Jean DeMaster departs Human Solutions

Jean DeMaster departs Human Solutions – East PDX News
October 15, 2015

At the end of September, Jean DeMaster, the executive director of Human Solutions for more than a dozen years, stepped down from her position with the housing and human services nonprofit organization.

On her last day, DeMaster talked with East Portland News about the aspirations she’s had and the challenges she’s faced throughout her 45 year career in Portland and East Multnomah County.

“I came to Portland from Wisconsin,” DeMaster began. “I worked for Head Start initially. And then I became the executive director of a small child care center called Children’s Club. Then I was the cofounder of Technical Assistance for Community Services (now called Nonprofit Association of Oregon), where we provided help to other nonprofit agencies providing accounting, bookkeeping, and other business services.”

Jean Demaster

Jean Demaster

She took some time off after her daughter was born – but it didn’t take long for her to go back to work, returning to her career working for Portland Impact for a couple of years.

“But then, for 14 years, I was director of Burnside Projects, which was renamed Transition Projects, where we were working with homeless single adults and women,” DeMaster said. “After that I went to the YWCA for work with homeless families.”

From there, she came to Human Solutions where she remained for 12 years and 11 months.

“I applied here, because I saw that Human Solutions had the continuum of shelter. I saw that this organization had and builds housing. I was attracted to being able to provide a full range of services that ranges from sheltering – getting somebody out of a dangerous situation – to housing, to getting them into a permanent situation, so that they are not so vulnerable any longer.”

Asked why she gravitated to what some would call a gloomy and discouraging line of work, DeMaster smiled and replied, “I think the attraction is the ‘other side of the coin’. What my job was, was to build programs that ended the situations that contribute to homelessness.

“For example, when I came to Burnside Projects there was no shelter; and no shelter for homeless women at all. We built a shelter for homeless women. And, we built a facility for homeless women outside the area who had drug and alcohol problems.

“We started with a problem – there wasn’t any shelter to protect people – and, in that 14 years, we were able to develop and build a shelter, and to permanent housing facilities, providing a much safer situation for homeless women.”

DeMaster said she wasn’t attracted to business or some other career. “It’s because I just always felt that it was so unfair that some people did not have to face the struggles others do. Some people have a difficult time, and don’t get a ‘fair break’, and their kids didn’t have the same opportunity that others do. I felt that I could do something about that.”

Her most challenging situation was evicting a woman who started “using” while living in alcohol and drug-free housing. “She refused to go from housing back into the shelter,” DeMaster recalled. “She ended up staying with a man. He murdered her. That’s the hardest thing I’ve experienced in my time doing this.”

Asked about her greatest success, DeMaster said all that has been accomplished at Human Solutions has taken place because of a committee team of staff and volunteers.

“Although – I think the Human Solutions Rockwood Building [at 124 NE 181st Avenue] has given me the biggest feeling of success. The three-story Rockwood Building is a ‘multiservice center’, with a unique model that provides low-income housing and social services all in one location.

“Now we’re building next to the Rockwood Building, making it into a campus,” DeMaster added. “It’ll have a free dental clinic, to go along with the medical care and social services available in the Rockwood building. This story hasn’t ended yet; we are still working on it.”

Links mental illness to homelessness

“Mental illness – and the lack of mental health care – is one of the factors we deal with when confronting homelessness,” DeMaster said.

“This is particularly true with single adults, where mental illness is clearly a cause of single adults becoming homeless. Mental illness pushes people away from their families. In the ‘single’ population, mental illness is probably one of the three leading causes of homeless.

“And, it makes it very difficult to operate [shelter and housing] programs. If individuals can’t get mental health treatment, it’s very difficult to get them into either semi-permanent housing or into shelter, because of the behaviors they exhibit. At the far end of the spectrum, they may be delusional or physically threatening.”

The issue is that treatment for mental illness is costly, said Demaster. “We just have to decide that we’re going to set our priorities straight in this country, and be able to put aside the money that is required to be able to serve the mentally ill. It’s the same thing with resolving homelessness: We just need to set aside the money to build affordable housing and shelters, and to provide services that are needed. If we decide to do this, we can solve the problem.”

Enjoyed working with staff

Changing the subject, she gave credit to her many colleagues. “The overall theme to my story is the staff that I’ve worked with for the last 45 years, who have been so very good and very responsive,” DeMaster lauded. “The best part is watching people grow, develop, and build bigger and better programs over the years. It’s that kind of interaction between people that is good.”

Her next adventure: “I have a new granddaughter in Houston, Texas. I’m heading to Texas to be the caregiver for her, so her mom and dad can go back to work.”

In parting, DeMaster thanked the community for its support.

“No one agency or organization can help serve the needs of the homeless without the support of the community. My thanks go out to the community for everything – from help locating a site a shelter, to raising the funds to build and operate it.

“Thank you for this opportunity serve,” DeMaster concluded.