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.
Andy Miller, Executive Director
On behalf of the Board and staff at Human Solutions