Human Solutions Statement on OPB’s Series about the Family Center

Dear Friends & Supporters of Human Solutions,

Like many of you, I woke up Tuesday, February 20th to hear a sobering, difficult and, in places, one-sided account of the history of our Family Center by OPB reporter Amelia Templeton. We welcomed Amelia into our Family Center a few months ago to help tell the hidden story of family homelessness from the perspective of our shelter guests - who are struggling to secure permanent housing within a system stressed and overcrowded by the increasing demand for services, compounded by the local housing crisis that has made shelter stays too long and exiting homelessness into permanent housing a very difficult process for most of our families.  

Amelia’s reporting changed over time to focus on what she believed to be a history of issues with our acquisition of the site, health and safety concerns with our building and low-barrier approach — a system that for most of our time in operations turned no family away. We cooperated with her reporting, provided her access to our staff and guests and shared documentation of our historical efforts to address conditions at the shelter in a timely and thorough way. The first of Amelia’s reports aired on the 20th, and we understand additional reporting will air over the next several days.   

While today’s report questioned the safety record at the Family Center, we  believe a more fair and balanced portrayal would have focused on the balancing act our staff was asked to perform daily and nightly as we managed - in the most compassionate way our limited budget and staffing capacity allowed -  an ever-growing demand for shelter in an aging building. We acquired the building over two years ago in cooperation with our partners at Multnomah County as a site to provide temporary shelter because - with modest modifications and public investment - the building provided a significant upgrade from our previous shelter site that lacked showers, laundry, sleeping cots and a kitchen.  The relatively low level of required public investment stemmed from the fact that the building, while aging, included an operable kitchen, ADA compliant restrooms and infrastructure that could easily accommodate the addition of needed showers and laundry facilities. It was located near transit and in the area of the County in which many of our clients called home before experiencing homelessness. Our plan at acquisition was to operate the shelter on a temporary basis for 5 to 6 years — the “best guess” anticipated lifespan of the aging roof - after which we planned to tear the shelter down and redevelop the site into badly-needed affordable housing.  We would use that window to work with Multnomah County on plans for a more permanent shelter.

Almost immediately after opening in February, 2016, Human Solutions experienced a substantial increase in demand for shelter services and, unlike any other shelter in our community, we turned no family seeking shelter away. In order to accommodate every family who needed shelter, we made use of overflow space across the street in a church as extra sleeping space to accommodate the high demand. That meant that the shelter’s showers, laundry, kitchen and common areas were regularly very crowded, and that the infrastructure at the shelter was used more heavily than anticipated.  Last winter, the building’s roof, predicted at purchase to have about five years of usable life, took the beating of an icy, rainy winter and showed its age. Recently, we have had to tarp the roof to stop small water leaks and ultimately have decided with the County to temporarily suspend operations while we assess the condition of the roof and other major infrastructure. We will be completing that assessment over the next few weeks to determine what investments will be required to safely and sustainably reopen the Family Center. 

Last fall, as our nightly shelter census expanded to almost 500% of what our average census was at the time we planned the acquisition and opening of the Family Center, we worked with Multnomah County to suspend the “no turn away” model to reduce crowding and improve conditions for guests and to create a more manageable workload for our staff. It was a difficult decision that likely put some families in need of shelter at risk of living on the cold streets. But it was the right decision for our operation and has made a difference in our ability to support families in the Family Center and nearby emergency stay motels and - perhaps most importantly -  to successfully move more families into permanent housing.

We take any and all safety and health concerns seriously.  This week’s OPB story was sobering, and we will stay tuned to the balance of OPB’s series and may post additional comments and factual clarifications. While we appreciate that conditions in the heavily used mass shelter were at times crowded and that maintenance and sanitation issues in an aging building presented constant challenges, our team responded quickly and diligently to concerns as they were called to our attention. Mass shelters are hard, stressful work environments, and we salute and uphold our Family Center workforce that continues to support our sheltered families, for now in local motels.   

