Jerry Harp of St. Francis Parish in Southeast Portland welcomes Scott Woltze and Shawn Natola of neighboring St. Stephen Parish at Mass Aug. 8. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Jerry Harp of St. Francis Parish in Southeast Portland welcomes Scott Woltze and Shawn Natola of neighboring St. Stephen Parish at Mass Aug. 8. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

A recent debate over St. Francis Dining Hall in Southeast Portland has made it clear: Even when living out Gospel values, the path forward is not always clear — but collaboration, communication and considering the common good are essential.

Founded four decades ago, the dining hall serves hundreds of free meals daily and is a vital community for many people who are homeless.

“But you don’t provide services in a vacuum,” said Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith. He recognizes the tradition of radical hospitality at the site, but he says the ministry could be enhanced by better relationships with neighbors, businesses, the city and law enforcement.

At a July 22 meeting, city officials, law enforcement, local businesses and neighbors called the Archdiocese of Portland and St. Francis Parish to account for unsafe and unclean conditions surrounding the dining hall, which has operated in the Buckman neighborhood since 1979.

“The city told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to turn things around,” said Todd Cooper, a chief aide to Archbishop Alexander Sample. City officials had sent a similar message to dining hall staff more than a year previous, but it seemed to go unfulfilled. That’s one reason the city included the archdiocese this time.

“The city’s basic asks of the facility to help alleviate the problem have been — and continue to be — keep the sidewalks clean and regularly eliminate the trash,” said Tim Becker, public information officer for Mayor Ted Wheeler “Also, set expectations for those who make use of the services they offer and make sure to uphold those expectations consistently.”

Archbishop Alexander Sample, who volunteers regularly at the dining hall, wants to see it continue and hopes to enhance and strengthen the ministry. Cooper said the archbishop “recognizes that we need a new way forward in light of the city’s and neighbors’ concerns.”

Distress over crime

Police consider the area around St. Francis Dining Hall one of their top public safety priorities. Crime and littering has increased as homeless campers center around the parish, according to Portland police records.

In the past year, there were 1,510 criminal offenses in the neighborhood. That compares to 1,443 in the previous 12 months and 1,435 and 1,407 in the two years before that, respectively. The number of assaults in the last 12 months — 205 — is up 63 percent over the same period in 2015-2016.

Despite the crime, there’s generally been a positive — if sometimes strained — relationship between the parish and surrounding businesses and neighbors.

“We recognize that St. Francis is providing very important services,” said Kate Merrill, executive director of the Eastside Industrial Council, an association of 250 businesses in inner Southeast Portland.

Business owners have complained that the dining hall has not been financed and staffed adequately as of late, leading to the rise in crime and litter.

Merrill said her constituents want a dining hall that is run well, that provides associated ministries like help for mental illness and that takes businesses and neighbors into account.

Eric Hoffman is principal of an architecture studio a block north of the parish. A few years ago, when the studio property was undergoing construction, one homeless person shot another on the sidewalk adjacent to the site. Acknowledging an improvement in recent weeks, Hoffman said there have been human waste on his property, needles in the flower beds, and prostitution and drug solicitations nearby. Burglars broke into the studio three times. Hoffman worried even more about the daycare next door, from which 50 children regularly go for walks.

Members of the Eastside Industrial Council contribute to a fund that pays for cleanup of trash in the area and outreach workers who help people who are homeless get linked to support around housing, addiction treatment and mental health counseling. But the efforts take only a small bite out of a big problem.

Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities, said the homeless population has changed over the years and the level of disability and number of people chronically living on the streets has gone up. There is also a great deal of addiction. “It’s a more fragile community and has more needs than in the past,” Birkel said.

Plan on hold

An initial idea — that Catholic Charities would contribute case management, mental health help, financial advice and even housing to the dining hall ministry — is now on hold as discussions continue among parishioners and parish leaders. The city, business and property owners and some parishioners were familiar with Catholic Charities and supported a proposed 90-day contract between the nonprofit and parish. But other parishioners wanted to slow down the plan to make sure the dining hall retains its sense of unconditional welcome as much as possible.

The discussions have highlighted different approaches to ministering to homeless people as a faith community.

Radical hospitality at St. Francis Dining Hall “goes back to our Jewish roots,” said Jerry Harp, a parish council member and an English professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. “It is the biblically based idea of welcoming the stranger as they are and who they are.”

Harp said it does not mean that guests are allowed to bring alcohol into the dining hall or shoot up in the bathroom or be unsafe. Guests are barred at least temporarily for such violations.

But dining hall supporters hope there will be no criteria that guest have to sign up for in order to receive a meal. “No, we want to meet you where you are,” said Harp.

He emphasized that many parishioners and dining hall volunteers see the benefit of offering additional services and are not opposed to some kind of partnership. “But the scope was too big, and the process was too fast,” according Harp.

“The mission has always been to serve a meal in dignity and peace,” added Tim Meek, a beefy man who runs security at the dining hall. He’d like to see more programming for guests, “but you can’t be everything to everybody.”

Cooper embraces the deep tradition of welcome but wants to increase the awareness of common good in the culture surrounding the ministry.

“Radical hospitality means everyone’s welcome, but it doesn’t mean anything goes,” Cooper said. “The property holds a church. That is sacred ground. Everyone is welcome to come for food and assistance, and we treat each guest with dignity and respect, but certain behaviors are not acceptable while on and around the property. Drugs, violence, prostitution, crime, littering and other such behaviors must be left aside.”

