Compassion and Order
Neighborhood associations blend supposedly incompatible themes
By Allan Classen
Louis Wilhelms was not the kind of man who ordinarily merits a newspaper obituary. His date of death was unknown. No survivors have been identified. His closest associates didn’t know his date of birth. His estate, if there was such, was insufficient to cover a write-up in the daily paper.
Wilhelms lived across the street from the First Unitarian Church in a tent. He had been homeless for 25 of the last 30 years and got around in a wheelchair after his legs were amputated due to diabetes.
His homeless neighbor, Charles White, described him as a “hippie with a big beard and a big belly who everybody liked.”
Another friend, Margaret Jessie, said he was “a good person who would let people into his tent to get out of the rain.”
With those sketchy generalities, Wilhelms’ death was commemorated Jan. 13 in a singular service officiated by a rabbi, a Unitarian minister and an interfaith officiant, perhaps the first memorial in which the clergy outnumbered the guests who knew the departed.
The fact that Wilhelms at last got his due owes to the organized compassion of Downtown Neighborhood Association volunteers who launched the Good Neighbor Program last year. Teams of residents regularly walk the sidewalks, greeting unhoused people and offering water or perhaps coffee and warm gloves.
“We know we need to build relationships to help get people off the street,” said Darlene Garrett, co-chair of the DNA Homeless/Houseless Committee, believed to be the first committee devoted to this purpose among Portland neighborhood associations.
“One of the themes of the memorial for me was Louie’s invisibility to the housed community,” said David Dickson, co-chair of the committee. “A man with no legs in a wheelchair living outdoors in a tent. He was invisible to us.”
Members of the committee learned about Wilhelms’ death from White and shared the idea of a service with staff at the Unitarian Church, which has fully supported the committee’s work and hosted the memorial service.
The church also hosted DNA’s watershed forum on homelessness in 2019, an all-day event that brought together 19 housed and unhoused speakers and 200 participants to explore solutions to the seemingly intractable issue. About 360 ideas were put in writing, including public toilets and hygiene facilities, outreach strategies and employment opportunities.
The event was so inspiring that Mayor Ted Wheeler, who made opening comments, “amazed us all by staying for the entire meeting,” Dickson said.
Wheeler took it as a model for “conversations” he held in neighborhoods across the city. Garrett believes the DNA forum marked a shift in public opinion that “worked to change people’s attitudes about homelessness.”
The city responded to several ideas raised at the forum, placing 25 portable toilets around the city and fast-tracking the opening of the Bybee Lakes Hope Center and the shelter at the Greyhound Bus Station.
Dickson has come to believe that the housed and unhoused in his neighborhood share values. He reflected on answers to two questions posed at the forum:
• Do you believe homeless people are our neighbors?
• Do you believe homeless people should live by rules?
Almost every respondent, whether housed or not, agreed with both precepts, he said.
“There is a thin line between fear and compassion when it comes to our unhoused neighbors,” Dickson said, “but we are all neighbors, and the only way we survive this crisis is to work together.”
The Good Neighbor Program was developed by, among others, Stephanie Hansen, a formerly houseless woman who serves on the DNA board. Hansen recommended supplying cold-weather items such as hats, gloves and scarves.
Thirty-six volunteers go out in teams of two or three to each of 22 four-block sections of downtown. They recently completed an inventory of 141 tents and 183 individuals camping in the area.
Working together also describes a movement among Central City neighborhood associations that are sharing ideas and resources on homelessness. DNA leaders see a model in the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which has about 70 volunteers regularly patrolling the streets, picking up trash and generally being good neighbors.
The association raised $5,000 for masks and donated them to residents of low-income buildings. After initial misgivings, PDNA fully supports the Harbor of Hope Navigation Center on Northwest Naito Parkway.
PDNA President Stan Penkin is partnering with Harbor of Hope founder Homer Williams on a pilot project to bring low-cost shelters and mini-houses to managed sites around the city.
Penkin was touched by poetry readings last year at which Street Roots vendors shared their writings with PDNA neighbors.
“That was probably the most heartwarming event that I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.
Penkin is also committed to public safety, law enforcement and keeping order in the public realm. He recently completed a term as chair of the Portland Public Safety Action Coalition, a citizen group working closely with the Portland Police Bureau.
How does he hold together two sets of values reflective of Portland’s great divide?
He offers no grand synthesis, just a feeling that “we just have so many compassionate people” and “keeping things clean” is a big part of improving the neighborhood for everyone.
A buck for trash
Tiffany Hammer, an Old Town business owner also active in the Goose Hollow Foothills League, became known as the Rose Lady in 2019 when she planted rose bushes to discourage camping along an Interstate 405 entrance
Her latest endeavor is paying homeless people $1 for each trash bag they fill while cleaning up blocks in Old Town, where disorder has gotten out of control, boarded windows abound and tents jam sidewalks, and Goose Hollow.
Hammer helped clean up Collins Circle, a rockery filled median at Southwest 18th and Jefferson streets, where she posed another deal to campers: if you bag up your trash, the city will pick it up and be less likely to target the area for a city sweep.
Hands-on encounters like these, which Hammer, a former mental health nurse, does not recommend for general volunteers, put her in touch with street life and what it might take to get people connected to services and shelter.
“Get to know your unsheltered,” she advised. “We have to advocate for them.”
Hammer does a regular census of tents and occupants in both Old Town and Goose Hollow while mapping chronic hot spots. Old Town has had up to 275 tents, with about two occupants in each. A recent count found 68 in Goose Hollow clustered at three sites.
Raven Drake, manager of the Ambassador Program for Street Roots, turned to local government and social agencies for campsite data in an effort to get people sheltered at the Convention Center during a recent cold snap. They had none, she said.
“Tiffany’s information on the number of tents was invaluable,” Drake said. “We have found more accurate information from dealing directly with the neighborhood associations and houseless persons than we have from official sources at this point.”
Drake is noticing “amazing changes” in the involvement of inner Westside neighborhood associations. While she had heard negative stories about such groups, “I’ve actually found it to be the complete opposite.”
“I believe these people do want to help,” she said. “These neighborhood associations that do outreach are trying to help.”
Garrett, after retiring from a career as a community developer, “building the capacity of communities to take care of themselves” around the world, moved to Downtown six years ago and immediately got involved.
Garrett noted the large expenditures on housing and social services.
“It’s an economy in itself,” she said. “I do question the amount of money being spent. The problem does not seem to be getting better.
“For me, working at the neighborhood level seems to make the most sense. We’re doing it one by one by building relationships. … It’s a beautiful thing.”
Garrett recently turned down a professional assignment in Appalachia.
“I would much rather be working right here as a volunteer right here in my neighborhood.”