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New church shelter proves change can happen quickly



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Homeless veteran Allen sorts through his belongings at the veterans shelter inside First Congregational United Church of Christ. City and county officials fast-tracked the shelter.Three homeless veterans who otherwise would have been on the street last Wednesday night slept on mats in the chapel of First Congregational United Church of Christ.

On Thursday night there were seven. By Monday a full house of 13 took shelter from the November storms in the church, in by 8 p.m., out by 6 a.m.

The shelter, which opened Nov. 11, is notable for a number of reasons. While downtown and Old Town — especially the Park Blocks — are epicenters for homeless people in Portland, Portland’s historic downtown churches, many centered around the Park Blocks, have been reluctant to take in those who sleep on the street. In fact, First Congregational is now the only downtown church that opens its doors to the homeless overnight.

The new shelter also is unique because it is the first of what its operators call a “low-barrier” veterans facility, available to men who did not receive an honorable discharge or who served less than the minimum two years required for most government services for veterans. Also, veterans are allowed to bring their dogs into the church shelter overnight.

But what might be most remarkable is the story behind the shelter: how a handful of driven and committed individuals, working with a city just beginning to recognize the magnitude and urgency of its housing shortfall, worked together to take an idea and make it work. Fast.

Do Good Multnomah, which is operating the shelter, incorporated as a nonprofit a little more than six months ago. Founder Chris Aiosa has worked at a number of nonprofit social service agencies since arriving in Portland in 2009. He’s the type of guy who inhales coffee and is only rumored to sleep. He also happens to be an Air Force veteran but tends to play that down because, he says, he never saw combat.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jose, a homeless veteran, tries on a pair of donated boots at the veterans shelter at First Congregational UCC.But Aiosa overcame that inclination when he started helping homeless veterans while working at nonprofit Central City Concern. “The first moment when you sit down in your office, when a veteran sits down, the very first thing they ask you is, ‘Are you a vet?’ ” Aiosa says. “As soon as I said ‘Yes,’ I could see their shoulders, like a weight lifted off ... you can see in their eyes, ‘This guy understands where I’m coming from.’ ”

Aiosa says he saw too many veterans “falling through the cracks,” some because their service did not qualify them for benefits, others because they did not know how to access social services. So this spring he started Do Good Multnomah. The new shelter for veterans and their dogs is only a beginning. Aiosa’s goal is to build communities of veterans, potentially in small, distinct apartment buildings.

In September, Aiosa sent an email to city and county housing officials Sally Erickson and Mary Carroll asking if he could count on government financial support if he found a church willing to open a veterans shelter. He figured he’d have to wait awhile for a response.

“They emailed me back in five minutes and said, ‘If you’re serious, let’s meet as soon as possible,’ and we met that afternoon,” Aiosa recalls. At that meeting, according to Aiosa, he was asked to bring in a tentative budget. Did he have a tentative budget?

“I had one by that afternoon,” he says.

If it sounds like Aiosa was moving fast, consider the members of First Congregational, whose board moderator, Ross Runkel, says he first heard about the proposed shelter on Oct. 13. One week later, at the church’s monthly board meeting, four members were appointed to investigate the idea. They took a weekend. Runkel says the following Tuesday night the proposal went before the board and was approved. The shelter opened on Veterans Day.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rev. Michael Ellick of First Congregational UCC is new to Portland but more than familiar with community organizing.Most churches take months, sometimes years, to get accustomed to the idea of hosting a homeless shelter. Runkel says, of course there were concerns — and solutions. Last year, the church installed new carpeting complete with runners laid down between the chapel and the bathrooms.

The chapel floor is cork and dogs might urinate on it. They treated the floor two weeks ago with stain-resistant finish.

Messy bathrooms? Do Good Multnomah will make sure they are cleaned every morning.

Safety? Two volunteers will stay awake throughout the night at the shelter.

Approximately $70,000 in public funding will be provided to operate the shelter, most from the city of Portland. First Congregational has a 30-day opt-out clause that will allow the church to close the shelter if unforeseen problems arise. Runkel doubts the clause will be needed.

