Catholic Charities of Oregon hopes several Catholic parishes will step forward early to take part in a new Portland-area program that allows churches to host homeless car campers in their parking lots.

“I think it’s a terrific idea,” said Trell Anderson, who leads housing efforts for Catholic Charities.

According to annual counts, about 250 people spend the night in vehicles in Multnomah County. 

Anderson said Catholic Charities will offer technical assistance to the parishes and any other religious organization wanting to host guests. The agency gained experience with temporary housing for homeless people at its Kenton Women’s Village, a tiny house community that opened a year ago in North Portland. Issues include infrastructure, neighbor relations, conflict resolution, self-governance, insurance, community outreach, guest screening and setup. Catholic Charities will offer social services help to people who live at the faith community sites.

As in other West Coast cities, encampments of homeless people have sprung up all over Portland in recent years, spurred by high housing costs, Portland’s mild climate, a reduction in mental health services and relatively robust social aid. City and Multnomah County officials hope churches, synagogues and mosques can help temporarily while everyone seeks an evasive longer-term solution.

A previous attempt at a similar program foundered from lack of authority and direction. The city and county brought on Catholic Charities to help prevent a new round of problems.

“We have gained a lot of experience at Kenton,” Anderson says. “We can apply these lessons learned and help a network of faith groups.”

Catholic Charities is seeking members for a steering committee. 

The churches must provide trash pickup, bathrooms and connection to social services through Catholic Charities. Three cars or six tiny houses are allowed at a time. The project could start as soon as this summer. 

“We are excited to engage and organize the extraordinary resources of faith communities for the benefit of people and families who are unhoused,” said Deacon Rick Birkel, Catholic Charities’ executive director. “We hear from across many communities of faith that they want to help.”

Over the last year, the Portland Leadership Foundation has been urging faith leaders to help address homelessness. That is the same group that has invited churches to help the state of Oregon’s foster family efforts.

 “One of the things I consistently heard was that faith communities wanted to help, but they felt like they were creating more of a problem than actually helping,” said Ben Sand, executive director of the Portland Leadership Foundation. “This gives a really clear answer to the question of ‘How can we help?’ If we can really scale it, and see it grow, it has an opportunity to catch wind and change how we’re working together.”

The program is modeled after similar programs in Santa Barbara, California, and Eugene. 

“I’ve been clear about this since Day 1: Everything has to be on the table if we’re going to grow our progress in ending homelessness — and every one of us has to play a role,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a written statement. “When the faith community is asking us how they can help, and when they’re bringing us such an innovative answer to that question, we have to stand ready in partnership.”

Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County chairwoman, said homelessness devastates everyone it touches. “We see its effects every day, but it also has the power to render people invisible,” she said. “Throughout Multnomah County, we know that there are homeless families living in cars that we don’t see.”

To help

To support the housing project or to apply for the Catholic Charities steering committee, go here