Hey, Kid: Get Off the Street

Portland, Ore.—Life for homeless teens here hasn’t been the same since the day a brawny bully dragged some scrawny youth agencies out to Pioneer Square and beat them up.

The bully was the business community, and its weapon was paper: a scathing report charging that the groups serving street kids – who are so ubiquitous downtown that it looks like there’s always a backpackers’ convention in swing – had virtually nothing to show from millions in funding and actually helped perpetuate the problem.

The live-on-a-shoestring nonprofits got up punching and screaming.

These “people who run large corporations … come from almost a different planet,” Janet Miller, coordinator of an umbrella group of homeless youth agencies, told the press. At Outside In, which has served downtrodden youth since 1968, Executive Director Kathy Oliver charged that a “corrupt” process diverted county funding from her agency to a neophyte group started by business leaders.

Five years later, Oliver and her fellow nonprofit chiefs sit around a table twice a month with local business and government leaders to run their partnership – perhaps the country’s most innovative system for serving unaccompanied homeless youth.

While homeless youth agencies in other cities have built collaborations (Minneapolis) or convinced downtown businesses to fund new services (Denver), no place has gone as far as Portland. Its partnership of nonprofits, businesses and government agencies has created a network – offering everything from beds and billiards to schooling and independent living – that has one point of entry, decides which agency and services are best for each youth and tracks each youth’s progress on a shared database.

It sounds like the kind of “one-stop shop many of us strive for … but few of us achieve,” says Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the Project Foundation, a shelter and service provider in Minneapolis.

What’s especially remarkable is how social workers bent on relief and corporate leaders demanding bang for their bucks compromised to craft a system that provides basic services while focusing on one outcome: getting youth off the streets.

This compromise has not been without pain. Providers say some teens have been denied services because they won’t accept case management. The overhaul required more money and political will than most cities could muster for homeless kids. And in a lesson for nonprofits that think they’d like to try this at home, the local Salvation Army struggled so much with the new approach that Multnomah County took away its homeless youth drop-in center and gave it to another nonprofit.

It’s not even clear that there are fewer homeless youths here than five years ago. But for Oliver, who initially saw her agency threatened by the shift, the bottom line is this: “There are more services for kids, and we’re able to move more kids into housing.”

‘A Lot of Frustration’

You’d think that people who live outside wouldn’t be so attracted to a place that’s famous for rain; the stuff falls seemingly every day here from fall through spring. But for years, homeless youths and young adults have been fixtures on the brick sidewalks downtown and the grassy park along the Willamette River.

Locals espouse several theories about why: the abundant train and bus routes through Portland, its place between San Francisco and Seattle (also popular among homeless youth), the liberal city’s permissive attitude toward street people, and the ease of getting around a city designed for pedestrians and bus riders. (Buses are free in the downtown core.)

Homeless youth estimates start at about 400 and go well past 1,000. Surveys indicate that about half are from Portland and nearby counties. Like Portland’s population, they are overwhelmingly white.

They sit quietly for the most part on the sidewalks and at public squares, talking among themselves. Most sport the grungy look of campers, and many speak in the spacey manner of someone who’s been stoned a lot.

In a sample of 332 youths served by the Homeless Youth Services Continuum from 1999-2001, half reported using alcohol in the past month, and half reported using marijuana. Local youth workers say one of their big challenges is heroin use among a small, stubborn core of street kids.

As in other cities, those street kids created an image and business problem for Portland. “There was a lot of frustration on the part of downtown businesses that there wasn’t enough being done to get kids off the street,” says Ken Cowdery, executive director of New Avenues for Youth – an upstart program whose creation marked the first shot fired toward the traditional nonprofits.

New Avenues opened in 1997 on $500,000 – all from businesses that wanted someone to focus on helping street teens reunite with their families or learn to support themselves. New Avenues provided shelter for youths who accepted education and employment services. The backers included some of the area’s most prominent businesses, and their move was a stinging jab with pocketbook consequences: Several of the businesses had been long-time donors to Greenhouse, the Salvation Army’s homeless youth shelter. Greenhouse watched as former backers like the Greenbrier Companies gave New Avenues $125,000.

Then came the right hook in January 1998: a report on “Services to Homeless Youth in Portland” by two business groups, the Citizens Crime Commission and the Association for Portland Progress. These were heavyweights: The report committee included corporate executives, the city’s Republican leader and a retired police commander, and was co-chaired by former congressman Les AuCoin (D) and the publisher of The Oregonian daily newspaper.

It’s no surprise that this corporate look at nonprofit youth services carried a tone of disturbed wonder. Among the findings: The nonprofits didn’t have to show they were meeting performance standards or account much for how they spent their government money; the agencies gathered little information about those they served, leaving the city with no useful information about its homeless youth; the agencies rarely communicated with each other, pursuing different philosophies on such crucial issues as pushing kids toward case management versus offering no-strings-attached relief; and because of that, youth bounced around among agencies, sticking with whoever took it easiest on them.

The report also lambasted local government for not funding enough emergency shelter beds for homeless youths and doing little to address the causes of youth homelessness, such as child abuse and mental illness.

Of course, the committee could have found coordination and funding problems in most large cities – like 175 miles north in Seattle, where more than 30 agencies serve homeless youth. Coordination “is a real challenge with a lot of different providers providing a lot of services to kids,” says Mary Shaw, a city Human Services Department planner who serves on Seattle’s homeless youth task force.

Portland’s homeless youth agencies argued that they were effective despite their fragmentation. But the political and business brawn behind the report created momentum for local government to change its approach. That change set off a fierce debate over the philosophy behind serving homeless kids.

Die on the Street?

It was a classic battle over relief vs. outcomes: Portland’s business groups figured that to get services, a youth should have to do something to get off the street, like enter drug rehabilitation. The nonprofits said they already offered such services but could not force them on youths, and that every kid deserves a meal and a place to sleep.

