By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
Celebration was in order on Friday, April 16 in an unassuming looking, one-story building off NE 82nd Avenue and NE Halsey that once housed a sketchy bridge club and boxing ring.
The day marked the grand opening of JOIN’s new location. It is a momentous occasion for JOIN, a small, social service agency providing outreach and housing services to Portland’s homeless.
The organization’s prior location is enough answer why. Located off of SE 17th Avenue a little bit too close to the railroad tracks, the “Brooklyn JOIN,” as it is now called, was small, cramped, and the building was old and in need of repairs.
“We were working in a much less than ideal circumstance,” says JOIN’s executive director Marc Jolin. “It was too small for what we were trying to do. People came in cold and tired, and it was almost impossible to find a place to be quiet. It didn’t really meet people’s needs well.”
Now there are six bathrooms for homeless people, two showers, and a large, well-lit day space where families can spend time together. A small conference room serves as a library and a quiet space for people to read, fill out paperwork, and use a computer.
The new space also heralds in the modern environment of homelessness, as Portland’s metropolitan area become increasingly less accessible to low-income renters. East county is where people are moving to.
Jolin says more than half the people JOIN houses now live east of 82nd avenue. In the last few years, the percentage of homeless families JOIN has served has grown from 25 percent to 50 percent, Jolin says, mostly because of the economy.
“This area of town reflects, to some extent, the area where homelessness and poverty are located in the larger community,” Jolin says. “Part of this move was recognizing that the number of families we’re working with has grown significantly.”
In 2009, JOIN housed 460 individuals; 110 of those were chronically homeless, meaning they had been homeless for at least a year. 73 percent of those 460 households, or 335, did not return to homelessness after 12 months.
The core of JOIN’s work is the outreach workers who go out every night throughout Portland and find homeless people where they are camping. They may bring some food, coffee, or blankets, but what they mostly do is talk to the person about where they are at and if they want services.
“They’re missing that person in their lives who will stick with them through thick and thin until they are stable again,” Jolin says. “Once we have engaged with someone, we are going to remain committed to that process for as long as it takes.”
Also housed at JOIN is Street Roots, the Benefits Advocacy Coalition, Human Solutions, Oregon Law Center, Central City Concern’s employment program, and Outside In medical van.
“They try to get to know you by name,” says John Jayne. Jayne has been using JOIN’s services for less than a week. He has been homeless since July 2009, and moved to Portland from Tennessee in November. “You go to places downtown, and they’re not going to call you by your name. They’re just like, ‘here.’”
Martin Davidson, 44, says he has been going to JOIN since 2004. He was recently ill, and was surprised that JOIN’s staff gave him a get well card. “I didn’t realize that many people cared about me,” he says.
JOIN does not force services upon anyone, leaving it to the person to decide for themselves how quickly they want to move off the streets, and how.
JOIN was founded in 1992 by Rob Justus. Its philosophy is based on what Jolin calls a “progressive Catholic tradition” of a relationship-model of social work with built-in compassion.
“It turns out to be an effective way of getting people off the streets,” Jolin says.
Once a homeless individual is housed, JOIN sticks with the person through its retention services. A variety of life-skill classes are offered, including cooking classes.
“They know the ins and outs without going through a bunch of headaches,” says Russell Williams, 51.
Although he is JOIN’s executive director, Jolin says JOIN’s relatively small size and autonomous staff allows him to be out and about in the community more. He is on every major committee having something to do with homeless policy — including co-chairing the Coordinating Committee to End Homelessness, which oversees the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, the now defunct SAFE committee, which oversaw the now former sit-lie ordinance, and he is in the thick of conversations regarding changing the guidelines to how homeless people can camp in Portland.
“What I’m trying to do is bridge a larger community gap about people’s concerns, to cut through some of the rhetorical positioning that happens and find common ground,” Jolin says.
In the late ‘90s, Jolin created the Homeless Person’s Legal Issues Taskforce, which lobbied the state legislature mandating a 24-hour notice to campers before they were forced to move.
Having a background as a lawyer, he says, gives him a different perspective.
“What are the real world consequences for people who are outside that we are trying to help? We know that what is happening to folks while they are sleeping outside affects their ability to get off the streets in multiple ways,” Jolin says. “So I worry about legalities.”
Mike Reese, currently the Police commander of East Precinct and who recently served as Central Precinct’s commander, says working with JOIN and Jolin has only been a good thing for the Police Bureau. “Certainly because of the work and our interaction with JOIN, we have a better understanding of the dynamics around homelessness and the issues facing the homeless population in Portland,” Reese says.
Police officers, Reese says, now understand, or should understand, that homeless individuals are in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to camping — although it is illegal to camp in Portland, they have nowhere to go.
“You have more compassion and empathy for people when you look at it from that perspective,” Reese says. “I think you’re much more likely to reach out to people and try to connect with them and offer carrots instead of a stick.”
“But I think without some fairly significant system changes around federal level funding for affordable housing, we are going to have people in our community becoming homeless,” he says.
As long as Jolin has worked to end homelessness, he didn’t immediately answer when asked why he chose to work in this field.
“That’s a good question,” he says. He stops to think for a good while, staring at the ground thoughtfully, his eyebrows slightly furrowed.
“There is something profoundly disturbing to me about how people in our society never get a meaningful chance. And then there are people who struggle to get a second chance,” Jolin finally says. “If we find solutions to homelessness, we’re starting to find solutions to poverty and the loss of human potential of people just struggling to survive.”