Catholic Sentinel/Bob Kerns
Brittany joyfully lifts her laughing child Kaymahrie at Community of Hope in North Portland. The shelter now has a long-term lease.
Catholic Sentinel/Bob Kerns
Brittany joyfully lifts her laughing child Kaymahrie at Community of Hope in North Portland. The shelter now has a long-term lease.
At 15, Kim Williams was caring for her father, who had AIDS.

Even by then, her childhood had been less than ideal. She spares people the ugly details.

“I kind of had to grow up real fast,” says Williams, now 20.

By the time she was 16, she was living on the streets of Portland and making what she calls “mistakes along the way.” She used hard drugs and became pregnant. Not willing to take responsibility for her daughter, she lost custody.

With help and hard work, she left drugs behind and earned her child back. But challenges continued.
She became pregnant again, giving birth to a son. The children’s father landed in jail and Williams was left raising two toddlers alone.  

“I have managed to keep on my feet,” she says. “I may have to live day-by-day but my kids have never spent a night on the streets.”

Williams and her children had shelter and high expectations at a key time in life in part because of a church-run shelter and education program in North Portland. Community of Hope, with volunteers from Holy Cross Parish and many other congregations, has been sharing room for a year in a non-denominational church basement.

But the ministry is entering a long term lease across the street at an unused church youth center. Pending the permit process, the project will have space of its own.    

“If I hadn’t been there, I would have been somewhere else getting shelter, but I wouldn’t have gotten what I got there,” says Williams, shortly before she moved on from Community of Hope.

Like the other women there, she took classes in parenting, nutrition, finances, conflict resolution and other topics. She knows the training has given her a better chance at creating a stable life for her children. Williams was  applying for jobs and made it to the top of a waiting list for subsidized housing.

“We are not just a place to stay. We are a community that learns and grows together,” says Linda Jo Devlaeminck, the shelter’s program manager and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, Wash. “You need to be open to growing. If you don’t want the accountability and think you know everything, you find this place is not for you.”

Devlaeminck wants people to forget the stereotype of the helpless homeless mother. The women who come to Community of Hope often are strong and resourceful, Devlaeminck explains.

Typically, a woman and her children will stay at the shelter for four to six months, time to get some education and save up for an independent life.  

Devlaeminck has learned a lot in 10 months. At first, the shelter was open only after school and at night. Families explained that round-the-clock support is needed to provide the stability that leads to progress. At the same time, shelter residents must abide by expectations, like staying clean and sober and attending classes.

Devlaeminck now understands what trauma can do to people and how it makes them act. That has boosted her compassion.

She has been pleasantly surprised to find that the shelter often serves as a catalyst for family reconciliation.

“One thing we notice is that relationships with family improve when women are here,” Devlaeminck explains. “You hear it said that people get homeless not because they run out of money but because they run out of relationships.”

The new building could double capacity to eight families, Devlaeminck says. It offers showers, laundry facilities and access for people with disabilities.

The program runs on a shoestring and the budget is never in place more than a few months out.    
Some neighbors have stepped forward to help raise funds, with a benefit concert, play, festival and Christmas gifts for mothers and children.

Devlaeminck is urging churches to consider sponsoring the renovation of bedrooms in the new building, which cost $2,000 apiece. Workers will add built-in bunk beds and wardrobes.

David Brewer directs All One Community Services, a coalition of churches that founded the shelter. “We learned that this is very clearly God’s work and not just a program we want,” says Brewer, who spent decades in corporate America. This kind of project requires more flexibility and patience than a controlled business undertaking, he says.

That comes in large part because the people who come to a shelter are individuals, not categories, he explains. Organizers have learned that the enterprise is not just about helping clients, but allowing everyone to advance, staff and volunteers included.

In the years to come, Brewer would like to see more people served and more serving. That may mean an even larger building or multiple small sites. He’ll listen to the community to see what is needed.  

Samanatha Pottenger, a member of Holy Cross Parish and an education student at Concordia University, volunteered to do childcare as part of a “bringing faith to life” school project. She played with children and at times pulled out her violin.

“I love the personal element they have at the shelter,” Pottenger says. “They are able to get individualized help and attention.”

The warmth the women felt at Community of Hope will strengthen them in the future, she says.

“Being a single mom without a place to stay is a pretty tough place to be,” says the Rev. Kelly Cohoe, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship and a shelter volunteer. “But there are some very intelligent women and given the opportunity, they can go places.”

Rev. Cohoe appreciates the ecumenical nature of the project. He and other Christians in the region have taken to calling themselves by the inclusive moniker, “The Church of North Portland.”  

Hannah Johnson, a University of Portland junior, served as an intern at Community of Hope. While learning how to help and refer the women and children to professionals, Johnson spent a lot of time simply being present, listening to their stories.

“It is about building relationships and walking alongside them,” Johnson says. “There is not much more than being a human being next to another human being.”