A preliminary rendering by MWA Architects of Cathedral Village, a housing community that will include units for those who were chronically homeless, depicts the view from North Burlington Avenue in North Portland; the St. Johns Bridge is in the background. Catholic Charities of Oregon will provide case management at the new housing complex. (Courtesy Catholic Charities of Oregon)
A preliminary rendering by MWA Architects of Cathedral Village, a housing community that will include units for those who were chronically homeless, depicts the view from North Burlington Avenue in North Portland; the St. Johns Bridge is in the background. Catholic Charities of Oregon will provide case management at the new housing complex. (Courtesy Catholic Charities of Oregon)
In an unprecedented partnership, three Oregon Catholic entities will apply creativity, smarts and ample roll-up-your-sleeves hard work to address a painful reality Portlanders observe daily: chronic homelessness.

The Archdiocese of Portland, Catholic Charities of Oregon, and Providence Health and Services are participating in the Healthy Housing Initiative, a Catholic Charities USA pilot project that aims to reduce chronic homelessness by 20% over the next five years in five U.S. cities. The effort was announced early last year and officially launches in 2020. New housing, medical care and mental health treatment are part of the initiative.

“It’s quite ambitious, it’s daunting, it’s exciting,” said Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. “Hopefully we will be able to do something wonderful for those most in need.”

The other locations are Detroit, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Spokane, Washington.

Locally it’s common to see homeless individuals pushing shopping carts piled with assorted belongings, holding signs seeking help or lugging hefty blankets that mitigate the winter chill. In the past two years, the number of people who experience chronic homelessness in Portland’s Multnomah County increased 37%, with nearly 1,800 people fitting the definition, according to the most recent count. A disproportionate number of the chronically homeless are people of color.

“The plight of our neighbors on the streets weighs on the hearts and minds of so many of us,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample after the housing initiative was announced. “We are grateful for this opportunity to work together with Catholic Charities and Providence to be part of the solution and provide practical help.”

Catholic Charities of Oregon already has taken a first significant step toward meeting the goals of the initiative with the announcement this fall of Cathedral Village, an approximately 110-unit housing community in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland. The project targets low-income families and will include designated permanent supportive housing units for the those who’ve been chronically homeless.

Permanent supportive housing pairs onsite services with affordable housing for residents who are not required to move out within a given timeframe. At Cathedral Village, Catholic Charities will provide case management.

“We hope people stabilize and get a great job and eventually don’t need affordable housing, but some folks might need to stay for a longer time,” said Travis Phillips, director of community development and housing at Catholic Charities of Oregon. The support piece is “a recognition that people who have been chronically homeless need an extra hand,” he said. “If someone has been living on the street and has a health problem or addiction or is a survivor of domestic violence, there is a lot of stuff to figure out all at once. Simply giving them a key to an apartment is not enough.”

In the Portland region, people are classified as chronically homeless if they’ve been without housing for more than one year in the past three years and have a disabling condition or are survivors of domestic violence.

Cathedral Village is an important housing entity not only for the Healthy Housing Initiative but in the city of Portland’s efforts to address chronic homelessness. Its construction will be subsidized in part by a bond measure that dedicates $256.4 million to create 1,300 units throughout the city for its most vulnerable residents. Between Cathedral Village and several other planned projects, the city has exceeded its goal by more than 100 units.

Design plans and permits for Cathedral Village will be finalized soon, and construction likely will begin in the fall of 2020. It’s estimated it will be ready for residents by late 2021 or early 2022.

People who were previously chronically homeless “are exceptionally more successful” in the type of housing Cathedral Village will offer, said Phillips. Between 2007 and 2017, permanent supportive housing in the United States helped decrease the number of chronically homeless individuals by 26%, according to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Research also shows housing and consistent support lead to fewer emergency room visits, improved connections to primary care and lower health care costs.

“Being unhoused makes all existing health conditions worse, including mental health disorders, diabetes, heart disease,” said Lisa Vance, chief executive for Providence in Oregon. “In addition, when there are obstacles to getting care, even the simplest health issues can become life-threatening.”

The five-year goals for the Healthy Housing Initiative include reducing hospital readmission rates by 25% and connecting 35% of the newly housed with primary care and mental health help. Providence will play a central role in these aims and build on its current efforts to provide holistic support to homeless individuals. It’s also set bolder targets. Vance said Providence hopes to decrease hospital readmission rates for the newly housed by at least 50% and connect 100% of them with primary health care and behavioral health services.

Providence, the Portland Archdiocese and Catholic Charities will operate independently and collaboratively on the housing initiative, and the details are being worked out.

Marc Jolin, director of Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, joined other public sector leaders in praising the initiative. He said it has the potential to be “an important contribution to the collective effort” to address homelessness in the region.

Public partners who provide funding and further supports are key to many of Catholic Charities’ anti-homelessness endeavors, said Phillips.

Jolin’s staff has worked closely with Catholic Charities over the years on programs such as street outreach. He said the nonprofit has a record of innovative and effective endeavors that help people build better lives. He cited Kenton Village, a tiny-homes transitional community for women that’s placed nearly 30 individuals in permanent housing in its approximately two and a half years of operation.

“It was intentional to have diverse cities who also already had a robust Catholic Charities,” said Sister Donna. “They also had a bishop who saw the need and was supportive and Catholic health partners who were keen on jumping in on this collaborative effort.”

Phillips said it will be fascinating to see what’s learned at the five sites during the pilot. “We will be sharing ideas and solutions and stories with the other cities,” he said.

Sister Donna said the involvement of everyday Catholics in the pews is integral to the project.

Oregon Catholic Charities is launching a campaign to raise money and build parish and donor engagement to support the initiative. And the archdiocese and Catholic Charities are continuing to urge families and parishes to find spare rooms and buildings to convert to housing for homeless individuals.

“We say we are people of the Gospel, where Jesus is calling us to look after those most in need among us,” Sister Donna said. “As a Catholic community of faith it’s important to be aware of our brothers and sisters. It could be any one of us given the right circumstances.”

Catholic Charities USA, based in Alexandria, Virginia, asked its network members across the United Sates what they saw as the most critical needs for their clients. Affordable housing emerged as a top concern.

The national agency has been involved in housing since its founding in 1910, “but the responses were a clarion call for all of us to make a bigger dent in this issue,” said Sister Donna. The Healthy Housing Initiative is part of the response.

Portland has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, but the Catholic ministries there have “very creative solutions,” Sister Donna said. “I’m excited that Portland is one of the cities. It’s an extraordinary place; there’s a great community that’s on the front end of this whole initiative, which I hope will spread out into many cities in the years to come.”

To help

Learn ways to support the Healthy Housing Initiative HERE.