Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, addresses supporters July 19 from the stairs of Chiles House, new low-cost housing near Catholic Charities headquarters. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, addresses supporters July 19 from the stairs of Chiles House, new low-cost housing near Catholic Charities headquarters. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Here are the kind of residents who will live in Catholic Charities of Oregon’s newest affordable housing units: a grandmother who fell seriously ill just after getting stable in life and a woman who spent her savings on medical care for a child born premature.

Catholic Charities on July 19 blessed and dedicated the 27-unit Chiles House, which is aimed at keeping individuals and families from falling deep into homelessness. The first residents are moving in.

“We can’t only help people in real urgency; we need to prevent the urgency,” said Rose Bak, chief program officer at Catholic Charities of Oregon. “It’s about prevention.”

Rents start below $500 per month and priority goes to Catholic Charities clients.

Chiles House, adjacent to Catholic Charities’ Southeast Portland headquarters, proved that affordable housing can go up fast if not overburdened with red tape. Private funders have chipped in. The building took two years from proposal to completion, about half the time of public projects. Finding a room for applicants here will go faster than in publicly funded housing.

The location of Chiles House is key. It’s a 30-second walk to the offices of Catholic Charities, where residents can get food, job help, financial strategy training, mental health counseling, parenting training, legal services and help finding permanent housing.

“The tools and resources that Catholic Charities provides to this vulnerable population is key to their clients’ successful future,” said Kristi Richards, executive director of the Chiles Foundation, which gave $1 million for the project.

The new building adds to Catholic Charities’ existing portfolio of more than 800 affordable housing units. An additional 250 units are currently under construction, with hundreds more in development.

“As the number of those suffering with housing insecurity continues to rise, clients have expressed to us that they have lost all hope of having a home. It is heartbreaking to see this type of suffering,” said Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon. “Chiles House will not only provide a stable and safe space for our clients in the short term but will support and uplift our clients to be secure, stable, and able to move into permanent housing – and that is a truly precious gift to all of us.”

Wood led prayer at the dedication.

“Thank you, God, for staying close and inspiring our hearts,” she prayed as supporters gathered in shade on a hot summer morning.

The health needs of residents is getting special attention. Chiles House was designed to comfort and heal people who’ve been through trauma. The rooms are bright and simple. All doors open to the outside. Both privacy and socialization are worked into the design, as is natural wood, which studies say contributes to a feeling of wellness.

“Folks who are skirting homelessness, who are experiencing housing insecurity, are often in a heightened state of distress and we wanted to create a space where they can rest and where they could heal,” said Anna Mackay, principal of Sister City, a developer that joined as a partner in the project. “It’s not only who we serve, where we can be uplifting, but also how we deliver the housing.”

Chiles House is one of several housing developments in Catholic Charities of Oregon’s Healthy Housing Initiative, a collaborative effort between Catholic Charities of Oregon, the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon and Providence Health & Services. The initiative is also part of a larger Catholic Charities USA effort to address chronic homelessness by providing greater access to permanent supportive housing that integrates health and wellness with onsite social services.

Financial health also is part of the plan. Through the Ganz Family Matched Savings Program residents will be given $6 for every $1 they save. Those accounts will come in handy to pay first month’s rent and security deposits at apartments. The fund is named for Mark and Leslie Ganz, who made a substantial investment and leadership gift in the capital campaign for Chiles House.

“It’s hard to survive, much less thrive, with a minimum wage job,” said Leslie Ganz.

“Homelessness is a complex issue that cannot be solved by one group or one solution, but requires a collective, holistic approach from multiple partners,” said Pauline Fong, program director at M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which gave support. The Collins Foundation also donated.

Renewable solar energy systems in Chiles House got funds from PGE’s customer-funded initiatives. The project also benefits from the support of Metro’s program that helps more people live, work and shop in neighborhoods served by frequent public transit.

Mark Ellsworth of the Metro Transit Oriented Development Advisory Committee said the project fits the Oregon Trail tradition, in which pioneers sacrificed for the good of others.

Deacon Rick Birkel, former executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, blessed the property with holy water.

“God, dwell with those who reside here,” Deacon Birkel prayed, “that they may have you as a guest of honor and a constant companion.”