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Heartbreak hotel

BACK STORY • Grove future in doubt; today's no picnic
by: L.E. BASKOW, Grove Hotel resident Sharon Hren (with her dog, Katie) shows a room that’s no longer occupied after it was emptied of garbage that was piled as high as the sink.

'This place is filthy.' Standing in her pajamas, shivering with cold, Sharon Hren runs a hand through her dark, shoulder-length hair, fires up a Pall Mall and surveys the wreckage of her life. To put it kindly, Room 227 is a shambles.

The mattress is a jumble of bedding, the floor littered with dirty clothes, towels, coats, books, boxes of crackers and candy-bar wrappers. Blankets hang over the grimy windows, smothering the daylight.

The closet is a length of pipe nailed to the corner. The walls are covered with butcher paper, affixed with dabs of toothpaste, on which Hren has scrawled a cacophony of reminders and reflections. One reads simply CHAOS.

Down the hall, in Room 212, Matt Van Alstyne sits on his bed, wrapped in a thick overcoat. A bitter January wind blows through the broken window, but Van Alstyne doesn't seem to care. Holding a packet of Jell-O cubes, he stares at the wall as if tuning in to an imaginary TV.

The ragged carpet is sodden with filth; scores of dead insects lie entombed in spider webs. Mice scrabble amid the chicken bones and tubs of teriyaki sauce that have piled up behind the radiator.

Van Alstyne's wrists and ankles are swollen with bedbug bites, and he has no socks. The room stinks of cigarettes and despair.

As he trudges down the dark, gloomy corridor to the communal bathroom, the sound of a neighbor's hacking cough mingles with the moronic beep of an ineffective alarm clock and the skunky whiff of marijuana.

Welcome to the Grove Hotel.

Forget about bellhops or valet parking - the Grove Hotel is a lodger's nightmare.

Located at 421 W. Burnside St., it long has been one of the most notorious addresses on Skid Row, a haven for drug-dealing and prostitution, where the front desk is fortified by security wire and the concierge is a broken vending machine.

But the Grove is more than a catalog of social problems. It also is, tragically, a home to some of the city's poorest and most disabled citizens.

One or two stay on by choice, but most are trapped in the Grove by a combination of bad luck, their own mistakes and bureaucratic complacency on the part of the institutions supposed to help them.

'They don't have the wherewithal to complain, and no one would listen if they did,' says Portland police officer Jeff Myers, who has become the Grove's unofficial guardian angel. 'They're prisoners.'

Despite its problems, the future of the Grove is uncertain. In November, the city purchased the building from its former owner, Morris I. Hasson, whose family had owned it since 1950.

At the time, the city intended to clamp down on the criminal activity, rehabilitate the aging structure and preserve its 70 rooms of low-income housing - then have it torn down after building replacement housing.

But after the sale of the Grove to the Housing Authority of Portland, some city officials now are having second thoughts about its future.

Commissioner Erik Sten, the City Council's low-income housing expert, recently used the Grove as a bargaining chip in his efforts to expand homeless services in the Old Town-Chinatown area. Unless he gets his way, Sten said the Grove might never be torn down.

Once upon a time, Hren sold real estate. Then, in 1992, she was the victim of a brutal mugging in downtown Seattle. Her assailant fractured her jaw and skull, shattering her ability to think.

'I can't remember what I'm doing from one moment to the next,' she says, spritzing the room with hair spray and petting her faithful companion, a blue Doberman named Katie.

Living on a $569 monthly check from Social Security, Hren, 52, has racked up an impressive string of evictions over the years. That background makes it almost impossible for her to find a decent apartment, which is how she wound up at the Grove.

'It's so oppressive and depressing and confusing. But I don't have anywhere else to go,' she said.

Hren moved into the pitiful room at the end of the corridor in May, paying $520 a month in rent. The sink was broken, the bathrooms vile, the floor so filthy that she covered it with butcher paper to avoid touching it, but at least she had a roof over her head.

