A driver in a stolen car crashed into the fence near The Grotto’s gate the night of July 4-5. Chris Blanchard, executive director, worried that the car could have killed homeless campers if it had hit tents instead of the fence. (Courtesy The Grotto)
A driver in a stolen car crashed into the fence near The Grotto’s gate the night of July 4-5. Chris Blanchard, executive director, worried that the car could have killed homeless campers if it had hit tents instead of the fence. (Courtesy The Grotto)
The Grotto, the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, comes in at #6 in Trip Advisor travelers’ favorites for what to do in Portland. That’s just behind Pittock Mansion and the Chinese Gardens but several spots ahead of the art museum, zoo or OMSI.

The sanctuary’s 62 acres of gardens, chapels and the Servite Monastery are just off Northeast Sandy Boulevard on the northern slope of Rocky Butte. It is a leafy, peaceful refuge in the city for prayer and peace.

“Very nice. The ambiance inside is serene,” a recent web review states. The reviewer then counsels, “The surrounding area does not reflect what you will find here.”

The tragedy of homelessness leaves few parts of Portland untouched, and the working-class neighborhoods in Northeast Portland around the sanctuary are no exception.

The Grotto’s executive director Chris Blanchard worries about the neighbors. “They’re suffering the ill effects,” he said, noting the piles of trash, used hypodermic needles, empty alcohol bottles and human waste.

Blanchard is torn over what to do about the tents and piles of trash. He sometimes talks with those in RVs, tents and sleeping bags. In mid-July the group in one tent impressed him. “They said they don’t want to be here, living like this,” Blanchard said. “They’re asking for help.”

He called Catholic Charities on their behalf and felt hopeful — despite knowing that agency is deluged with need.

“We don’t have the resources or expertise to help,” Blanchard said of The Grotto. “It’s tragic and heartbreaking, but I have to balance it with the welfare of those who come here for worship and peace. That is our mission.”

The Grotto’s grounds are as pristine and inviting as they ever were — if not more so. Visitors don’t see the employees’ struggle to keep the peace.

Those in the tents don’t usually come onto the grounds, but when they do they sometimes lock themselves into a bathroom for hours. A mental health crisis in a bathroom resulted in a sink being ripped out and holes left in the walls.

The fencing has been cut through, electricity and water stolen. There’s also been shoplifting from the gift shop. The area outside the sanctuary’s fence has been used as a public toilet.

The city cleaned out the campsites, but the tents and RVs returned.

Blanchard has contacted the city about cleaning up the camps in public property behind The Grotto but was told that 677 sites had priority because they were judged to be worse.

The Grotto and Catholic Charities worked for months to open a women’s village on acreage the sanctuary owns outside its garden and worship space.

The city quashed that plan, but Blanchard hopes to take another pass at the project.

As if the ongoing worries weren’t enough, an accident on the night of July 4 left Blanchard with nightmares of “what if.”

A driver of a stolen car crashed into a light pole and hit The Grotto’s fence, taking out about a 50-foot section. “If that car hadn’t hit the fence it would have hit tents,” Blanchard said. “We can thank God that people weren’t killed who were sleeping there.”

On the hottest day in early July, with temperatures in the mid 90s, a homeless man hunched on the baking sidewalk by The Grotto’s entrance. He described his complicated problems.

The man, who said he was 37 but didn’t want to share his name, explained he was bored — no TV, no phone, no videogames, no job. He wore several layers of clothes and was in the sun, rather than nearby shade. That didn’t matter, he said, because he was “a piece of s**t.”

He’d been off his medications for months and was angry with dozens of individuals, assistance groups and businesses. He meticulously and furiously detailed how they had cheated him or ignored him.

Blanchet House of Hospitality downtown, with their free meals, was not worth the too-expensive bus trip with its logistics over where to hide his stuff so that it wouldn’t be stolen. In any case, he complained, Blanchet doesn’t serve dessert. “I need sugar,” he said. He preferred the $8.50 pancake breakfast at a Mall 205 restaurant.

He had a straightforward answer for what he most needed.

“Housing!” he shouted.

Steps away, the gate to The Grotto opened onto its shady parking lot, with families, couples, young adults and elders coming and going on their way to pray or walk through the gardens.

“It’s like night and day between the homeless camps and coming inside,” said Blanchard. “I know that visitors who come here are also compassionate people who are troubled by what they see.”

kristenh@catholicsentinel.org

Editor’s note: Julie Showers, spokesperson for Blanchet House, said Blanchet House offers desserts with most meals, although because their food is donated there are times when a meal does not have a dessert, and that sometimes dessert is fruit instead of something sugary like cookies or doughnuts.