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Homeless and human: People living on the streets face social stigma

Most Gresham-area homeless people are locals, but must travel into Portland for help


Homelessness is a big problem in Gresham and it’s gotten worse in recent years. While the homeless population overall has decreased nationwide, it has increased here and it’s mostly local people, according to homeless day shelter providers.

Steve Kimes, pastor of Anawim Christian Community, which operates one of the few day shelters — there are no overnight shelters in Gresham — said 75 percent of the city’s homeless are from this area.

“Most people who are homeless in East County grew up in East County,” he said.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - Amber Baker comes to the St. Henry shelter to escape the summer heat. Suffering from slight autism and a seizure disorder has led her to sleep in a tent.But nearly all long-term help programs and overnight shelters for homeless people are based in Portland, and Gresham may have been on the short end of receiving federal money from Housing and Urban Development, the main funding driver behind a goal of ending homelessness, because the city hasn’t been fully seated at the table.

That changed last week when the Gresham City Council joined Portland, Multnomah County and Home Forward, the county’s low-income housing agency, as part of a newly-created group called A Home for Everyone Coordinating Board. Gresham City Councilor Karilynn Echols will represent the city on the board. The board will decide which agencies that help the homeless will get a portion of HUD funds, which totaled more than $13 million in 2012.

The regional board is a new national requirement of HUD to ensure regional collaboration and improved data sharing for homelessness programs, according to a city staff report.

But back in 2004 when Portland and Multnomah County launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Gresham was not part of the process, according to the report. And about three years ago, according to Kimes, when homeless agencies all over the country conduct a semi-annual point-in-time count of the number of homeless in a community on a given day, Gresham was left out.

Kimes contacted homeless authorities in Portland and got volunteers to help with subsequent homeless counts, which he said has risen dramatically, but is still a low estimate of true numbers.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - At 70, Ray Drennen Sr. is desperate to find a place to live. He said street life is taking its toll on his deteriorating health. “The homeless are undercounted,” he said. “I’ve been working with folks on this side of 162nd Avenue since 1995, and that population has increased but not because people are moving here from Portland. Most are our people.”

Kimes said by his estimation, there are between 600 and 800 people living on the streets from 162nd Avenue on through Gresham.

According to Eric Schmidt, the city’s community development director, the city doesn’t track homeless numbers, but in recent years homelessness has been “a more visible concern” in Gresham and officials have noticed an uptick in nuisance complaints about the homeless, from panhandling to public urination.

But the city is taking “a strong and comprehensive approach” to addressing homelessness that includes regional coordination, social services outreach and enforcement by parks and police, Schmidt said.

Kathryn Laudig is a resident who has complained about homeless people around her house as they panhandle near the post office, both to Gresham police and Mayor Shane Bemis. Laudig views homeless people with disgust, saying they sometimes urinate in her yard.

“I think they are homeless probably because of drug and alcohol addiction and they might have a mental problem, which scares the hell out of me,” she said. “I have to work for my money every day and my parents taught us no handouts. I have to work for my money and that’s what I taught my kids.

“I try to find some compassion, but as I watch all of this, I feel no compassion for these people at all,” she said.

How you perceive homeless people depends on your perspective.

Lt. Claudio Grandjean of the Gresham Police Department said his officers mostly see the very small percentage of homeless people who cause public problems, but they still try to treat them with respect and guide them to resources by giving them a brochure with a list of services for the homeless, mostly based in Portland. But the list does not include any of the day shelters in Gresham, he said.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - After overcoming drugs and crime and living on the streets of Gresham for eight years, Travis Volk has a new job at the Anawim Christian Community and is saving for an apartment. He says he believes his path in life is to help other homeless people overcome the difficulties they face every day.“There are no plans to include the day shelters because the purpose of the brochure is to get people in the direction of getting their life on track, in other words, long-term solutions. The day shelters are unable to provide that. They are more short-term solutions. We would rather see our transient population empowered,” he wrote in an email.

But not all homeless people are alike, and sometimes people can empower themselves, Kimes said, by giving them a place to rest and regroup.

“In the last week, three separate individuals came to our day shelter and were able to get themselves on their feet because of the services we provide,” he said. “There are a lot of great services (from other agencies), and different kinds of solutions for different kinds of people.”

But because most service for the homeless population are located in Portland, said Police Chief Craig Junginger, that’s where most homeless people can get the long-term help they need.

“I’ve talked to a lot of experts and there are a lot of different opinions on how to solve homelessness, but the common theme is you’ve got to connect them with resources, whether short-term or long-term or therapy, you have to connect them with that,” he said.

“There’s nothing compassionate about people living in makeshift shelters that don’t have proper facilities. It’s a big problem. If you can solve homelessness you can solve world hunger and you can solve global warming.”

But the city is trying to solve homelessness and is taking steps through its Community Revitalization Program, which awards federal funds to qualifying local projects, according to city spokeswoman Wendy Lawton.

