Portland mayor-elect, commissioner tour Texas homeless campus

Wheeler, Novick visit Texas homeless campus

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It’s now been more than a year since city leaders made it official: Portland is in a housing emergency.

Since then, the search for solutions has been constant, but the progress has been slow. That said, it’s a crisis that’s about to continue under new leadership.

So late last week, the city's incoming mayor hit the road for San Antonio, Texas to see what works elsewhere.

“I’ve done plenty of research on the Haven for Hope model, and during the campaign for mayor to take a look at the model and take lots of notes and interview people, so it’s pretty much what I expected to see,” said Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler on Saturday. “But I have to say, I’m impressed.”

Built in 2010, Haven for Hope is a 22-acre, first-of-its-kind homeless campus.

If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because local developers Dike Dame and Homer Williams have been pushing city council to let them oversee construction of a homeless campus at Terminal One in industrial Northwest Portland.

Haven for Hope is the inspiration for that pitch, which is why Commissioner Steve Novick accompanied Wheeler on that tour, along with a handful of city staffers.

It’s a role Haven CEO Kenny Wilson says they’ve gotten used to.

“We constantly entertain guests and give tours,” he said.

In fact, staff say, since it was built, officials from hundreds of cities have come to tour Haven for Hope.

Photos: Portland officials tour San Antonio's Haven for Hope homeless facility

The idea is simple, but the execution is complex.

The campus provides San Antonio’s homeless with a combination of emergency shelters, longer-term low-income housing, social and psychiatric services, as well as medical, dental and vision care, all on site.

There's even a gym, a community garden and a pet kennel, where residents can keep their dogs, cats and rabbits safe.

Currently, more than 1,700 of San Antonio's homeless call this place home.

“You know, they say most people are a couple of paychecks away from being homeless,” said Jose Sanchez, who has lived at Haven for two years.

“I think if you capitalize on what you need to take care of your life, it’s great,” he said of the campus’ on-site addiction and mental health treatment services. “Sometimes you need to let go of some stuff that’s not really beneficial.”

“If you walk through the streets of San Antonio, you don’t see people who are homeless living under bridges in bushes,” said Wheeler. “The question is what model works best to help get people off the street and keep them off the street.”

In all, Saturday’s visit to Haven lasted a little more than four hours. Directors hosted a lengthy Q&A in a boardroom, where Wheeler and Novick threw out a long list of questions.

One of the first topics addressed: funding.

“I was really interested to see that half the operational budget for Haven for Hope comes from private donors, and it wouldn't work without that,” said Commissioner Novick. “I'm hoping we can go back home to the philanthropic community in Portland.”

Running Haven for Hope costs $16,182,000 per year.

Directors say 45 percent of that comes from a combination of local, state and federal funds. The other 55 percent comes from private donors and community partners.

Specifically, the city of San Antonio allocates $3,013,000 to the organization every year.

The ratio of public versus private funds was similar, when it came time to build the complex.

Construction of Haven for Hope cost $100,500,000.

Directors say private contributions accounted for $60,900,000. The city provided $22,500,000.

They added, when the complex opened, press coverage was intense, and headlines drew crowds from around the country.

Portland leaders asked if that meant many staying at Haven were from out of town or out of state.

Directors said, in short, that used to be an issue, until they instated a residency requirement among “members”, or those who apply for and qualify for long-term housing, at Haven for Hope.

Now they require a person prove they have lived in Bexar County for at least nine months, before they can use Haven’s services.

Another portion of that conversation focused on how the city acquired such a large site near downtown.

Haven directors say it used to be home to several warehouses used for a variety of industries, including grocery suppliers.

“They’ve got 22 acres here. I don’t think there is any site in Portland that’s a 22-acre site,” said Commissioner Novick. “So, I asked ‘If you didn’t have that kind of space to work with, what would you do?’ And what they said is ‘What you might do is have one facility for homeless men, one facility for homeless women and have one other location where you have all the services.’ Because they said that having all the services in one place is critical.”

With that, Mayor-elect Wheeler addressed the debate surrounding Haven for Hope’s potential Portland counterpart.

“Terminal One is a debate about a location,” he said. “And so you have some people saying yes use it for homeless services. You have other people saying use it for job creation. I think the debate should be what do we want it to be before we talk about where we locate it.”

Novick added, “The visit here is not just about ‘Should we built Haven for Hope at Terminal One?’ It’s ‘What kind of model do they have? How does it work? To what extent can we duplicate it somewhere, wherever that might be?’”

Leaders also discussed criticism of what this is, meaning Haven is not without controversy.

Local headlines cite neighbors reporting theft, erratic behavior and people exposing themselves in public.

There's also the question of the strategy overall.

The federal stance on addressing homelessness is one of "housing first."

The concept works like it sounds, meaning it encourages focusing on providing homeless people with a home, then treating issues like mental health or addiction.

Experts say it's cheaper and more effective than treating them in shelters.

CEO Kenny Wilson says Haven for Hope sometimes places people in housing first, and in some cases he agrees it's better.

“But we hear others that we've put in an apartment or a house. They feel isolated and lonely and depressed and miss the sense of community that we find here,” said Wilson. “So we don't disagree with housing first. We do it but we think there are other needs as well.”

Finally, local leaders asked about how police treat homeless campers, staying outside Haven’s walls and asked if officers force them to come to the facility.

The answer was no, since most come on their own, especially to the courtyard, where directors say people can come and go as they please, 24/7, as long as they're not acting dangerously.

If they behave in a way that indicates they’re a danger to themselves or others, staff call the police.

The campus also has 24/7 on-site security, people who are trained to deal with those struggling with mental illness and addiction issues.

They’re the same issues frequently seen in Portland’s homeless crisis, which is why Mayor-elect Wheeler says he’s spending all of his free time preparing.

“There are certain things I know,” he said. “I know I don't like the tent camping policy. I know that I don't think it's humane or appropriate in our community to have people living in doorways or on the streets... I believe this model that we looked at here today in San Antonio clearly illustrate some of the gaps that we have in Portland that contribute to our very visible homeless situation.”


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