“The church has changed,” he says. “We do a lot of talking about homelessness and we send people to a lot of meetings at City Hall about houselessness. It’s time to open up and put the rubber on the road and actually have houseless people in our church.” And it’s time for other downtown churches to do the same, he adds.

If you’re going to have a church move this fast on a social justice issue, it helps to have a minister who is as much a community organizer as a minister. Maybe more. First Congregational’s senior minister, Michael Ellick, came to Portland this year from New York City, where he helped organize a faith-based movement to connect congregations with immigrant communities and pushed for immigration reform. He also helped develop the Occupy Wall Street Movement. His résumé says he’s a “faith-based change-agent.”

Ellick doesn’t sound like a man who would easily let squeamish congregants stand in the way of a homeless shelter.

“I have a problem with churches, with the way they’ve operated over the years,” Ellick says. “You know how you become the thing you hate over time? It’s not Christianity, it’s the institution. ... I take real offense at places that talk and talk and become Sabbath country clubs.”

According to Ellick, the day that Aiosa came to tour First Congregational and discuss opening a shelter there, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced his “state of emergency” on homelessness. It seemed, Ellick says, like a perfect opportunity to test what the state of emergency would allow.

Ellick was blown away by the city and county response. A required fire inspection took place within a couple of weeks. The day after the inspection, the church was told it had a land-use problem — it would need a mixed-use permit to open a shelter.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chris Aiosa, founder of Do Good Multnomah, helps a new client, fill out paperwork so he can sleep at the new veterans shelter at First Congregational UCC.Enter Marc Jolin, appointed this year as initiative director for A Home For Everyone, a multijurisdictional office recently created to address homelessness. The day after hearing of the permit problem, according to Ellick, he mentioned the problem to Jolin. “Mark took down the number and called somebody over and said, ‘Forget about this.’ He literally parted the waters,” Ellick says.

A very different situation than Ellick had encountered in New York. “I’m used to the city throwing up barriers,” he says.

Jolin says the state of emergency did, in fact, speed up the process for the new shelter. And it will for any other institutions willing to house the homeless.

“There’s a connection there,” he says. “The state of emergency gives clear direction from City Hall and the county. We want to be able to support community-based efforts to expand shelter. ... If there is a community or a church that wants to open a shelter, we should do everything in our power to make that happen.”

A few other churches have shown interest, Jolin says. In fact, this week First Congregational is hosting representatives of a number of downtown churches who will tour the new shelter space and talk about what they might do.

Ellick is hoping some decide to follow First Congregational’s lead.

“They know why they’re invited,” he says.


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chris Aiosa of Do Good Multnomah chats with a homeless veteran at the new shelter inside First Congregational UCC. In addition of providing a warm place to sleep, the organization also brings in donated clothes.

Most churches still reluctant to open doors to homeless

It took the board of directors of First Congregational United Church of Christ one week to say ‘yes’ to Do Good Multnomah’s proposal for housing homeless veterans in their chapel.

That is far from how most Portland congregations have dealt with proposals for taking in the homeless. And it still is.

Chris Aiosa, Do Good’s founder, says that prior to contacting First Congregational’s senior minister, Michael Ellick, he had in mind a larger shelter for veterans. The first church he approached was on the city’s east side, and it was on the cusp of agreeing to host the much larger shelter. But in the end, that church, which he will not name, insisted on one condition to which Aiosa would not agree.

The church, Aiosa says, was not satisfied with having the veterans arrive every evening and depart every morning with TriMet tickets supplied by the nonprofit. They insisted that Do Good purchase a van to take the homeless vets back downtown each morning and bring them back each night.

“They wanted a guarantee that they would be out of the neighborhood,” Aiosa says. “They were nervous about what their neighbors would say.”

Aiosa would love a van. The fledgling nonprofit does not have money to purchase one. But even if it did, there was something about the east side church’s condition that didn’t feel right to Aiosa.

“The idea of sneaking people in and out of a neighborhood did not appeal to me,” he says.


By the numbers

• About 12 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans.

• Homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 8 percent being female. The majority are single and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders.

• Roughly 40 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.

• Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9 percent are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41 percent are between the ages of 31 and 50.

Source: National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

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