Gresham continues to support several programs that help homeless people and low-income residents with rental assistance, job training and job placement, she said.

For example, JOIN, a Portland nonprofit organization with the motto, “connecting the street to a home,” will have two outreach workers dedicated to East County, one specifically for Gresham, starting in July.

Using federal funds, the outreach workers will provide fast and effective housing placement to people who are sleeping outside, in a vehicle, or in a building or structure not appropriate for human habitation, Lawton said.

The Gresham Parks Department also is involved in helping police with removal of homeless camps, where a posted eviction notice gives 24 hours notice of camp removal. A private contractor then clears the camp within seven to 10 days.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Homelessness is a problem in Gresham and police are removing homeless camps like this one near the Springwater Corridor Trail while the city is part of a new countywide board to find solutions for homeless residents.

Most homeless aren’t seen

By definition, a homeless person is anyone who doesn’t have a permanent home, and that includes families doubling up in apartments, couch surfing teens and people living in cheap motels and shelters.

Those people are mostly invisible to the public eye, but there also are many who live on the streets of Gresham or camp out, as many do, along the Springwater Corridor Trail.

It’s the visible homeless population that some people find disturbing, and one reason is because “normal” people view homeless people differently, Kimes said. He cited a study by Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske who did MRI brain analyses of people when they looked at people from different social groups and ethnic backgrounds.

“They had different reactions with the exception of the homeless,” he said. “The parts of the brain that were affected showed two things: disgust and an object — seeing them as non-human.”

Sara Wise, who helps run a Tuesday shelter at St. Henry Catholic Church on First Street said homelessness is becoming more visible in Gresham.

“Maybe there are more, maybe we are seeing more,” she said of the homeless.

Wise said one of the reasons churches in Gresham opened daytime shelters was because the homeless are not allowed to hang out at Main City Park.

But loitering near the park and along Main Street has created problems for business owners.

“We’ve had quite a few homeless people coming in and asking customers for money,” said Stephen Williams, manager of Wall Street Pizza on Main Street.

No city trash cans downtown

Katie Stockwell, manager at Littlelamb and Ewe, a knitting store on Main Street, said loitering is common behind their store because of the trash bins available.

“A big issue that we find is that there are no trash cans on the street,” she said. “The city could totally install trash cans and maintain them.”

Cari Floyd, owner of All About Kids, a children’s consignment store on Main Street, said most people think of Gresham as a small town, but it has “big city issues.”

At Pockets Pita Bar, Elliott Sequeira said he caught a homeless man stealing an employee’s purse after coming in the back door. Sequeira lives downtown and has had his garage broken into and bicycles stolen off his front porch. He blames the homeless.

“I feel bad for them, but I just don’t like the crime,” he said. “I heard there was a new shelter opening up, but more drug addicts is what I see.”

Bob Matulef of Amiton Furniture said he also feels bad for homeless people, but he doesn’t give them money any more.

“The people who serve the homeless are somewhat responsible for their presence, but they need a place to eat,” he said.

Matulef did have one good experience after calling police on a homeless man sleeping in his parking lot.

“He was a war vet and they (Gresham police) got him some help and he came back and thanked me a year later,” he said. “He was a nice enough guy.”

Junginger said his officers are increasing efforts to not only enforce laws but to build rapport with the homeless.

“The reason we really started looking (at the homeless) was because of complaints from people in the community feeling uneasy in parks and the trail systems with homeless people coming out of the bushes, building camps, being a nuisance and nuisance crimes like urinating in public and bathing in Johnson Creek,” he said. “But also the camps in the wilderness areas and trails are really destroying the habitat.”

Four officers to work with homeless

Four officers have been assigned to work with the homeless population this summer, trying to build rapport while enforcing laws, including two from the newly created Neighborhood Enforcement Team and two school resource officers.

Junginger said the city also hired a summer intern, Sheldon Johnson, from Duke University, who is doing research into homelessness and has a double major in public policy and theology.

Junginger said he hopes Johnson will help the police department build more of a connection with the faith-based community providing homeless services.

But he also feels the downtown providers of free meals are partly to blame for homeless people who are obnoxious when they panhandle or commit nuisance crimes like urinating in people’s front yards.

“The faith-based community is providing a lot of resources, but the churches’ responsibility has to extend beyond their property line,” he said. “They are perfectly legal in doing it (panhandling) but there needs to be some accountability and recognition by the church that their responsibility doesn’t stop when you give them a meal and send them out the door.”

Churches and day shelters may disagree with Junginger, but Wise said homeless people are not treated like other citizens.

“I just don’t understand why I can go to Main City Park and sit there all afternoon, but Nick and Ray over there will be chased off. I see them as human beings, as people,” she said.

Wise said she doesn’t like the panhandling any more than anyone else, but she is not afraid of it.

