Donations from the community had been piling in all weekend. And by 6 that night — after days of frantic preparations by operator Portland Homeless Family Solutions — the first few families were set to arrive for beds and hot meals out of the cold.
The timing was almost too good to be true. Forecasts this week are calling for temperatures to fall below freezing for the first time this season. And right now, there are more than 100 families on the City and County’s wait list for shelter who are literally sleeping outside or in their cars.
"This shelter was put together in lightning-fast time — not because we needed it, but for the parents who need it — the parents who, last night, tried to keep their kids warm in their car,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at a news conference hours before the shelter opened.
The shelter will provide nighttime accommodations from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily through April 30, 2019. The Joint Office is funding the shelter as part of its annual commitment to add hundreds of seasonal beds when the weather turns cold and damp.
"Everyone can see that we are experiencing a housing crisis and a homeless state of emergency. But what everybody doesn't know is how many people who experience homelessness are kids and their parents,” said Brandi Tuck, executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. “These are kids who don't have anywhere to do their homework, or anywhere to brush their teeth, or anywhere to read bedtime stories at night."
Building donation is developer’s second
Tom Cody of real estate firm project^ donated the space for the shelter, marking the second time Cody has donated use of a building for helping people in the winter.
Cody, whose office is next door to the shelter, invited his staff to watch the opening preparations so they could begin building connections.
"Our inspiration comes from those around us. This is the promise of a city: that we can do more together than we can do alone,” he said. "When our community, public and private, comes together, pools resources, combines complementary skill-sets, I don't believe there's anything we can't do."
People staying at the shelter will also receive a hot dinner every evening and then breakfast in the morning. Other amenities include play spaces and programming for kids, along with an “awake room’’ so that people can have some options for their bedtime schedule.
Once enrolled, guests will be able to sleep at the shelter for as many days as they need. Families can also store their belongings at the shelter and keep any service animals with them. That means no one will need to line up outside at night to win a space, or carry around their personal items, as they go about their lives or access services during the day.
Portland Homeless Family Solutions also supports the families through a day center at SW 13th Avenue and Salmon Street, in partnership with First Unitarian Church. And it will work to help families in the shelter return to housing, providing rent assistance and case management to help them stabilize.
“Of course, the solution to homelessness is not shelter. The solution to homelessness is helping families move back into homes,” Tuck said. “But, as we know, this is far easier said than done. Because our rent prices continue to rise and it's harder than ever to find housing in our community for people who make lower incomes."
Partnership with Congregation Beth Israel continues
The location is just a few blocks from where it was hosted last year, at Congregation Beth Israel. Congregation Beth Israel will remain a lead partner in supporting the shelter, Rabbi Michael Cahana said in remarks that noted Monday was also the first day of the Jewish holiday Hannukah.
"When you have wonderful partners, you have the ability to make the world a little bit brighter,” he said.
Congregation members got to know the families last year, he said, and that will continue this year. Cahana said he would open the synagogue’s kitchen for volunteers to cook meals they could bring to the shelter.
"When you look into the eyes of a child that does not have a home to go to, that is just coming in from the cold, you realize none of us can stand idly by. We have to find our way to make a difference,” he said. "It's very easy to be critical. It's very easy to stand back and complain. But it is our responsibility to act. We are going to continue to do it, and I encourage each of us to do those actions that can help us make a difference."
County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, whose district includes the shelter site, is a congregant and former board member at Beth Israel. She said she remains proud to be “part of a faith community that actually acts on its values.”
“I am deeply familiar with CBI's commitment to ‘Tikkun Olam’ or ‘healing the world,” she said, saying the synagogue “takes this to heart by addressing issues of social justice in our community."
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said community partnerships to support neighbors experiencing homelessness don’t all have to be grand — like donating use of a building, or opening up a kitchen.
"It's our collective responsibility to take care of our most vulnerable neighbors. It's especially the case here when we're talking about vulnerable homeless populations — families with kids,” he said.
Wheeler pointed to a community campaign through the Joint Office and 211 that offers information and guidance for anyone who wants to volunteer at a warming shelter or donate life-saving gear.
Anyone interested can visit 211info.org/donations for a link to sign up for volunteer training sessions. They can also see a specific list of winter gear and where it can be dropped off. Providers also have an online shopping list to make donating more convenient. Items ordered online can be delivered directly to JOIN, 1435 NE 81st Ave., Suite 100, Portland, OR, 97213.
“Even small gestures,” Wheeler said, “save lives.”