According to Rob Justus, chairman of the administrative council at St. Francis Parish, everyone wants the same things: a dining hall that does good ministry. Justus urged fellow parishioners to accept the increased partnership with Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities does a lot of great work,” said Justus, a longtime advocate for people who are homeless. “There already has been a relationship between Catholic Charities and the dining hall for a long time.”

The agency built the St. Francis Park Apartments, a 106-unit low-cost housing complex next to the parish. The unused school and rectory on parish grounds have been considered for more low-income housing.

Father George Kuforiji, as administrator of the parish, pays close attention to the dining hall. His hopes include more comprehensive ministry that tackles deep needs like health care, mental health help and addiction treatment. He notes the example of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, now a saint, saying she not only fed people but made sure their wounds were bound.

Tending relationships

Increased intensity of homelessness calls for more intense collaboration, said Fleming McCarville. She served as temporary pastoral associate and assistant director of the dining hall following longtime pastoral administrator Valerie Chapman’s retirement in 2017. “The relationship with the neighborhood required attending to always,” she said. “Those relationships are not something you can ignore and keep the dining hall open.”

Chapman nurtured such relationships during her long tenure. For a time after her retirement, there was no clear leadership of the dining hall. Father George Kuforiji was assigned to the parish in 2018 and hired new staff. It was as the parish was in a state of change that illegal and disruptive behavior worsened.

The outcome of the July meeting at City Hall was that the parish and archdiocese would come up with short- and long-term solutions.

The short-term plan — one used at one point under Chapman — was implemented almost immediately: The dining hall was closed until homeless guests moved their camps. Those who refuse to move are excluded until they do.

Police did an intervention to disperse campers and a clean-up crew removed trash and garbage. The city then installed a safe dispenser for disposing of needles.

“There’s still some trash here and there, but I haven’t seen it this clean in the past seven years as it’s been this month, said Meek. “It’s a collaboration; we can’t do it alone,” he said. “It’s the police, the clean-up crew. If we all do it together we can make this work.”

Dining hall guests understand the need for change. Mckaylee, 58, thinks the policy makes sense. “If people are blocking the sidewalk with a tent and you can’t get through, that’s not good,” she said on a recent morning before getting on her boa-adorned bike.

The questions is: Will the no-camping arrangement last? Cooper believes a long-term plan must be put in place for long-term success.

Collaboration called for

That long-term plan included Catholic Charities, along with Providence Health and Services, but it was not intended to take over dining hall operations, Cooper said.

Though the archdiocese worked with Father Kuforiji, members of the parish council and dining hall staff on the Catholic Charities contract, there was no wider involvement with parishioners and dining hall volunteers.

When volunteers and parishioners learned of the impending plan, many were worried and others angry.

There was a meeting at the parish a week after the second City Hall meeting, “and people were very vocal about the flaw in the process — that they were not part of the larger conversation,” said Harp.

Cooper and Harp now see their approach as a mistake.

“We charged into this,” admits Cooper. “And from my perspective we didn’t consult widely enough with the stakeholders in the parish. We should have been working with them — the longtime volunteers and key supporters. Not to use it as an excuse, but we felt the urgency to come up with a strong proposal to keep this ministry going.”

“I went into panic mode,” said Harp. “I was part of the failure. As a member of the pastoral council, part of my job is making sure people know what’s going on, and I didn’t do that.”

Cooper said the idea of low-income housing on the parish grounds has been set aside temporarily but there remains the possibility of a more limited partnership with Catholic Charities soon. The agency has offered to help the parish develop a good-neighbor agreement to outline expectations and conditions for dining hall operation.

It would include representatives of the parish, neighborhood association, police, local tenants and property owners, and businesses.

“Such an agreement will go a long way toward assuring that the St. Francis Dining hall is a strong positive presence and portal to services in that neighborhood,” said Birkel of Catholic Charities.

Cooper said he’s trying to make up for past mistakes and is listening to the concerns of parishioners and dining hall staff. There have been several meetings at the parish recently for all to air their thoughts.

Father Kuforiji agrees that the initial plans for solving the dining hall problems were rushed and should have included more discussion with parishioners. Now he wants to move ahead.

“We are looking for a more lasting solution,” Father Kuforiji said. “There is a lot of mistrust. That mistrust is misplaced. All anyone wants to do is help.”

Cooper said he’s been impressed by Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, Portland police officers, neighborhood businesses and neighbors who have been willing to collaborate and come up with solutions. Everyone hopes parishioners will join the constructive conversation.

“The scandal is not that we disagree; the scandal is that we can’t seem to have a calm and reasonable conversation,” Harp said after Mass Aug. 18.

Ministry a life-saver

On a late-August morning, a woman named Ronnie rested on the grass outside the dining hall. A few other guests sat on steps nearby or pushed carts, packed with belongings, heading down the street after a coffee and some warm food.

Ronnie’s been coming to the dining hall for five years, after she left her husband who’d abused her for two decades. “He abused me in every way you can imagine, but sometimes the verbal abuse is worse than anything else,” she said, wiping away tears.

Ronnie said St. Francis Dining Hall has been life-saving in many ways. “Because of the support from this community, I’m stronger than I’ve even been.”

A meeting about the ministry is slated for Sept. 9 in the community room at St. Francis Park Apartments.

Scott can be reached at katies@catholicsentinel.org and Langlois at edl@catholicsentinel.org.