“I believe that they deserve to be fed,” she said. “I believe that I need to feed them.”

People who panhandle, a very small percentage of the homeless population, are a rare breed, Kimes said, and have to have “a lot of self esteem” to overcome the shame of holding a sign and begging on the streets, but some of them work very hard.

“Some will be up at 5 a.m. collecting cans, spend a few hours panhandling part of the day,” he said, and then do other odd jobs. “Panhandlers put in a full day’s work, full-time, just to survive.”

Even so, Kimes doesn’t give panhandlers money, but keeps a supply of socks, breakfast bars and bottled water to hand out.

“It’s something they can’t sell, but it helps them survive,” he said.

Local homeless want to stay here

Like the people who go to Kimes' Anawim shelter, or the 50 homeless people the St. Henry shelter sees each week, most are Gresham natives who want to stay here.

“A lot of regulars that I know grew up here and they’re scared to go to Portland,” Wise said.”

Amber Baker, 30, is one of those.

“The mayor here sucks because he keeps trying to send us to Portland,” she said. “The homeless people there think they run Portland and it scares me sometimes.”

Baker, who has slight autism and a seizure disorder, describes herself as a victim of abuse and child molestation that started in elementary school. She drifts between a friend’s couch and a tent, unable to afford an apartment because her mom takes half of her Social Security disability income every month.

Baker acknowledges she does not always have a roof over her head, but to her Gresham has always been her home and she doesn’t want to go to a Portland shelter. “They’re trying to just shove us out but we’re gonna fight and we’re not gonna go,” she said.

Ray Drennen Sr., 70, is a well-known regular at the St. Henry shelter.

“A lot of people around here don’t realize it, but places like this, is saving their lives,” he said.

After suffering a heart attack and coping with the death of his wife years back, things changed for Drennen. His unsteady work history that followed led to him sleeping under a tarp at the Sandy River Delta. The delta was recently cleared out by Multnomah County Sheriff's deputies, with assistance from the U.S. Forest Service and advocates for homeless people.

Drennen is unsure of where to go next.

“I think they should give us a break. The ones that are trying, let them try,” he said.

Baker echoed this saying, “I don’t think they treat us badly, it’s more the police and people here don’t have heart.”

Wise said very few services devoted to helping the homeless exist in Gresham.

“I think that’s part of the frustration in Gresham,” she said. “There’s no centralized source of information of what everyone is doing. We’re just in the early stages as a city in terms of how to move forward.”

Homeless not just on streets

Wise said homelessness can mean anything from couch surfing to sleeping on the ground. And while some of homeless people have a source of income, they have no means of getting an apartment.

A monthly check of $720 is hardly enough for Drennen to live by, but he doesn’t let his circumstances bring him down. In his deteriorating health he is determined to get an apartment.

“I’m shuttin’ down a little bit at a time,” he said. “I need to find a place soon.”

“It’s a chronic situation,” Wise said. “It’s a fact of life, but we’re not going to stop doing what we’re doing,”

This is because of the people at the shelter like Drennen, who more than anything, just want to be inside.

Travis Volk, 42, has lived on the streets of Gresham for eight years, but is saving for his own place. Volk had a rough childhood but he had a dream of becoming a medic in the military. That dream was thwarted when his arm was shattered in a car crash right after he enlisted in the Marines and his beloved foster father committed suicide. He lost his way, turned to drugs and petty crime, and ultimately spent more than a year in prison. Now he’s clean and sober and a steadfast presence at the shelter, with goals and a sunny attitude.

“When I wake up every morning, I pray, ‘What is my path?,’ ” he said. “This is my sanctuary, to help people here. In order to help homeless people, you have to be one.”

Robin Girdley, 40, had a different path to homelessness. Her boyfriend of eight years abruptly kicked her out recently and she had no place to go and only 29 cents to her name. He had been her primary support while she worked part-time and took care of her frail grandmother. She wasn’t perfect, she was using drugs at that time in her life, but she had nowhere to go.

“I just walked around for three days and I was so tired,” she said. “I had a friend who stayed at the park who took me around to all the kitchens and day shelters. I was looking for work, but I was still using and lost a lot of faith, and I had always been able to hold onto that.”

Girdley has been off drugs for 11 months and is regaining her faith, she said. She hopes to get a job with a local cab company and go back to school and only lacks a couple of credits in earning a bachelor’s degree.

“I’m good in math and science and tutored classes in calculus and trigonometry,” she said. “I want to go on to Portland State to continue my education and I believe most in God and karma. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

That’s what Kimes hopes will happen, that people in Gresham will start to use the Golden Rule and look at homeless people differently.

“I want to help, I want to be a good neighbor, but if there’s one thing I could do, it is to re-humanize the homeless population,” he said. “Because we have de-humanized them to such a degree that we can’t even recognize them as people any more.”



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