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By Natalie Conway

“I’m just happy to be able to offer people a nice hot meal and a smile,” says Peer Support Specialist, Jennifer Coon, of the guests she serves at Blanchet House. Because I have been homeless. I have slept outside, I’ve eaten pizza out of a garbage can.” 

Monday-Friday, during Blanchet’s lunch and dinner hours, you’ll find Jennifer out on the sidewalk talking with the people waiting in line for food. She asks what they need and helps direct them to services. Whether she’s running inside to get a warm coat, providing directions to a shelter, or just taking a moment to have a conversation, Jennifer is helping people struggling to survive. 

People come to Blanchet House in need of free meals, clothing, shelter, and aid for so many different reasons. Many are experiencing homelessness due to job loss, escaping trauma, poverty, addiction, or mental health challenges. 

“Everyone has a story,” Jennifer says. 

Jennifer’s personal story of recovery began three years ago. On a hot July day, she found herself homeless, estranged from her family and pushing a shopping cart filled with her only belongings to CODA, an inpatient treatment center in Southeast Portland. 

“I have been clean since July 3rd of 2017,” Jennifer shared. “It can be done. You can go from bad to good.”

After she detoxed at CODA, she moved to a women’s shelter operated by Transition Projects Inc. (TPI) called Jean’s Place. There she was able to find a safe community of support and stable housing as she transformed her life for the better. 

Jennifer Coon, Peer Support Specialist, outside Blanchet House of Hospitality in Old Town, Portland. She received her training from the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO).

Jennifer Coon, Peer Support Specialist, outside Blanchet House of Hospitality in Old Town, Portland. She received her training from the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO). Photo by Julie Showers.

Jennifer stayed at Jean’s Place for six months, rebuilding the life skills that she lost during her 10 year battle with addiction. After receiving a scholarship and completing training from TPI she became a Certified Recovery Mentor working at Central City Concern, a local nonprofit. 

When she heard about the Peer Support Specialist training program offered by the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO) she jumped at the chance to help others overcome their struggles with mental health, addiction, and homelessness. 

“I’m so happy to be working through MHAAO. They offer great support and truly value peer experience,” Jennifer said. “I’m lucky enough to be positioned at Blanchet House.” 

Now, at Blanchet House, she provides daily support to both meal and residential guests. She helps them as they navigate housing, addiction, medical and mental health challenges. 

“I absolutely could not be happier,” she said. “I love my job. I love MHAAO. I love connecting with the people outside.” 

She carries compassion with her when working, being mindful of each guest’s unique needs and backgrounds. Jennifer now has her driver’s license, an apartment, attends church, and most importantly has her children back in her life. Her personal experience with addiction and homelessness deeply informs her work.

“We’ve gotten to know each other. The regulars look forward to seeing me, I think, and I do with them,” she says. “It’s about connecting.”

Jennifer works hard to connect with meal guests outside, but she also works closely with Blanchet’s Case Manager, Kristi Katzke, to support residents inside. She is currently helping a veteran verify his military service and so he can secure affordable housing through the VA. She accompanies another resident to his physical therapy appointments. Many residents need this kind of hands-on support to complete the steps necessary to live independently.

“On Tuesday, I took a bunch of guys to the Oregon Convention Center to get vaccinated,” Jennifer says excitedly. 

As a Tier 1A facility, the COVID-19 vaccine is available for the staff and residents of Blanchet House because they are providing essential meal services to a vulnerable population. Jennifer has taken 17 residents to receive the first dose of the vaccine and is hopeful that this number will soon increase. 

“I love it when I’m able to fulfill someone’s wish,” Jennifer shared when asked about her favorite aspect of her job. “And they’re really simple wishes. Maybe someone needs a pair of shoes, or they need a coat.” 

“That’s the best,” she said, “when I’m able to see what I’ve done, and see the smile on their face.”

Learn more about addiction, homelessness, and available resources.

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