We will be using this pause in our shelter operations and the current reporting to assess how we can better support our shelter teams to respond to the emerging needs of our guest families as we move forward. Excellence is always our goal, and we will do what it takes to serve our community to meet our highest standard in everything we do. While we acknowledge that we did not meet that standard every day at the crowded Family Center, we believe our record of caring compassionately for the safety of families we serve is strong and that the context in which we have been working was important to share with each of you. We found the omission of that context from the report deeply troubling.      

We appreciate your continued support of Human Solutions, which includes not only emergency shelters but also permanent affordable housing, resident services, and employment support for many who call East Multnomah County home. If we can answer any questions you may have about these stories or our work, please do not hesitate to reach out. We are as committed and passionate as ever about our work to not only provide shelter to families experiencing poverty and homelessness, but to support them on a pathway to a better place.  

Yours,

Andy Miller, Executive Director

On behalf of the Board and staff at Human Solutions

 

Family Center Update

As you may have heard, Human Solutions made the difficult decision with our partners at Multnomah County on February 7, 2018 to temporarily suspend operations at our Family Center Emergency Shelter while we investigate the status of our roof. The building’s roof has experienced some slow leaks that have caused some areas of the ceiling to peel away. Safety for our guests and staff is our number one concern.

Families staying at the shelter have been relocated temporarily to area motels where they will be safe and supported while we complete an assessment of the aging roof and ceiling structure. After a building safety assessment is completed, we will provide an update as to whether and when the Family Center might reopen. Until then, we will continue to support and shelter families already staying with us off site.

Families needing shelter or assistance should contact 211 or visit 211.org for additional information about available shelter beds in Multnomah County.

We are grateful for the outpouring of community support for both the clients we serve and our shelter facility.  We welcome your help – in fact, it’s part of how we do what we do every day. While the Family Center is being assessed, we are asking volunteers to help us in two ways:

  1. Provide food to relocated families by buying easy-to-cook food from our Amazon Wish List. It’s super easy: you shop online, Amzon delivers it to Human Solutions, and we distribute it to families.
  2. Volunteer at our Gresham Women’s Shelter, which also depends on volunteers to make and serve meals to our 90 nightly guests. Contact Christina for details and to sign up (cnewcomb@humansolutions.org).
  3. Visit our volunteering page for all opportunities with Human Solutions.

If you are interested in providing construction materials or services at the Family Center to help reopen it, we ask that you email Christina (cnewcomb@humansolutions.org) so she can keep you in mind if/when that need arises. We are working hard to complete an efficient but thorough building assessment in a few weeks time.

THANK YOU for you continued support of our clients and our work in the community. We appreciate you!

Depave event at Human Solutions Family Center

Check out these photos from our Depave event this Saturday!

Depave, a non-profit whose mission is to remove unnecessary pavement from urban areas to create community green spaces, partnered with Human Solutions to help create a green space at the Human Solutions Family Center.

We had a great turn out at the event and a whole lot of fun! Thank you to everyone who came out and made this event a huge success!

Stay tuned for more information about our progress, as we complete the space with raised garden beds, a rain garden and a children’s play area.

County Chair Kafoury meets with AYCO

(from MultCo Global)

Chair Deborah Kafoury sat down for dinner and a conversation with Somali-American members of the African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO) Thursday night. It was the first in a series of meetings with immigrant and refugee communities as Multnomah County prepares its 2017 budget.

“My job is make sure we’re providing services that are culturally specific,” she said. “I want to learn from you how we can best serve you.”

Jamal Dar, a production supervisor at Nike, launched AYCO to give new refugees the support he lacked as a teen.

Kafoury gathered with a dozen community leaders and their families in the nonprofit’s snug, sparsely-furnished office on 122nd Ave.

“We’re very happy to have you here,” said Jamal Dar, executive director of AYCO (link is external).

Dar, a production supervisor at Nike and one-time track star, was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya’s DaDaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. He came alone to the U.S. when he was 15. He fell in with the wrong crowd, then he passed up an athletic scholarship to UCLA. He finally landed an internship at Nike and went to Portland State University.

