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By Scott Kerman

A recent report found that the county failed to spend millions of appointed funds on homeless solutions. It’s unclear why this happened but it’s frustrating to learn as a leader of a nonprofit serving the houseless.

Blanchet House serves an average of 1,000 meals a day to impoverished people. Many literally only own the clothes on their back. Many of these people have mental health issues. Some of them have physical disabilities or chronic illnesses. And many have addictions to dangerous and deadly substances. Multiple times a week, we are called upon to revive people who are overdosing and would die without our intervention.

Homelessness Services Need County Funding

Most Portlanders don’t realize that Blanchet House provides our services without county, city, or state funding. We rely on generous donations from individuals, businesses, and grants. Fortunately for the many people of rely on our services, Blanchet House has many generous and compassionate donors who believe in what we do.

Over the decades we’ve devised innovative ways to serve like rescuing 600 tons of surplus food a year from grocery stores and businesses. We take our free cafe’s food waste to our farm where it’s used to feed animals. What’s more, we pay for and provide our own security because we serve in a fraught and at times very hostile environment. An environment with insufficient mental health, addiction, and other essential services to meet the extraordinary need of our community.

We manage to serve because of a compassionate force of volunteers and staff who show up six days a week from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. And despite the precarious challenges of the environment, they serve everyone with compassion and dignity. They respond to whatever the world throws our way. Be it extreme weather, political unrest, crime and vandalism, a cratering downtown infrastructure, and a pandemic.

In addition, while we’re feeding and clothing our most vulnerable citizens, we operate a transitional housing program offering a path out of homelessness and addiction. At no charge, we offer 8-12 months of safe shelter, case management, peer support, medical care, and anything else they need to get back on their feet, which for most means employment and housing.

Funding for Homelessness Blanchet House

Blanchet House staff offers clothing in the parking lot while food is served inside the cafe.

Support for Homelessness Services Must Be Easier to Acquire

I believe the city and the county should make it easier to support nonprofit organizations like ours. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

As a case in point, Blanchet House recently had to end its one and only contract with Multnomah County because the terms of the contract were unexpectedly changed in ways we could no longer satisfy.

What is particularly frustrating about this experience is the funding was connected to a program I developed. The Old Town InReach Program (OTIP) is an extremely successful and innovative program that provides peer support mentors to organizations helping the houseless. Plus, OTIP helps many agencies like ours de-escalate crises so services can be delivered safely and effectively. Furthermore, OTIP peers foster relationships with clients in need that lead to referrals for critical services including housing. The program enhances greater collaboration among nonprofit agencies helping to break down silos of information. This all benefits our neighbors challenged by poverty, addiction, mental health, and homelessness.

Fortunately, OTIP will continue, but the agencies like Blanchet House that are participating in the program will no longer receive funding for our expenses.

Acquiring a part of unused county funding to serve our most desperate and despondent community members should be easier.

I appreciate that taxpayers deserve accountability for how the public treasure is spent. But the pendulum has swung so far in this direction that many nonprofits need to spend a great deal of money just to apply for funding and then report on the money they receive. Perhaps the greater consequence is a system that defies flexibility and nimbleness, which is exactly what we need to address a rapidly changing situation in an unstable environment.

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