Margi Dechenne of Catholic Charities Oregon speaks about homelessness Sept. 13 flanked by Greg Baker of Blanchet House and philanthropist Homer Williams. During a Northwest Portland breakfast organized by Mater Dei Radio, speakers suggested that Catholic parishes have a role to play in addressing the region’s housing crisis. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Margi Dechenne of Catholic Charities Oregon speaks about homelessness Sept. 13 flanked by Greg Baker of Blanchet House and philanthropist Homer Williams. During a Northwest Portland breakfast organized by Mater Dei Radio, speakers suggested that Catholic parishes have a role to play in addressing the region’s housing crisis. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

A vision of parishes and parishioners opening their houses for homeless Portlanders emerged Sept. 13 during a discussion among Catholic and civic leaders.

 “We see our homeless neighbors on the street and the struggles they face,” said Pat Ryan, executive director of Mater Dei Radio, which hosted the breakfast discussion. “What is needed to help the homeless is community.”

Homer Williams, an urban developer who has initiated a move to create more shelter, said Portlanders should look at homeless people as extended family. “The most important thing is: Engage,” Williams said.

Williams warned that Portland’s homeless population is set to explode as baby boomers who did not save enough for retirement start ending up on the streets. He said the end of defined pensions and the rise of 401Ks devastated middle-class workers and their retirements.

“If we don’t do something, every city on the West Coast will be overwhelmed,” Williams said. “As a country we have never seen anything like this.” 

Williams asked churches to team up to make sure every neighborhood has a shelter. Home sharing will be another answer. Airbnb has proven that Americans will take strangers into their homes, he said. 

“It’s a war,” Williams told the crowd. “What you need to do is stop the bleeding. We need to get people in a warm, dry place.”

Chris Corrado, a business owner and philanthropist, urged fellow Catholics to go to their parish councils and justice and peace committees to raise the issue of sharing property as a way to bring relief amid the region’s housing crisis. “Parishes have a huge role to play in this fix,” Corrado said. 

Archbishop Alexander Sample raised Pope Francis’ image of the church as a field hospital. “Right now, people are wounded,” the archbishop said. “It doesn’t matter how they got there. We can’t make those judgments. That could be me. That could easily be me.”

Margi Dechenne, a program manager for Catholic Charities Oregon, said ministry among people who are homeless is not a one-way street. Dechenne got lessons

on character and simplicity when seeing desperately poor people give scant belongings to others. “My work inspires my faith,” she said. 

Dechenne said that simple shelter can change lives. She pointed to Kenton Women’s Village, a North Portland grouping of tiny homes managed by Catholic Charities. Opened in summer 2017, the village has housed 26 women and helped 16 find permanent housing elsewhere. Many have been hired by local businesses. The residents of the village have a primary voice in how the village runs, a key to its success, Dechenne said.

Catholic Charities is using one donated house for homeless women and is about to open another. Both houses, near Holy Family Parish, give residents a chance to get linked to a faith community, which has proven beneficial for recovery.

Dechenne suggested that Catholics each morning make an extra sandwich before going to work so they can hand it to someone on the streets.

Greg Baker, executive director of Blanchet House in Portland, said men in recovery at Blanchet Farm near Carlton not only care for animals, but run a wood shop that is creating more tiny homes that will be put to use for homeless people in McMinnville. On top of that, the men who made the homes are getting trained as union carpenters, a path to new jobs and success.

Baker, who also runs Blanchet’s feeding site downtown, sees the need for more city resources to alleviate homelessness. He explained that not all people become homeless because of alcohol or drugs. “Sometimes, things just go south,” he said.

Dechenne called it a mistake to focus on homeless “poster children,” those with the stories that arouse the most sympathy, saying such a strategy seems to defy the true burdens of Christian love. “We should admit that some of our folks have addiction or mental illness and, yes, they still deserve a home.”