Seven years ago Dar launched AYCO to give refugee teens the support he had missed. The nonprofit provides social services, English classes, homework help and disability services to about 7,000 families. Nearly 700 children participate in their sports program.

Dar said they hope to secure public funding to support paid positions for youth and crime prevention, a cultural navigator and a community health worker. But for now the nonprofit does all this without any paid employees or government support. Instead families - most of whom qualify for public assistance - donate small sums each month to pay the nonprofit's rent. Volunteers staff the office and lead programs.

Amal Ahmed, the program manager for community engagement (and the night’s defacto interpreter), said they try to help families bridge the cultural communication divide.

“It’s difficult for us to talk about ourselves,” she said. “In Somalia, you say you're fine. You wake up, you’re not dead, so you’re fine.”

Amal Ahmed is AYCO's community engagement program manager. Like all AYCO staff, she's a volunteer.

Even if you don’t have money to pay your rent, you’re “fine.” But here, when a social worker asked how things are going, they really want to know, she tells families. The program helps refugees learn to ask for help with housing, health and education, with an emphasis on empowering girls.

Abubakar “Askina” Sharif leads the nonprofit’s youth programs. Like executive director Dar, Sharif came alone to the U.S. as a teen, and floundered without support.

“I want the kids to have everything I didn’t have,” he told Kafoury. “I want them to get the opportunities I never had, the guidance.”

Saara Hirsi leads the AYCO disability services.

“For most refugees, if you’re disabled, there’s no hope,” she said. That’s what people thought of her at first.

Hirsi is legally blind.

“Everyone thought I should stay home,” she said. “But I said, ‘I need some education.’” Hirsi, a quietly powerful woman, found out about the Oregon Commission for the Blind, where she learned English. Then she earned a GED. Then she went to Portland State University, where she earned a degree in psychology.

When she graduated, she began volunteering at AYCO and launched the disabilities program. Most refugees when they arrive are told about social security benefits. They sign up and receive a monthly check. And that’s it.

At AYCO, that’s only the beginning.

“We can contribute; We can pay our taxes,” she said. She began training caregivers to advocate for services. Today AYCO offers English and art classes for disabled refugees.

“If they don’t come here, people would stay home, like in Africa,” she said. But “I come here, I see how much people change.”

Some of her students came Thursday night with their families.

Chair Deborah Kafoury hears from members of the African Youth and Community Organization.

Mariam Mohammed came with her daughter Nasra who has a developmental disability. They take English classes together. Ali Matan came with his son, who has a disability. Ali has four children with disabilities, and he walks with a cane himself.

“But I was put in a home with three flights of stairs,” he said. He asked Kafoury if she could help refugees with physical disabilities obtain single-level homes.

Others raised concerns about housing; Falhado Ali is an elderly woman who came alone to Oregon from the DaDaap refugee camp. Like all single refugees, she was provided $300 a month for rent.

AYCO’s Amal Ahmed took her in, charging $200 a month. Ali’s monthly stipend ran out three months ago. Now she stays with Ahmed for free.

Salat Ahmed said his biggest struggles have been academic.

He has six kids attending high, middle and elementary schools in the Reynolds’ school district. They came last year from a refugee camp, where school is an afterthought. Despite his teenage son having had just a few years formal education, he was put in a high school class. And he gets bullied by other kids because he can’t speak English yet.

Ahmed said he doesn’t know how to help his son, who has begun refusing to go to school.

“If there is anything that can be done about that,” he said.  “We feel we are underserved. The child is trying his best.”

“Thank you for sharing your personal stories,” Kafoury said. She gestured to the county outreach staff and health department executives who stood nearby taking notes. AYCO’s team could expect to hear from them again, she said.

“I hope this will be the first of many conversations.”

The next day her staff began calling departments to discuss the community concerns, Kafoury remained in awe of what AYCO had been able to do on its own.

“I came away more convinced than ever that we have to find ways to better connect families to our resources,” she said,” and support our immigrant and refugee communities so they get what they need to be healthy, stable and successful.”