As a youth pastor in Gresham, Cathe Wiese grew increasingly troubled by the children whose families were sleeping in tents, motels or cars.
Their parents’ challenges often went beyond rent: Domestic violence. Addiction. Criminal histories. Unemployment.
Wiese envisioned a shelter where parents could regain housing, but also learn life skills that would keep them housed.
“We didn’t just want a Band-aid,’’ Wiese said. “We wanted to see lives changed.’’
Since the faith-based, non-profit My Father’s House opened in Gresham in January 2001, more than 1,400 families have traveled the program’s path from the homeless shelter to a home.
“Seeing people change is amazing,’’ Wiese told Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Lori Stegmann as they toured the shelter in January. Stegmann, the District 4 Commissioner for Gresham and East County, had also invited Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, who oversees the shelter system for Multnomah County and the City of Portland.
My Father’s House is one of 20 year-round or seasonal shelters in the metro area, including shelters that operate with a mix of private and public funding. Chair Kafoury said the faith-based community is an essential partner in helping families, from helping provide emergency severe weather shelters open to anyone to the longer term shelters with stricter requirements.
“We are in a housing crisis, and it will take all of us: government, business, and faith-based organizations like this one, to make a difference,’’ the Chair said. “I wish we didn’t need shelters for our families at all. But while we’re in this crisis, local government needs all the community support we can get.”
A family shelter that doesn’t look like a shelter
The shelter in a Gresham duplex that Wiese and her pastor, Ted Roberts at East Hill Church, first opened is today, a spacious, modern complex on 3.2 acres at 175th and West Powell Boulevard in Gresham. The program is built around a three-story hub where 28 families stay four to six months in 290-square-foot studio apartments. Families who complete the mandatory milestones can apply to a connected transitional housing program, Stepping Stones, where they stay up to a year.
Case managers work with families to meet rigorous job and employment requirements, and help them take classes in budgeting, parenting, rental readiness and life skills. The families work to get jobs, repay debt, earn their high school diplomas, regain custody of their children if their families are involved with state child welfare, and repair their credit histories. And, because this is a largely church-run operation, they also do a fair amount of praying.
Wiese says 75 to 85 percent of the families enrolled have completed the program and successfully moved into their own housing.
“I’m so impressed with their results,’’ Commissioner Stegmann said. “To rise out of poverty, you need three things: a home, a job and a friend. My Father’s House represents all of those things and so much more. Dignity, accountability and unconditional love are the foundation of their success.”
Where’s the pool?
From Powell Boulevard, My Father’s House looks nothing so much as an apartment building for middle-class families. Kids arriving for the first time have rushed in asking, “Where’s the pool?” There is no pool, but you can’t blame them for assuming the sprawling complex would feature one.
The non-profit built the $3.9 million hub for cash in 2008 – the result of three years of fundraising – then followed with the $1.2 million townhouses. Wiese and her team directed almost every detail, right down to the size of the handle pulls on the kitchen cabinets.
“Kids could climb on the larger ones,’’ Wiese said running her hand over the small protrusions. “But we found these at Ikea, and they’re just right.’’
The first thing visitors notice are the wide, well-lit hallways with high ceilings.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a shelter,’’ Wiese said. “I wanted people to feel like it’s home.’’
Safety and security
The shelter is designed to give children and their parents immediate safety.
Visitors must be buzzed into the center by a receptionist, but are not allowed in the living quarters on the first and second floors.
The first floor is devoted to supporting the families, including a cheery Children’s Center where kids are supervised by staff and volunteers while their parents attend classes or case management or job and housing searches. The community room triples as a conference room, exercise studio and chapel. There is a walk-in food pantry where families shop, and offices for the staff of 18 and dozens of volunteers.
Residents are also separated for safety. Single fathers and couples occupy the second floor. The top floor is for single mothers. There is no sharing of balconies or bathrooms. And families are encouraged to keep visiting to the common areas, instead the units. Same-sex couples live on the floor they identify with gender-wise. After the new building opened, staff realized so many families had been traumatized by violence while homeless, that Wiese secured $20,000 from Providence Health & Services to install motel-level security locks on each unit door.
A staff member also lives on each floor. Wiese and her husband, empty nesters themselves, lived in one unit for nine years until this past Christmas, when her longing for her Gresham yard and garden got the best of her. Navigating the complicated logistics of a move proved surprisingly difficult while she was working full-time.
Chair Kafoury nodded in sympathy. “It’s a good thing to remember how stressful it is when families are being evicted.’’
And so many families are being evicted these days. Wiese said My Father’s House staff used to receive 100 calls for help a month when it first opened.
Today, it’s more than 100 calls each week.
Wiese said the shelter could not operate without a remarkable level of personal and corporate support and philanthropy. Each room carries the name of a sponsor family who provide the beds, chairs and appliances for each unit. A second family provides bedding, including a handmade quilt, pots, pans, dishes and towels – all new. The families staying in the units take the household goods with them when they leave.
Parents must save 30 percent of whatever their income is for future housing needs. They put the money into a savings account they draw from when they leave.
Under the regimen, parents are also required to “Rise and Shine,’’ and get up and out of their rooms, every day by 8 a.m. to look for work and housing, and to have their units inspected Monday through Saturday. They have rotating chores to clean common areas and nightly curfew checks. Those who break the rules repeatedly are asked to leave for three days to decide if they are ready for “this life-changing experience’’.
The three-day time out often shocks the parent into change, according to extensive testimonials provided by My Father’s House.
“We’re here for the families every step of the way. The responsibility and accountability is what makes our program a success,’’ Wiese said. “We love each resident unconditionally and expect each family to succeed. It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up!”
Commissioner Stegmann was excited to highlight the successes of My Father’s House and hopes to see elements of their model incorporated into the County’s shelter system.
“Houselessness is a crisis and our response to this epidemic must be proportional,” she said. “Identifying and working with organizations and nonprofits like My Father’s House who have developed best practices that truly provide a pathway out of this crisis is the best shot we have at changing the trajectory of these families’ lives.”
Stegmann recently introduced a resolution to earmark proceeds from the sale of County property into long-term housing strategies. The workgroup she convened has discussed the need to increase permanent housing options, rapid rehousing, tenant education and eviction prevention efforts. Findings from the workgroup will be presented to the board later this spring and will influence funding decisions as the County continues to invest in the stability of Multnomah County residents.