Portland’s outreach workers key to homeless reforms

Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern, the largest provider of social housing in Portland.

Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern, the largest provider of social housing in Portland.

Prince George Citizen, October 13 2008

It’s shortly before 10 p.m. on a brisk fall night and Lio Alaatatoa and Quinn Colling, two outreach workers who specialize in establishing contact with the homeless are underneath one of the many bridges crossing the Willamette River into Portland’s downtown.

About a half-dozen “campers” scattered among the pillars of what’s a parking lot in the daytime emerge from underneath sleeping bags and blankets and make their way over to the back of a van where the two are passing out cups of soup and blankets.

The mood is upbeat and the two are repaid with appreciative smiles and heartfelt thanks. It’s the same sort of response all the way along as they drive from spot to spot looking for those who are still awake and in need of a little help.

Making sure everyone is comfortable as they nestle into doorways and alcoves for a night’s sleep is not their only job. In fact, it’s a rare occasion when they’re able to bear such gifts.

Alaatatoa and Colling work for JOIN, a social agency whose motto is “connecting the street to a home” and on most nights they carry nothing more than business cards and search for homeless who may make good candidates for an alphabet soup of programs designed to make them productive members of society.

Throughout the tour, Alaatatoa and Colling stress the importance of establishing a relationship and developing a level of trust. Shortly after we stop at the foot of some towering pillars where the same bridge begins to soar over the river, Alaatatoa, an avuncular, soft-spoken Samoan may have found a prospect.

A woman in her 20s who’s been sleeping out the street for about a week but still carrying a cheery demeanour expresses her joy at getting an extra blanket to survive the looming cold. Like Alaatoa, she possesses a Polynesian complexion and asks if he’s from Hawaii – a rapport has begun.

While roots may be important to the woman, what matters to Alaatoa is that she says she’s been going to a temp agency during the day in search of a job. He gives her a business card and urges her to show up at the JOIN office the next day.

Within a couple hours Alaatoa and Colling have completed their drive and although they could go home now, they’re kind enough to take me over to an all-night diner where we talk about the “housing first” approach to dealing with the homeless, where people on the streets are put into stable accommodation before work on their other issues begins.

So far, the approach has been reasonably successful – about 80 per cent of the 1,500 or so homeless who’ve been put into housing over the program’s first two years remain indoors and working on the shortcomings that got them into trouble in the first place.

In general terms, Alaatatoa and Colling like the idea, but also stress there are those who don’t make it and contend it’s not for everyone. The conversation turns to a perplexing character we encountered earlier, an elderly gentleman who on paper would make a perfect candidate for the program.

An alcoholic who’s had his share of visits to the hospital, he had recently recovered from a broken ankle suffered when he fell after drinking too much. It’s estimated that the 10 per cent of homeless who are considered chronic — defined as someone with a disabling condition who’s been out on the street for more than a year — consume 50 per cent of the total resources spent on the homeless they cycle through the social services system, hospitals, corrections, and emergency services.

Under the housing first model, housing is not contingent on compliance with services – instead, participants only have to live up to a standard lease agreement and are provided with the services and supports that are necessary to help them do so successfully.

But he simply does not want to go inside for for a grocery list of reasons, a fear of failure and a reluctance to enter “low barrier” housing where he’d be placed with other alcoholics and drug addicts prime among them.

“You need to listen to the homeless themselves because they know best what they need,” Alaatoa emphasized.

The next morning at the offices of Central City Concern, the largest provider of non-profit housing in Portland, executive director Ed Blackburn agrees.

“There is not one thing that works for everyone,” he said, and went on to note that CCC provides a eight different types of housing, ranging from so-called “wet” or “low barrier” housing where addicts are not required to quit their habits, to alcohol and drug-free housing for families.

Even so, there’s a handful who are simply too troublesome.

“They tend to be very difficult, they tend to drive other residents crazy, they give staff a constant bad time and they cross the line and can be evicted,” Blackburn said. “You work with them and work with them and staff are exhausted and say o.k., that’s it, bye.

“There’s no perfect approach to this but you can significantly reduce the number of people on the street by providing housing,” he said, noting about 400 people who’ve averaged 8.5 years of homelessness have been housed by CCC in the last three years.

He also urges social service providers to “throw out the parameters” and include both harm reduction and recovery approaches in their programs.

“Look at the person’s needs, what they want and what they are motivated to do,” Blackburn said and added that mixing those who want to quit their habits with those who don’t is a recipe for trouble.
“It’s more cost effective to customize your housing alternatives,” he said.

Under a plan to end homeless in a decade, the City of Portland and Multnomah County intends to establish 2,200 units of permanent supportive housing by 2015 — 1,600 for chronically homeless single adults and 600 for homeless families with special needs.

About half of these units, 1,200, are expected to be found through new construction or acquisition and rehabilitation of existing buildings and the other 1,000 from existing units — both affordable and private market — through rent subsidies and services.

CCC owns 19 properties, totaling 1,300 units of housing. Pride of place goes to the 11-storey Richard L. Harris building, named after Blackburn’s predecessor at CCC, that towers over a nearby park that used to be frequented by drug dealers but is now reasonably trouble free.

It not only holds 180 units of dorm-like single-room occupancy housing but a one-stop medical centre is housed on the building’s first two floors. Similar to the Central Interior Native Health Centre in Prince George, it offers a wide range of health services including acupuncture, which Blackburn said is helpful in easing the cravings addicts are trying to overcome.

Blackburn’s emphasis on providing a wide range of options was a message not lost on Mayor Colin Kinsley who toured CCC projects during last week’s trip to the city of 570,000.

“The continuum of care is so very important,” Kinsley said. “I’ve heard about it, and I’ve now actually seen it in action. Get them into a bed and get the process started.”

Coun. Murry Krause had similar comments.

“It really is about the individual and the issues they have,” he said.