March 12, 2018

There’s work to do before the clients arrive in late spring.

There’s paint to apply and carpets to roll out, king beds to swap out for twins, wheelchair ramps and handrails to install, and security cameras to wire.

Rachel Solotaroff, CEO of Central City Concern, joins county officials on a tour of the vacant Budget Lodge motel.

A few rooms in the vacant Budget Lodge on Barbur Boulevard in southwest Portland come equipped with jacuzzis so big they fill each room’s entryway. Those will be replaced with tables and chairs. And the manager’s two-bedroom apartment will become a common space with a kitchen, a TV room for movie- and game-nights, and two conference rooms for medical and mental health appointments.

Those renovations, set to begin this month, will transform the old Budget Lodge into transitional housing for people leaving psychiatric inpatient care.

“We’ve planned a garden out back,” Central City Concern’s John Karp-Evans said earlier this week, when Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and County mental health staff stopped by for a visit.

The Lodge's 22 single-occupancy rooms will give people leaving the Unity Center for Behavioral Health and other psychiatric inpatient programs, the Oregon State Hospital and area emergency departments a safe place off the streets or away from a crowded shelter to recover. The program is part of a larger strategy to increase the supply of supportive housing in Multnomah County.  

“Right now, 25 percent of people discharged from Unity are homeless. They’re discharged to a shelter, or to the street,” said Neal Rotman, manager of the County’s Community Mental Health Program. “This fills that need for transitional housing. It gives us a chance to assess people's needs while they stabilize from a recent crisis.”

Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners last month approved a five-year lease on the property, which is a half-hour ride from downtown Portland on the  No. 12 bus. The County will contract with Central City Concern to operate the program, providing case management and peer support for those recovering from a mental health crisis. Residents will stay from one to three months, while staff help them with their mental and physical health, navigate social services, teach them life skills such as meal planning and cooking, and find appropriate long-term housing.

“Here we can do a 24-hour assessment, find out what a person’s need are, and their abilities,” said Karp-Evans, who will manage the project. “Unless we get to know the individual, we struggle to place them appropriately.”

CareOregon has committed $150,000 to provide residents two meals a day, and the Oregon Food Bank works with Central City Concern to provide snacks under an existing contract. Home Forward, meanwhile, is working with Rotman’s team at Multnomah County to identify people with mental illness in especially high need of permanent supportive housing. And the Joint Office of Homeless Services, in addition to helping to develop the strategy for the site, will help fund operations.

The vacant Budget Lodge motel is undergoing renovations to house people recovering from mental health crisis.

“People want to lean into this collaboration, and it says a lot about the nature of the project,” said Rachel Solotaroff, CEO of Central City Concern. “If the mission is to find solutions to end homelessness, then we need to take care of people with severe mental illness. And that can’t happen with a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about tailored intervention. And that’s precisely what’s happening here.”

Multnomah County and Central City Concern know the transitional housing model works. In 2015, they launched the Stabilization for Treatment Program, with 16 bunks for men with mental illness who had become entangled in the criminal justice system. Today the program houses 21 men, all of whom are working to stabilize their mental health and become more independent.

“There are shelters where you can come in, a place to lay your head. But in the morning — they might feed you, but then you’re out,” said Mark, a 51-year-old graduate of the program. “In the streets I’m too worried about my stuff, getting out of the rain, I need to go to the bathroom. My mind never really stops.”

Mark said he had been on and off the streets, in and out of prison, and always on probation, since he was 18. Transitional housing helped him break the cycle.

“Here it’s a safe environment. I wasn’t worried if I’m going to freeze, where I was going to get something to eat,” he said. “I could focus on trying to get better.”

Mark has an anxiety disorder that made everyday life a challenge — cultivating clients for his handyman business, making friends, or even setting up doctor appointments. He medicated instead with drugs, ran into legal trouble and landed in prison. His probation officer recommended transitional housing, but the idea of living with strangers in a bunk-style dorm scared him.

“I didn’t like it here. I fought it, but it was important,” he said. “Here there were people I could talk to who were free of judgment, people who helped without an agenda. If I needed to talk at 2 a.m., I could knock on the door and talk to them. That made it easy.”

So did having a caseworker, he said.

Amber Morales accompanied him to appointments with new providers and taught him to live on his own — groceries, cooking, laundry, budgeting. Because the program allows men to stay for a few months, rather than a few days, she can help clients digest one thing at a time — 30 days of medication, applying for health insurance, a primary care appointment, applying for disability, life skills classes.

It’s manageable that way, she said.

The transitional program was effectively a pause button in Mark’s life, and it allowed him to start again, with tools and support. “I was selfish my whole life and it showed,” he said. “Now a lot of people are fighting for me, they’re in my corner. I don’t want to let these people down.”

Mark graduated the program in March 2017. He’s been off probation for a year — the longest time since he was a teenager. Today he rents a room in southeast Portland, owns a truck and works as a handyman. Recently he dropped in at Central City Concern’s Northwest Fifth Avenue office to see Morales.

“It’s amazing for me,” Morales said. “Mark stopped by just to say, ‘Hi.’ In his truck, with his business. Things he thought would be impossible.”

“I wanted to let her know I’m doing OK,” he said.