland has seen its neighborhoods and social landscape dramatically altered by rapid renewed economic interest in the area.

But a brick building, on the corner of Northeast 17th Avenue and Alberta Street, has housed a social institution that has steadily limped along through the area’s metamorphosis – and might now be enjoying some stability.

Since 1991, House of Umoja has strived to combat gang violence in Portland while strengthening social ties in the city’s African American population. But at times it has flirted with collapse.

Recently it began a new chapter after coming under the control of Lifeworks NW, a culturally-responsive social service provider, which aims to bolster the long-standing community institution, both fiscally and administratively.

When the House of Umoja opened its doors Portland was riddled by gang violence to the point where people made appeals for Mayor Bud Clark to call in the National Guard to quell the discord.

Umoja was seen as an innovative step to addressing the problem. It was based on a Philadelphia program that offered gang-affiliated youth a way to chart a new course for their lives.

It housed a 15-bed facility where former gangsters would live under traditional Swahili social principle that stressed purpose, cooperation, self-determination, and unity- or “umoja” in Swahili.

The House of Umoja was widely praised. Donations poured in, and its waiting list groaned with people wanting to leave gang life.

But a few years after opening its doors, the House of Umoja had some hiccups that knocked it off course.

In 1997 the county government, which provided much of its budget, released a scathing report that asserted that the House of Umoja was failing to meet its own goals, with about a third of the youth it served returning to gang life.

The changing realities of street life also prompted it to pivot its mission. The number of delinquent youth in Multnomah County dropped off in the late 1990s, spurring the House of Umoja to close its residential rehabilitation program for gangsters, and shifted its focus to job training and outreach.

This was a point of contention for people who had been involved with Umoja early on.

Lolenzo Poe, a founding member of Umoja, said that he was dismayed when the residential program was removed, and hopes it will return.

“I think that part of the problem in the past has been not having a good administrative structure,” added Poe, who said that Lifeworks NW’s merger with Umoja is a positive step.

In the early 2000s, Umoja started and restarted programs. It lost funding sources, including a grant from the Portland Children’s Levy, causing it to shuffle staff and close its doors temporarily to take stock of its situation.

As revenue steadily dropped off, the administrative functions of Umoja were taken over by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare.

But when Cascadia nearly collapsed last year, Umoja approached Lifeworks NW with the proposal to merge.

Mary Monnat, the CEO of Lifeworks NW, said that because her non-profit runs so many similar programs it was a natural fit, and took over management of its gang outreach program this summer in addition to general administrative duties.

She explained that much will stay the same. The staff will remain, as will its programs. It also appointed Michele Harper, who was on the Umoja board, to its own.

“The only part we’re doing differently is adding more services,” she said.

Now rechristened as the “Umoja Center,” Monnat explained that the name was chosen to signify that there are some changes. It’s added an addictions treatment service, a program to link youth with jobs opportunities, and offers “Third Thursday,” which connects locals to needed services.

“The House of Umoja is alive and well,” said Ebony Clarke, an addictions service director with Lifeworks NW.

Clarke said that Umoja is now more of a drop in center, where people can use computers, find out about area support services, and network.

The Umoja Center held its “Kuji” celebration earlier this month where past employees and community members gathered at the facility. A poster that once covered up the windows facing
Alberta Street was taken down to make the building more welcoming, and local youth gather there after school snacking on fruit, granola, cookies and playing air hockey.

However, Umoja still strives to instill a strong cultural identity in young African Americans, and maintains a gang outreach program.

“We’re not here to change; we’re here to expand,” said Clarke.

It still maintains its gang outreach program that focuses on youth who haven’t entered the legal system, and seeks to connect them with a supportive adult figure. Gentrification has caused Umoja to expand its focus to east Portland and east Multnomah County, said Clarke.

“I hope we just stay with the same focus: getting the kids the tools they need to be successful in today’s society,” said Walter “Tiny” Butler, a gang outreach worker. “Because sometimes it changes really, really fast.”