'It was a hellhole'

Unknown to Hren, at that time the Grove was just coming into the cross hairs of city Commissioner Randy Leonard's Housing Interdiction Team, or HIT. The unit is spearheaded by Myers, which focuses on run-down lodgings that have become hot zones of crime and squalor.

When Leonard ventured into the Grove for the first time, he was stunned by the conditions. 'In my career as a firefighter and a fire inspector, I've been through some bad buildings,' he says. 'This was worse than anything I'd ever seen. It was a hellhole.'

Mentally ill residents lived amid jugs of urine and trash piled to the ceiling. The halls were covered with debris. Mice, cockroaches and bedbugs roamed the halls and rooms. The building had no sprinklers and no fire alarm. Batteries in the smoke detectors were dead. And the stench was indescribable.

That night, Leonard says, he had a nightmare. The Grove was burning, and firefighters were trapped in the narrow corridors with no escape.

Two weeks after Leonard's dream, the fire marshal declared the building 'an inimical threat to human life' and ordered that a fire patrol walk through the building every hour, day and night.

The HIT stepped up the pressure on Hasson, the Grove's owner. Fire inspectors, building inspectors and police officers visited the hotel every day. Every time a room became vacant, the fire marshal slapped a red tag on its door, condemning it for human habitation.

For his part, Hasson insists that he is not responsible for the hotel's problems. 'The fact of the matter is that the residents were damaging the rooms and not letting us inspect them,' he told the Portland Tribune. 'Anytime we found things wrong, we corrected them.'

The city is disputing Hasson's claims, citing the numerous problems documented in the inspection reports. Whatever the case, after the city began condemning the rooms, Hasson raised the rent for the remaining tenants but still couldn't - or wouldn't - pay for improvements.

Instead, he hired a lawyer and accused Leonard of targeting the Grove for unfair treatment. In response, Leonard pulled out the photographs taken by Myers and pushed them across the table.

In November, Hasson finally gave in and agreed to sell the Grove to the city for $1.8 million. When she heard the news, Hren scrawled a sign on a scrap of cardboard and hung it in her window: 'God Bless Commissioner Leonard.'

City officials quickly reduced the residents' rent to $320 and began to haul out the accumulated junk of decades of neglect, and embarked on a $3.2 million plan to bring the building up to minimal standards.

But they soon discovered that the structural problems were a cakewalk compared with the human problems.

Vermin live here, too

Clutching a box of frozen burritos, Van Alstyne, 47, sits on his bed and stares at his new microwave, purchased at a secondhand store for $15.

Hunger gnaws at his guts - it's late afternoon and he hasn't eaten yet - but he can't figure out how to turn it on. Laboriously, he punches the buttons, hoping to hit on the correct combination.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1992, Van Alstyne has lived at the Grove for almost two years. His room is choked with broken appliances, infested with vermin and smells like a rathole.

Today, however, he is beaming because, as he shyly confides, he won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes - all he has to do now is collect the money.

A few doors down, in Room 204, Scotty Whitten, 46, sleeps on a mattress disfigured by a giant, blackened hole with naked springs pushing out of it like tendons, eaten away by his own urine.

'I get drunk and pass out and go in the bed,' he says with a shrug. 'I just ignore it.'

In Room 205, Tina Moore, 39, is mentally handicapped; she can't read a newspaper or find a street address. She also is a junkie who lives from one $15 drug buy to the next. She has lived in this jumbled, squalid room since August 2006, paying as much as $460 a month for the privilege.

'I can't take it no more,' she sobs, tears smudging her mascara. 'I got bug bites all over my back, my arms, my face. I got mice, I got roaches, I got lice. I want to leave. I want to get out of here. It needs to be closed down. I'm begging you. This place is a dump. I can't take it no more. Please. I want to get out of here. Nobody will help me.'

Ironically, residents like these are, on paper, success stories. They receive a steady (if meager) disability check from the Social Security Administration; their income is overseen by professional money managers such as Integrity Plus and Safety-Net of Oregon, which are supposed to act as their financial guardians.

