Let there be hope

When the city, county and state declined funding support for the concept of a homeless shelter at the facility now called Bybee Lakes Hope Center, they cited reasons including its location in North Portland’s Rivergate district far from services, the lack of a willing site manager and the fact that it was formerly Wapato jail. Nonetheless, Alan Evans, the founder of the Helping Hands Reentry program offered to manage the site along with his other 11 facilities in Oregon. With the help of private investors, the Hope Center opened its doors to accept residents in October, 2020. 

Mike Davis has taken the helm as CEO. He is casually dressed, casual in manner and youngish, perhaps in his early 40’s. Camaraderie between him and staff members is apparent. 

Davis discusses Helping Hands’ founder Alan Evans who was unhoused and addicted by 13 years of age. After traveling around the country, Evans found that housing alone was not enough because formerly unhoused people didn’t have the tools to be successful. He established Helping Hands as a trauma-informed, data-driven based organization that would address that gap. 

Upon entering Bybee Lakes Hope Center, Davis noted that “people have 30-days to decompress. They have shelter, food, and services. Then we work together on a long-term plan. The Center offers physical and occupational therapies, addiction programs and other services. Our job is to give people all the skills they need to successfully move to housing. We serve men, women, children, and have a rainbow unit for LGBTQ residents. 10% of our residents are children.” 

Davis, shared an impressive list of 143 different entities including city, county, state agencies as well as private organizations that refer homeless clients to the Hope Center. Currently about 200 beds are filled and 118 more are ready for new occupants. This as city leaders struggle to raise millions and site tiny house villages to create beds for unhoused people. It begs the question, why don’t leaders fund an existing facility with beds ready to accept new residents? “We don’t do things that line up 100% with HUD (US Housing & Urban Development) rules that the city, state and county follow,” said Davis. “We don’t want to change our successful program though, so it’s difficult to get dollars to sustain us. We do an individualized approach. The other way isn’t working. Homelessness is not getting better. It’s increasing by the year. It’s risen 23% every year.”

“The agencies supported by city/county/state have a Housing First approach—in other words, get them housed and then hopefully they will take services. Helping Hands Reentry is ‘Housing First lite’—we ask people to be clean and sober. There is some accountability there. We don’t test people to make sure they are sober but we will help them find a place in other programs if they aren’t interested in sobriety.” 

When asked about approaches to sobriety, Davis said, “We don’t just use AA, but also offer secular and other alternative approaches as well as medical approaches. We offer mental health services, occupational and physical therapy. And once a week, we have a medical van come out.”

Residents’ long-term personal goal setting includes work toward independence. “When people come into our program we help them find a way to make a living. Some of the large businesses nearby like Amazon hire people because they know us and know they will get good employees. And we hire from within our program. 80% of our staff have lived experience with homelessness.”

When asked about early objections to the location of the Hope Center, his response was, “Did you see people in distress when you came out here or drug dealers?” Concerning access to services, he noted that “When the pandemic hit, residents could set up tele-health video appointments with their doctor. They were able to do their court dates virtually. They could meet with their case managers or parole and probation officers on video calls. That has continued.”

The thing that’s most apparent when visiting the center is its quite spaciousness and comfortable furnishings. There are coverings on railings or any other reminders that it was once a jail. It feels like a peaceful and restful environment.

Bybee Lakes Hope Center crafts room
Bybee Lakes Hope Center crafts room

Is Davis happy with the progress of Bybee Lakes Hope Center? “Absolutely!” He is proud of the Center’s careful use of resources. “We work hard to keep our costs low. We are a really efficient organization. We can take pallets of food, and our donors know that. For instance, we got a whole pallet of broccoli. We blanched it and froze it. We cover all these services for less than $35.00 per day per person. Some other programs can cost $95.00/day for a simple mat to sleep on.”

What are the biggest challenges going forward? “The biggest challenge is ensuring sustainability in this location into the future.”

What can local residents do to help? Demand that city, county and state leaders support Bybee Lakes Hope Center, not just with words and referrals, but with tangible funding. There are millions of public dollars available to help address homelessness, but none of that funding is going to the Hope Center even though it offers a viable alternative to unhoused people. A small fraction of those dollars could support the Center as it provides a quiet, safe, healing environment with access to services. For residents who want to work to overcome addictions, it offers support and a haven away from drug dealers. For those seeking change in their lives it offers a path toward greater responsibility and self-esteem.