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Women's shelters fall by wayside

Emergency facilities dry up as city sticks with 'housing first'

A year ago, city Commissioner Randy Leonard came to the rescue of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Shelter, which was providing the only public emergency shelter access for homeless women in Portland.

Leonard had seen the Salvation Army's full-page ad in the newspaper, denouncing the city Bureau of Housing and Community Development's decision not to renew its $164,000 grant to fund the 34-bed dormitory program at the shelter, located at 30 S.W. Second Ave.

This year, however, Leonard isn't stepping in and the Salvation Army has been left with empty shelter space and a gap in covering its facility costs.

When the city funding ran out in March, Harbor Light Director Lt. Ron Owens kept the shelter going until July, while he looked for other funding sources. There were none.

Now, the city of Portland officially has no public emergency shelter space for women, and Owens finds that troubling.

'Let's say your boyfriend beats you up, puts you on the street and you're an active drug user, burned all bridges with your friends,' he said. 'You're on the street. You need a place tonight to stay. You're not going to find it with a seven-week waiting list' for other available women's shelters.

According to the city, there are about 750 women classified as homeless in Portland at any one time - sleeping in a car, at someone's house, under a bridge or in a doorway.

Heather Lyons, the city's homeless program manager, said it's true that there are now no public emergency shelters for women, but there are 56 year-round emergency beds for women that are run by nonprofit agencies.

The agencies also provide support including motel vouchers and help finding and retaining permanent housing.

But Lyons acknowledges it's not enough. The beds are constantly in use, she said, so she is working on securing about 20 to 30 more emergency beds for women this winter. She's looking for a nonprofit agency to run it, and 'the Salvation Army is a potential candidate,' she said.

Lyons said Mayor Tom Potter will probably request about $90,000 in one-time funds from the city to get the beds open by Nov. 1.

Shelter doesn't fit model

The city decided to end its funding of Harbor Light for a number of reasons, Lyons said, including disagreements over the operation of the shelter and the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, adopted two years ago.

The plan follows a nationally recognized 'housing first' model of placing people in housing before working with them to help them find other services and become self-sufficient.

'The focus is on creating housing and not more emergency shelters,' Lyons said. 'We were making progress on the 10-year plan, instituting changes with a lot of providers, including the Salvation Army. We moved in one direction, and the Salvation Army wasn't moving in that direction … connecting women in the shelter to housing.'

Owens said he understands that the city has a new strategy but says the emergency space also is crucial.

'It's much like a hospital who said we're a hospital, we have hospital beds, we have doctors and nurses, we really don't need an emergency department because that's not our emphasis,' he said.

Several groups offer help

While the beds at Harbor Light sit empty, the city is partnering with several nonprofit agencies who've joined forces to get women off the streets and into housing.

Unlike emergency shelters - which provide bare-bones services such as meals, showers and toilets - they provide wraparound social services to tackle the issues that put the women on the streets in the first place.

For details on those programs, visit portlandonline.com/bhcd.

Meanwhile, Lyons noted that many providers say they're seeing more homeless women on the streets, which - if true - may be due to the closure of Harbor Light and of Rose Haven, a day shelter for women that shut down recently after seven years when it was forced from its Old Town location and couldn't find a new home.

Run by the nonprofit Catholic Charities, Rose Haven provided a safe place for women and children; it served about 80 people a day.

Sister Cathie Boerboom, who ran Rose Haven, said that since Catholic Charities adopted a new focus on housing programs for women, she's decided to establish Rose Haven as its own nonprofit and resurrect the program in another location within a mile of Old Town, where other social services are.

In the meantime, Boerboom said the situation is bleak.

'There's no safe place to go at all, and less shelters to go to,' she said. 'You can only hide for so long, and then you have to find something to eat and find a bathroom.'

Nick Budnick contributed to this story.

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