Issues plague Portland’s largest shelter for homeless kids

Oregon Public Broadcasting

February 25, 2018 05:32 AM
Updated February 25, 2018 05:33 AM

Portland has few homeless shelters designed to serve families with children.

The Human Solutions Family Center, which opened in 2016, is the largest, with cots for 130 people. To understand why the family center is a big deal, it helps to meet Michael Bunch.

He's 4 and carries around a black plastic bag filled with his favorite toys: Play-Doh and Ninja Turtle Legos.

When OPB met him, he was struggling to learn an important new word on what was moving day for his family.

His mom, Andrea Bunch, prodded him: "We're going where?"

"To a hotel," Michael said.


Michael tried again: "Motel!"

Still not right. So Andrea gave him a hint. "To our new ."

He frowned and exhaled in frustration, so his mom provided the correct answer: "Apartment."

Michael struggled to get that word out because he's never had a home of his own. He and Andrea have been staying with friends, in motels or at shelters, moving from place to place his entire life.

The Bunches are part of a growing population of homeless families in Portland struggling to get into permanent housing. Not for days, or weeks, but for months, even years at a time.

It's the population county leaders promised to help when they worked out the deal to create this family shelter. Two and a half years ago, as the cost of apartments in Portland shot up, Multnomah County gave Human Solutions more than half a million dollars to buy an old strip club, remodel it and open the family center.

The county promised the shelter would be a safe place for families in crisis, and it has credited the shelter with reducing the number of children forced to sleep on the streets and in cars.

But the shelter wasn't safe. In early February, county leaders announced they had evacuated 110 families staying there and moved them into motels.

"Yesterday I learned that the roof at one of our homeless family shelters was failing," said County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "Multnomah County and our provider have suspended operations at the Human Solutions Family Center."

In fact, the failing roof was just one problem among many that have led families, volunteers, social workers and staff to question the health and safety of the shelter.

The Joint Office of Homeless Services, which was created by Portland and Multnomah County the same month the shelter opened, has received multiple complaints about the facility, which it funds.

"As individual issues have come up we have worked with Human Solutions to make sure those issues were being addressed," said Mark Jolin, director of the Joint Office.

Many of the problems at the shelter stem from the building it is in: a wooden-shingled restaurant and bar built in 1975.

In 2015, Multnomah County asked Human Solutions, which ran their winter warming center for families, to open up a low-barrier shelter year-round.

In return, Human Solutions pressed the county to help it buy a piece of property for the shelter. The nonprofit had been renting space for its warming center up until then and the bare-bones space lacked showers, a laundry room and a kitchen.

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