In addition, they each have caseworkers at social-service agencies such as Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare or Multnomah County's Developmental Disability Services, who are supposed to look out for them.

Unfortunately, residents say, their money managers show no interest in their living situation, and their caseworkers do not seem to comprehend the conditions at the Grove.

Moreover, the sad truth is that many of the residents are extremely undesirable tenants. Van Alstyne hoards food. Whitten passes out drunk. Moore turns tricks.

In a city with an acute shortage of affordable housing - the central city has just approximately 3,330 such units today, down 33 percent since 1978 - few landlords are willing to take a chance on the denizens of the Grove.

So where will they go?

Repairs would cost millions

Many decaying structures are candidates for renovation; unfortunately, the Grove is not one of them.

Built in 1907, the Grove suffered an unusual architectural insult in the 1930s, when it was sliced down the middle to make way for the widening of Burnside, resulting in an awkward, narrow structure with a single staircase.

Thanks to decades of neglect, a full, down-to-the-studs rehab would cost tens of millions of dollars and be 'like putting lipstick on a pig,' according to Mike Andrews, director of development and community revitalization at the Housing Authority of Portland, which now owns the building.

Instead, the housing authority plans to spend $3.2 million to bring the Grove up to basic standards. The building will get a new fire-safety system and new toilets, sinks, mattresses and bed frames. The windows will be repaired, the carpet replaced, the walls patched and painted. Exterminators will do their best to control what Andrews terms an 'epidemic' of vermin.

Boarded-up retail space will be converted into a common room, and a washer and dryer will be installed on the ground floor.

The housing authority intends to complete the renovation by June, just in time to make room for the Bridgeview Community, a group of mentally ill residents run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare that is losing its lease at the Golden West Hotel on Northwest Everett Street.

A few years after that - no one knows exactly how many - the housing authority hopes to find better homes for all those residents and tear down the Grove.

That's welcome news to property owner Dave Gold, who owns the other two-thirds of the block on which the Grove stands, together with a neighboring block to the north.

Gold would like to see a major redevelopment on the so-called Goldsmith Blocks, including a grocery store, a hotel and condos. Unfortunately, he says, his plans don't make sense unless the Grove is demolished.

At least, that was the plan. Now, however, the Grove has become an unlikely pawn in the political struggle over the proposed homeless access center in Old Town.

Social-service agencies and housing advocates have been pushing for a new center to replace the worn-out homeless shelter run by Transition Projects Inc. on Northwest Glisan Street. Current plans call for a shelter, dining room, enclosed courtyard and day room, topped by several floors of low-income housing.

The proposed center raised hackles among some Old Town business interests and property owners, many of whom insist that the area already shoulders more than its fair share of shelters and low-income housing.

At a public meeting two weeks ago, Sten - the main political force driving the homeless center - sketched out a none-too-subtle threat.

Unless the center finds a home, he warned, the area might miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in urban renewal money that ultimately will be directed by a committee that he chairs.

In addition, he suggested that the city might just keep the Grove Hotel standing in perpetuity.

After that meeting, Gold sounded cautiously optimistic. 'I've been wondering, was that the stick or was it the carrot?' he says. 'I guess I'm going to wait and see.'

With the building's fate still in the air, life at the Grove goes on much as it did, although at considerably less risk of conflagration. Retired stationery clerk Calvin Thomas, 82, dresses up in a button-down shirt, creased slacks, dark blazer and brown derby and heads down to Dugo's, where he usually can be found perched at the end of the bar or playing boogie-woogie on the upright piano.

Matt Van Alstyne marches off to the library in search of a recipe for a special sauce for dipping sushi. He thinks he can prepare it in his microwave, now that a visitor has shown him how to operate the buttons.

Sharon Hren paces back and forth in her tiny room, trying to piece together the jagged shards of her life, while Katie curls up under the blankets. Hren is wearing a pair of pajamas her mother gave her for Christmas. She also got a set of towels, but she hasn't unwrapped them yet.

'I want to keep them,' Hren says, 'until I get into a good place.'

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