David Renshaw of the Archdiocese of Portland, Deacon Rick Birkel of Catholic Charities and Lisa Vance of Providence Health and Services answer questions from reporters on a joint initiative to address homelessness in the Portland area.
David Renshaw of the Archdiocese of Portland, Deacon Rick Birkel of Catholic Charities and Lisa Vance of Providence Health and Services answer questions from reporters on a joint initiative to address homelessness in the Portland area.

The Archdiocese of Portland is teaming up with Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities of Oregon and Providence Health and Services to reduce chronic homelessness in Portland by 20 percent in the next five years.

The “Healthy Housing Initiative” will include new housing, access to health care, and opportunities for mental health treatment among other services, all to help those who have experienced chronic homelessness.

Portland is one of five U.S. cities Catholic Charities USA chose as pilot project sites for an effort that may go nationwide. The other sites are Detroit, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Spokane.

“Access to a safe and decent home is a moral imperative for promoting long-term family stability, health and economic opportunity,” said Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. “Together with our partners, we know we can find the resources to ensure that chronically homeless persons and families have a home. It is wonderful that we, as a Catholic community, can come together to address such a critical national need.”

Western Oregon’s 125 Catholic parishes will play a key role, offering unused buildings and property for housing. Beyond that, Catholic Charities is looking to churchgoers to form relationships with people who are homeless. Those friendships play an important part in helping people heal their lives, said Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

“There is a community heart here that is very big,” Birkel said at a Feb. 21 press conference at the Catholic Charities offices in Southeast Portland.

David Renshaw, director of communications for the archdiocese, reminded reporters that the church has been the world’s largest charitable organization for centuries and that such work is nothing novel. What is new, Renshaw said, was the level of cooperation on homelessness among the branches of Catholic ministry in the Portland area. “We are putting together pieces of the puzzle,” Renshaw said.

“We are connected by a deep Catholic faith that recognizes the inherent human dignity in every person,” Birkel added. 

In January, Catholic Charities USA helped release a report calling for an ambitious federal response to the nation’s housing affordability crisis. The report, entitled “Within Reach,” argues that stronger federal action is overdue to ensure that the most vulnerable low-income households can afford safe, decent rental homes.

The new initiative is one response to the study. In Portland, the goal is to house about 300 homeless people in the next five years, said Travis Phillips, director of community development and housing for Catholic Charities of Oregon. Details are yet to be worked out, but the housing units will be built or acquired. Catholic Charities has been urging families and parishes to find spare rooms and buildings to offer for housing homeless people. In what is called a master lease program, Catholic Charities manages the housing and offers services, using its teams of experts.  

“Just having a housing unit is not enough,” said Phillips. “We need a lot of other services around the person.” Services designed to prevent a slip back into homelessness include not only health care and mental health services, but financial coaching, a forte of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Portland was chosen as one of the sites for the project not just because of increasing homelessness and high housing costs, but because Catholic Charities here already has expertise in housing and related services. Kenton Village, a grouping of tiny homes in North Portland, is seen as a national model for helping homeless women.

It’s also helpful that city, county and state governments are getting serious about addressing homelessness, said Phillips. Thousands of new housing units are part of public sector plans. In addition to private donations, the project will rely on local bond measures passed by voters to address homelessness. 

The most recent count showed that on any night, there are about 4,200 men, women and children sleeping in cars and tents or on the streets of Multnomah County. About 1,300 of those people are seen as chronically homeless. That is the population the initiative aims to reach.

Birkel said cooperation with the public sector on homelessness has been positive and innovative. He expects city, county and state governments to continue to be involved and lead. “The reality is, things are moving like they haven’t been for years,” Birkel explained. “We think the stars are aligned.”

Part of the plan is to keep homeless people healthy enough that they don’t keep going in and out of hospitals. The hope is to reduce hospital readmission rates by 25 percent during the five year period. In another health-related goal, the partners aim to connect 35 percent of newly housed people with primary care and mental health help.

Providence Health and Services comes into play there. 

“We see a lot of patients who have no stability when they are discharged from the hospital,” said Lisa Vance, chief executive of Providence in Oregon. “They are readmitted soon after discharge because they are returned to the street where it’s hard to stay healthy.”

Vance said that Providence has served many homeless people in its emergency rooms, but in recent years has tried to be proactive. On its own and with partners, the health system is taking measures to keep people from ever becoming homeless and suffering the ill health that follows. That means affordable housing, good nutrition and regular visits to health providers for preventive care. Providence already has such enterprises in place in Portland, on the coast and in Southern Oregon. The new initiative will expand Portland metro area projects.  

“It’s a partnership with really important parties. This is why it’s going to be successful,” said Vance. “Facing homelessness is more than just a lack of a home. We need to deal with the aspects that are around it — chronic health conditions, substance abuse and mental illness.”

A model already exists for parishes to help provide health care in their communities. In the Promotores program, Providence trains parish members to perform basic health checks, educate peers on health and encourage healthy choices. That could be a foundation for health outreach to people who are homeless, Vance said.