'Come as you are': Shelter providers push flexible models to 'chronically homeless'

Shelters changing to get homeless in the door

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Homeless shelter operators and social service providers have two, seemingly mutually exclusive problems when it comes to getting campers out of tents and into beds.

The first is that a large portion of, what they call, the “chronically homeless” would rather stay in a tent than go to a shelter.

The second is that Multnomah County’s shelter system is at capacity, with waitlists for men and women.

“We've doubled the number of shelter beds that are available in our community over the last 18 months,” said Marc Jolin, director of the city’s and county’s Joint Office for Homeless Services.

Jolin appeared on KGW’s live panel discussion Monday night as part of the hour-long investigation Tent City USA.

Watch the full special

In a survey, conducted for the piece, 89% of homeless campers said, on any given night, they’d rather stay in a tent than a shelter.

“More privacy less drama,” said Amberly Yarbour, who stays in a tent in Northeast Portland. “There’s arguing, fighting [among people in shelters], and they don't really stop it. They just take it outside.”

It’s a perception, of which, Jolin and other staff working with public agencies are well aware.

It’s also been the motivation to open up more “low barrier” shelter facilities.

Tent City: A closer look at the numbers

That includes the Hansen Building in Southeast Portland, the Kenton Women’s Village in North Portland and the Willamette Resource Center.

“The principle that, I think, is expressed through a shelter like this is ‘Come as you are,’” said George Devendorf, executive director of Transition Projects, which runs the Resource Center.

The facility, along Southeast Milwaukie Avenue, is a women and couples’ shelter, where people can stay and store their belongings 24/7.

It's also not a clean and sober house, meaning people aren't necessarily turned away for coming in high or drunk.

Transition Projects staff point residents there from their day center in Northwest Portland. They also have teams who go to camps and spread the word about resources.

It’s a necessary step, Devendorf said, since a lot of longtime tent campers only come to shelters during cases of extreme weather, like the ice storm of December 2016.

In those cases, they stay in temporary, emergency spaces, which are bare bones and often crowded.

“Whatever your challenges are we’d rather have you inside, safe, warm and dry and provide that kind of access you need to the kind of services that are going to help you make that next step,” said Devendorf.

Alicia Simmons moved into the shelter a month ago and said she had low expectations of what life there would be like.

“Once I got in here and saw how things were operating, I could come and go as I please, three meals a day. You know, what more can you ask for?”

© 2017 KGW-TV


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