Blanchet House is the largest feeder of the poor in Oregon.
Last year it served more than 350,000 meals, and it does so without any taxpayer money. Instead, it’s fueled by private donations and funding from members of the Catholic community. The organization, founded in 1952, has evolved throughout its 60-plus year history in order to keep up with Portland’s rapidly growing homeless population. It now operates two live-work programs in Portland and Yamhill County. The programs offer about 130 people each year housing, case management and other services in exchange for volunteering to serve meals and work in the community, helping them transition out of homelessness.
When Executive Director Greg Baker joined the organization in 2014, he was surprised by how few people in Portland knew of the organization’s work. Since then, Baker has been working to spread the word about Blanchet House, and to facilitate larger conversations about how to solve the city’s homeless crisis.
Baker has extensive experience organizing and managing people: he worked as city manager for Damascus, Ore., and Kansas City, Mo., founded Kansas City’s Minority Supplier Council and and served as a Labor Relations and Equal Opportunity Officer in the Department of Human Services in Washington, D.C. Baker also spent time as president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and is an award-winning musician. He won an Emmy for vocals in the documentary “Remember Me KC” about Kansas City with his group, Baker and the Tenderhearts, and has presented some of his music to Smokey Robinson.
Baker sat down with the Business Journal to talk about his work at Blanchet House and his life before Portland.
Why did you decide to get into this line of work? Talking to these people, hearing their stories, there before the grace of God you realize how fortunate you are that you were born in the right kind of circumstances. A lot of the people we see here, it didn’t have anything to do with them starting out that way. Life really dealt them some severe blows and they didn’t know how to handle it. That can happen to any one of us. I could bring 25 guys in here to tell you about their lives and you’ll have the hardest day you’ve ever had because you realize, he’s just like my brother, he’s just like my cousin. The world is full of opportunities, but if you allow this (problem) to sit there and do nothing about it, it’s going to sit there and nothing will be done about it. When I was in social work school, they said, you should be working to put yourself out of business. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
Why hasn’t Portland figured out a solution to this problem? People don’t understand it, and they’re not getting educated as to what it’s all about. You’ve got to pick up the tea leaf and say, well, is there something I can do about it? The other thing is, young people rule here, so I think people have a lot of empathy but they may not be at the stage where they know how to get their arms around it. Of course, there are people here trying to figure this thing out. I think the government here would argue they are doing A, B and C but the general public doesn’t see anything, so how effective is that? Is the goal eradicating homelessness? If so, moving them off one street to another isn’t going to accomplish that. And the fact that the numbers are quickly outgrowing people’s imaginations – they’re paralyzed about that. It isn’t going to get smaller.
What do you think the solution will look like? There has to be a coalition of leaders. I tease that Portland needs a “homeless czar” and that person needs to be an ombudsman to everyone in this community – he or she or they should say, “We’re going to empower all of you to address this.” The broad goal is that we will handle this in the most humane way possible. And it’s got to engage the community because you can’t be out there by yourself doing it. There has got to be an employment piece to it because most of these people can be reemployed. Once you get them cleaned up and refreshed and get them motivated, you have to have an employment program so people can migrate into that. We should look at these people not like they’re homeless, but as an economic development opportunity. The entire community should understand that this ship will fly, but it’s going to take all of us to service engines to get it to lift. At Blanchet, we try to convene that discussion.
What do you think of the proposal to turn the Wapato jail facility into a homeless shelter? I’ve had people ask me to take it over, we’re not in that business. But you’ve got 16 acres out there, you’ve got 500 beds that have been sitting there for what – 20 years? You’ve got a beautiful facility, they designed it to be minimal security, but let’s talk about conversion, let’s talk about using Wapato. With 16 acres, I can see a barber shop, I can see a small pharmacy there, I can see a grocery store, a transportation hub there. Build a community, build a homeless campus. This is not permanent, but it’s transforming people, getting people a place to light until we can help them to get better. Give people a humane way to transition out of where they are. Because right now most of those people think nobody cares.
Tell me a little bit about your background in music. I grew up on the east side of Kansas City in a family that had a lot of musicians. I had a cousin that played and sang with The Fifth Dimension, a cousin that sang background vocals for Gladys Knight & The Pips, uncles that played for John F. Kennedy. Kansas City was a hotbed for jazz, it’s buzzing. It was a wonderful way to grow up. When I was a kid, my grandmother had a beauty shop and I’d be down there getting paid 50 cents per song I would sing. I’ve sung in a lot of music groups in my life and I just really enjoy it. And, you know, God gives you gifts, and you’ve got to figure out a way to use your gifts and talents. I haven’t talked about it that much in my professional life because people don’t take you seriously – they think, “he’s just an artist, just a singer.” But I’ve been in music, I’ve been in business, I’ve done the social work thing, so my background is extremely eclectic, and I think that you’re a better manager when you understand what it’s like to live in different industries. My first love is to go somewhere and pick up my guitar.
Title: Executive Director of Blanchet House
Previously: City Manager of Damascus, Ore.; City Manager of Kansas City, Mo.; President and CEO of LeadTeam LLC; Founding Executive Director of Kansas City’s Minority Supplier Council; Labor Relations and Equal Opportunity Officer in the U.S. Department of Human Services; President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Music background: Lead singer of Baker and the Tenderhearts
Personal: Baker and his wife, Janet, have been married for 28 years and have five children and five grandchildren.