An architect’s sketch shows the Annex, 27 units of transitional housing about to be built next to the Catholic Charities offices in Southeast Portland. (Courtesy All Hands Architecture)
An architect’s sketch shows the Annex, 27 units of transitional housing about to be built next to the Catholic Charities offices in Southeast Portland. (Courtesy All Hands Architecture)

Catholic Charities of Oregon and its partners have broken ground on a 27-unit, $6 million building that aims to fill the chasm between shelters and permanent housing.

The Annex emergency housing hub, going up just west of Catholic Charities headquarters in Southeast Portland, will provide immediate housing placement and wrap-around service interventions to help interrupt the spiral into homelessness, a situation disproportionately experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC. Completion is slated for fall 2022.

“It’s no secret that homelessness in Portland is getting worse,” said Rose Bak, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Oregon. “All you need to do is walk a few blocks to see someone sleeping on the sidewalk or in a car.”

But that’s only what’s visible, said Bak, explaining that often people suffer and lose homes in unseen quarters. “I am thrilled about the Annex,” she said. “It gives us a chance to fill in the gaps we see in the housing system.”

Bak imagines future Annex residents and their challenges: about to be evicted, suffering domestic violence, caring for a new baby. Clients will be able to stay in the apartments for days, months or longer.

“This housing will combat added stress and allow you to focus on your children, to focus on your goals, to go back to school or get a better job,” said Donya Frazier, family services case manager for Catholic Charities.

Preventing ‘slide to homelessness’

The Annex is part of the Healthy Housing Initiative, a broader plan by Catholic Charities, the Archdiocese of Portland and Providence Health and Services to reduce homelessness and improve health in the Portland area.

Almost 1 in 5 clients in Catholic Charities programs say their greatest concern is losing their home.

“We will not stand by and watch people go through that slide to homelessness,” said Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Deacon Birkel explained there are more ways people become homeless now, with the pandemic causing illness and job loss. Meanwhile, gentrification is driving up rents.

“For our families it will be a blessing,” said Hilda Guerro, a Catholic Charities case manager who wears a medal of the Virgin Mary around her neck.

Catholic Charities already owns more than 900 units on 24 properties throughout Oregon, with more than 350 units under construction. The annex is a transition zone to that permanent housing.

“This is another way we can work through this epidemic of homelessness,” said Travis Phillips, director of community development and housing for Catholic Charities. Phillips calls the planned rents at the Annex “deeply affordable.” 

This sketch portrays a well-lit studio apartment in the Annex. (Courtesy All Hands Architecture)

Services included

Catholic Charities staff provide social services to people who live in all the agency’s housing. But the Annex’s proximity to the offices makes that even easier.

Annex residents will have quick access to health care, mental health support, job searches, education in finance and even matched funds for a savings account that may help pay rent in future permanent housing.

Residents can build up a rental history and improve credit histories, both helpful in housing applications.

Volunteers from churches and other groups will provide support to residents.

Sarah Granger, interim development officer for Catholic Charities, said the Annex project can be summed up in a brief command of Jesus: “Love your neighbor.”

Privately funded

Catholic Charities is still looking for major contributions to the project, which is being funded without government money. About 40% of the $6 million has been raised so far.

A Catholic couple from St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland are lead donors. Mark and Leslie Ganz have been longtime supporters of Catholic Charities, with Mark serving as board chairman in the recent past.

“What has captured our imaginations about what Catholic Charities is proposing to do with the Annex is that it’s about addressing a gap that no one else to date has been addressing,” said Mark, former chief executive at Cambia Health Solutions.

Mark said his own sister almost became homeless before the family helped her. But not everyone has such resources, he explained. Mark sees the Annex as a vaccine that prevents the disease of homelessness.

“Not everyone is born into equal circumstances, and those circumstances are out of their control,” said Leslie. “I think there is nothing more important than having a stable home in order to flourish. If all your energy is devoted to making sure that you and your children have a safe place to sleep at night, then the challenges ahead of you seem insurmountable. By investing in the Annex, we are investing in people and helping them off the streets.”

Providence Health and Services gave $400,000 for the building.

“People who need housing need more than a place to live,” said Joseph Ichter, director of community health investment for Providence. He is a fan of the services that come along with the apartments.

Government funding comes with conditions and usually delays. Free of that at the Annex, Catholic Charities can choose and serve its clients quickly. Construction can proceed at a 40% lower cost and faster by a year. Given the homelessness crisis in the city, speed was a high priority.

“I love the innovation,” said Theresa Edmonson, chairwoman of the Catholic Charities board.

Designed for health

The Annex design bears in mind the needs of residents who’ve had hard lives, said Anna Mackay, founder of Sister City, a Portland real estate design and development firm that joined efforts with Catholic Charities.

There is a balance of space for socialization and solitude.

Bathrooms have a bath, not just a shower, since so many of the residents have long gone without simple pleasures like soaking.

Each apartment will have its own mailbox. Studies show health and emotional benefits of exposed wood, so the Annex has plenty of that. Fresh air and access to the outdoors will be plentiful. A bicycle commuter, Mackay is excited that the site will have parking for almost 50 cycles.

Meanwhile, clients who have lived in shelters and tiny home communities told Catholic Charities that housing should feel secure.

“Real estate development is a linchpin for righting some of society’s wrongs,” Mackay said.

When asked what she wants residents to feel in the Annex, Mackay said, “I am home. I am safe here. I can rest here.”

Truebeck Construction will use cross laminated timber, which offers better strength and stability than standard wood and has environmental benefits like a reduction in logging. The Annex will be the first low-income housing in Portland to use the technology, which also reduces emission of harmful vapors associated with some wood products.

Betsy Leaverton-Bice of Truebeck Construction said the firm aimed for a well-lit, airy and healthy design at a cost that allows Catholic Charities to keep rents low. “It was a really fun challenge,” said Leaverton-Bice.

Construction will include mentorships for youths interested in the trades or ex-offenders who want to start a new career.

More than half the firms involved in the project are led by women or people of color.

To help

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