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New center helps homeless wash away street stigma

Old Town program gives some place to go, mainstream refuge
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Glenn Cooperider works with Transition Projects Inc. staff to obtain a temporary ID card at the Bud Clark Commons day resource center. Cooperider has been homeless for two weeks and thanks to the center, is already on a waiting list for housing.

Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate in Old Town and a longtime neighborhood activist, says he's seen fewer street people hanging out at the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Davis Street the past few months.

That corner just happens to be in front of Sisters of the Road Café, which serves meals and offers other services to the homeless and has been established as an unofficial demilitarized zone in enforcement of city sidewalk obstruction ordinances.

It also is kitty-corner from Weiner's skateboarding store.

Maybe, Weiner says, the Bud Clark Commons day center is the reason for the change.

Six blocks away, Adele Nofield, general manager of Wilfs Restaurant and Bar, has had to deal with what may be the reason behind Weiner's less cluttered sidewalk. Wilfs, next to Union Station, is a high-end restaurant just across Sixth Avenue from Bud Clark Commons, which opened six months ago.

When city officials originally proposed the Bud Clark Commons, they hoped that a day center and men's shelter would help mitigate one of the most stubborn problems in Old Town and downtown: homeless people with no place to go during the day camping out on sidewalks and in storefront doorways.

The day center, run by nonprofit Transition Projects Inc., offers services to the homeless, and a place where some of them can spend time off the streets.

Nofield says through late summer and early fall she saw more street people hanging out near her restaurant than she ever had before. Administrators at the commons held a number of meetings with Old Town residents and shop owners, and now Nofield says the situation has changed and she has no complaints.

'They're doing a great job of controlling that activity,' Nofield says. 'The lines of communication are incredible.'

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Homeless men and women sign up for time on the bank of seven computers with internet access in the day center a the Bud Clark Commons. The computers are in constant use, as are the center's showers and laundry facilities.

Going somewhere

Nobody is saying that the six-month-old day center and shelter at Bud Clark Commons has cleaned up downtown Portland's streets. But it would be hard to say the commons isn't having an impact.

Most days there are 50 to 100 people seated in the center's main hall at any time. Some are waiting to check their mail - about 1,500 men and women are getting their mail at the day center.

Some are waiting for showers - about 80 are making use of the six private showers each day.

The center's seven computers and its laundry machines are in constant use. Visitors can pay 75 cents per load or use the center's bartering system, cleaning bathrooms or sorting clothes, to pay for their use of the machines.

Before the day center opened, TPI offered homeless people vouchers for free laundry service at neighborhood Laundromats. But the Laundromats wouldn't accept the vouchers, so homeless people had almost nowhere to clean their clothes.

Whether they are coming for mail, laundry or showers, the fact that they are coming makes a difference on the street, says Johnnie Gage, engagement specialist at the center.

'Even if they're not here all day, even if they're coming here to get one service, they're moving. That means they are not in the doorways,' Gage says.

A shower for a homeless person can be about more than getting clean, according to Gage. 'You wash off the stigma and you're part of the mainstream for a while,' Gage says.

Many homeless people, those sitting in doorways or lounging in a city park, simply have nothing to do all day. That reinforces their homeless mindset, Gage says. And that mindset changes when a homeless man or woman wakes up in the morning with something to do, even if it is only to go over to the commons to check for mail, or email or take a shower.

'For a homeless person, being able to say, 'I'm going somewhere' means they're focused on re-entering the mainstream,' Gage says.

Staying clean and sober

Doreen Binder, Transition Projects' executive director, says the new day center is helping her staff move more homeless people off the street quicker into publicly subsidized apartments, which also means fewer are left on the street.

Many of the men and women sitting in the commons' waiting area are there hoping to gain access to TPI's housing, which is scattered throughout the city. Before the day center, people would come to the TPI office on Northwest Fifth Avenue to fill out applications for the apartments, many leaving without meeting with staff or properly completing the forms. Now there is a place for them to stay, and for staff to work with them on their applications.

The homeless shelter at the commons serves a similar purpose, according to Binder. Before, people waiting for apartments would disappear. Now they have the option of the shelter, where the average stay is two or three months, after which many have made their way to the top of the waiting list and into apartments.

Ironically, while the Bud Clark Commons apartments follow the Housing First model, which acknowledges residents may drink and use drugs in their own units, the TPI shelter in the same building maintains a clean and sober policy. People staying there can be subject to periodic testing. If they are found to be using drugs or alcohol the shelter will hold their bed for a few days while they receive treatment, but ongoing treatment becomes a condition of their staying in the shelter.

Police officers have been called to the commons - the day use area, the overnight shelter and the apartments - 89 times during its first six months.

Central Precinct Commander Robert Day says he knows of other residential facilities in the city with fewer than 50 units that have more than 200 calls for service in a year.

In addition, Day says many of the police calls from the commons involve minor disturbances that most people wouldn't bother calling the police about. A typical one, he says, is when residents have problems getting unwanted guests to leave.

The old TPI service center for the homeless was a few blocks away from the commons on Northwest Fifth Avenue and there were more monthly calls to the police from that address for the same months last year than have come from the new commons.

Day points out that the there is no way to count the number of police calls that involved people living at the commons before they took up residence there. Overall, he's satisfied that the commons has not become a problem spot for police.

'I'd rather have them all in one place than have to deal with them running around the city,' Day says. 'From a police perspective, it's been a success.'

In fact, Adele Nofield, who also is president of the Pearl District Business Association, says the commons has indirectly fostered a growing sense of community in Old Town.

'I think it has brought the neighborhood more together,' she says. 'We're really finding a solution for the whole city, not just for our neighborhood.'