Catholic Charities’ Kenton Village, a North Portland community for women who live in tiny homes, has successfully placed 18 women in long-term housing. The executive director of the Catholic nonprofit would like to see similar models replicated in cities across Oregon. (Courtesy Catholic Charities Oregon)
Catholic Charities’ Kenton Village, a North Portland community for women who live in tiny homes, has successfully placed 18 women in long-term housing. The executive director of the Catholic nonprofit would like to see similar models replicated in cities across Oregon. (Courtesy Catholic Charities Oregon)

A few years ago, a young man came to Catholic Charities Oregon desperate for help. He’d been living on the streets, was addicted to drugs and his girlfriend was pregnant.

The agency, long on the frontlines fighting poverty and homelessness in the state, did what it’s done for the past 85 years: express Gospel-centered love through practical support.

Staff helped the man sort out his finances. He got into counseling and his girlfriend received care around her pregnancy.

Now off drugs the man is married and has a second child. Just recently, the couple bought a home.

All this success, however, hinged on one parishioner in the community (who’d like to remain anonymous) opening his home to the small family. For three years the local Catholic rented out a room for a low rate.

“The parishioner provided a space where the young man could get through the messiness and sort out his life,” said Molly O’Donnell, director of Catholic Charities’ financial wellness program.

Catholic Charities leaders say the future of attacking homelessness in western Oregon will have the elements of this story — radical, individual generosity and risk-taking — replicated in numerous ways across the region.

They see a future in which every city in the state includes a mix of innovative, small-scale solutions such as tiny house communities, repurposed parish properties and home-sharing.

“I truly believe we can end homelessness in Oregon,” said Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities. “We can make a considerable dent now, and with additional resources — and all of us being more creative and all of us being more generous — we can end it.”

Current crisis

Anyone who scrolls through recent figures or walks a block in downtown Portland grasps the severity of the region’s homelessness problem. The population of those without housing in Multnomah County increased nearly 10 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to a point-in-time count. In the past two years, about 160 people died while homeless in the city.

Some of the demographic trends most concerning to social workers include recent and projected increases in the number of elderly who are homeless, as well as a growing number of people of color and youths without housing. Oregon now ranks first in the nation for the rate of homeless children and youths, according to a recent report by WalletHub, a Washington, D.C.-based personal finance website.

Reasons for the homelessness crisis include a lack of affordable units due to a decline in subsidized housing and an influx of young, well-paid workers who drive up the housing market.

There is a common belief that Oregon’s homelessness problem is intensified by people coming from out of state for social services. Catholic Charities staff disagree with this assessment. “It’s a myth,” said Rose Bak, director of Homelessness and Housing Services, a newly created position. “The vast majority are from Oregon; they’re our neighbors.”

Financial wellness tools

The future of combating homelessness will build on existing programs, with tweaks to meet specific communities’ needs, said Deacon Birkel.

The Save First Financial Wellness program (formerly called the Family Success Center) is the point of entry for all Catholic Charities clients and plays a fundamental role in how the agency addresses poverty and homelessness. Its mission is “lasting approaches to poverty and injustice,” said O’Donnell.

If a family is homeless, Save First intake specialists assess the clients’ needs and direct them to housing support and often other services, such as counseling.

Save First, relying on a slew of volunteers, also offers comprehensive, personalized money management coaching and budgeting help. Clients may eventually participate in a matched savings program to attend college or buy a house.

Deacon Birkel said he’d like to see Save First “growing to reach thousands of people.”

“We’d train a cohort of volunteers and let them go with it to parishes throughout the archdiocese,” said O’Donnell, adding that they have nearly all the materials in place to launch such an effort.

The University of Portland and the University of Note Dame will study the financial wellness program, which may be replicated not just statewide but nationally.

Small-scale but successful

Alongside its financial wellness model, Catholic Charities’ current housing solutions have proven successful and, in the future Deacon Birkel imagines, would be recreated many times over.  

The nonprofit follows a housing-first approach, meaning it doesn’t require people to be clean and sober before they receive help with housing.

“It’s nearly impossible to get clean on the streets; you need a supportive environment,” said O’Donnell. 

Martha and Mary House was donated by the Dieringer family and is home to five older, formerly homeless women. A second donated home is in the process of being converted for use.

“We are pecking away at homelessness, as my husband would say, through smaller projects,” said Margi Dechenne, a program manager who, along with other responsibilities, oversees Catholic Charities’ drop-in center for women. “But the programs we have are serving people in a really cool way, fighting isolation and loneness,” she said. And residents are thriving. “The biggest issue at Martha and Mary House is whether butter should be refrigerated or not,” Dechenne said with a laugh.

Deacon Birkel thinks every city in the state could have its own version of the house, along with Kenton Village, a tiny house community for women that opened last year in North Portland. It will soon move to a permanent space owned by the City of Portland where it will provide more amenities, including water and sewer systems on site.

Thus far 18 women have found successful long-term housing through Kenton.

Bak said the most obviously homeless are those in downtown Portland, with many needing addiction and mental health support. Families or single mothers with young children are less visible yet a growing population. They move from shelter to shelter or, frequently, live in their cars.

Catholic Charities is involved in helping parishes host such families by allowing them to park their vehicle on church grounds. The details are being worked out, including insurance issues and bathroom access. The hope is that many parishes will participate in the years ahead.

Abandon fear, embrace creativity

Catholic Charities’ Caritas Housing provides around 800 low-cost units in the state, but Birkel wants the agency to drastically expand affordable housing by harnessing grassroots generosity.

There’s a pervasive “greed economy” — people raising rent because they can, not because they have to, he said. But there also are individuals with property and a desire to help but who don’t know how. He’d like to recruit families like the Dieringers as well as generous-minded landlords to create a kind of affordable-unit bank, where vacant apartments and homes could be filled by the unhoused.

Home-sharing is another idea Deacon Birkel wants to see in every community.

An older person living alone who is considering downsizing or selling, for example, could open his or her home to a housemate. “It might sound scary at first because it’s not something people typically do now,” said the deacon. Yet throughout history many have shared living quarters, he said, recalling his Irish immigrant grandmother who started a boarding house in New York City.

A big hurdle is overcoming the stigma that “the homeless are untouchable or must be defective,” said Deacon Birkel.

“That’s what I love so much about the Kenton experience,” he said. “If you were to get to know one of the residents there you’d be honored to share a house with them.”

We need to remember, he added, “that truly any one of us could end up living in a car under the right conditions.”

Deacon Birkel also envisions a future in which Catholic parishes with closed schools or unused property might convert the spaces into affordable housing units through a long-term lease arrangement. He gleaned the idea from Methodists in the region, who have seen their numbers decline and are considering such a plan. 

The deacon thinks smaller creative tactics are the best approach to homelessness. For example, he believes the proposal to turn the never-used Wapato jail in North Portland into a 4,000-bed addiction and treatment shelter for the homeless is not viable. 

Big state institutions were closed because they “don’t work and they are a pathway to abuse and neglect,” he said.

“Without changing the whole world there are simple pathways for people to get on their feet,” said Deacon Birkel. “The role of Catholic Charities is galvanizing, to organize the response by tapping into what’s in many people’s hearts already.”