Dennis L. Morrow, executive director of Janus Youth Programs, recalls passionate debates: “Would you deprive a youth of safety off the street because in doing that you might enable him to not participate in services? Would you let somebody die on the street because they wouldn’t get into case management? We’re talking serious community values.”

In the middle was Multnomah County, which wanted to bring together its service providers and business leaders – a task that has been a struggle in many cities.

“It’s really easy for homeless providers and the business community to dig their heels in and say, ‘We care abut kids and they don’t,’” says Roxane Waters, CEO of Urban Peak in Denver, which has spent years trying to team up with downtown businesses. “The common ground that we agree on is that we don’t want young people just going to soup kitchens the rest of their lives.”
In Portland, several factors forced the two sides together:

The problem was starkly visible. “You can’t have 15-year-old kids living in the street,” says Cowdery of New Avenues. The businesses and nonprofits found a common purpose: Get kids off the street and into independent living.

Local political leaders, especially the county board of commissioners, were strongly behind the idea of overhauling the system.
And Multnomah County used money as a weapon. “A lot of our funding [now] comes from the county,” Cowdery says. “They said, ‘You’ve got to collaborate on this.’”

They were demanding collaboration on a scale unseen in any city. In Minneapolis, a collaboration of 12 youth-serving agencies (called Streetworks) coordinates homeless youth outreach and referrals. In Seattle, providers routinely collaborate with each other, and several belong to a homeless youth task force, but there is no centralized coordination of intake and services.

What Portland had was a mandate from the primary funder. In 1998 Multnomah County issued $2.5 million in contract proposals for homeless youth services, with a string tied to every dollar: There would be performance standards, more accountability for how money was spent, significant information about the youths served, integration of services among agencies and a focus on getting youths off the street.

The public feud began immediately. A board created to award the contracts appeared to shift hundreds of thousands of dollars in proposed funding from Outside In to the upstart New Avenues – sparking public accusations from nonprofits of vote-switching, deceit and corruption.

“We don’t have the kind of political power that New Avenues has,” Oliver told The Oregonian. “All we have is a good, effective program.”

When the dust settled, Outside In got more money, and “the agencies worked hard to rebuild trust and design the best possible model of services,” Oliver says. “It wasn’t easy.”

It helps that city and county funding for homeless youth has doubled from five years ago, says Stephanie Vetter, the homeless youth coordinator in the Department of County Human Services. She says local, state and federal funding now amounts to $3 million a year. (The federal contribution to the collaboration is about $200,000 a year, Vetter says, although more federal money comes to specific agencies through grants and earmarks.)

Businesses have kicked in millions more, seeing it as an investment in solving a community problem that is literally in their faces. Youth agencies have pursued that strategy elsewhere, with less success. This year, Denver businesses agreed to contribute $70,000 to a downtown outreach center for homeless kids.

This is what all the money has built in Portland:

Army Falls Out

“You have any strawberry condoms?”

This is how the move off the street sometimes begins: with an outreach worker talking to a peppy teenage girl in a park frequented by homeless youth. The worker hands out supplies (such as band aids, toothpaste and safety pins), makes small talk and, if it fits the conversation, mentions services available for homeless kids. The workers, most of whom are volunteers with Janus’ Yellow Brick Road program, hit the downtown streets at dinnertime every night.

Whether prompted by outreach or word of mouth, the kids usually enter the system through Greenhouse, set on the ground floor of a downtown building that has the look of an old warehouse. The Salvation Army established Greenhouse as an overnight drop-in shelter in 1984, running it on donations. But the flight of financial backers to New Avenues and the county’s creation of the homeless youth collaboration forced the army to sign up. In 1998 the county gave the army a $605,000 annual contract to turn the army into the new system’s “Access and Assessment Center” – the main entry point for youths entering the system.

Here, staffers conduct intake screening (seeking information such as name, last home and medical problems) before giving youths access to beds and to the day programs run by New Avenues and Outside In.

Several cities are moving toward centralized intake for homeless people in hopes of improving resource management and streamlining referrals and services. “This is the future,” says Debra Boyer, associate director of Youth Care homeless services in Seattle, where the city wants to implement such a system.

But the Salvation Army wasn’t used to doing intake, staffing the facility around the clock (instead of just overnight) or moving kids to case management.

“They had the biggest shift to make in core value and operations,” says Morrow of Janus, which runs the collaboration’s two short-term shelters upstairs from Greenhouse.

The shift did not go well.

Youth routinely slept on the floor and couches in the large, open room that serves as the facility’s core. “There were no expectations. Kids had been living there for two years,” Morrow says.

And not enough of them were moving into services to get off the streets, says Vetter, who monitors the contracts for the county.
The changes “just overwhelmed the army system there,” says Maj. Neal Hogan, who became the army’s social services director for the Portland area in the summer of 2001.

“Old staff had difficulties changing over to this professional-based” type of service, Hogan says. He tried to beef up training, but “when you go to a 24-hour facility, you don’t have any breathing room. …

“I brought in an MSW to help us start developing that [training], but the changes I was making just were too late.”

The county canceled the army’s contract, and in January awarded it to Janus. The army took the move gracefully, which is fortunate: The county had to negotiate a lease for the center with the owner of the building – which is the army.

‘You’re Not Welcome’

A kid can still linger at Greenhouse and get the basics– a meal, a shower, a youth worker to talk to – but no one sleeps here any more.

And if he’s a runaway, he doesn’t stay. When the new system began, Morrow says, runaways mixed with homeless youth, and “we found that runaway kids would acclimate to the streets in days or weeks. It’s like all of a sudden, ‘That’s my new peer group. This is my street family’ ” – making it harder to get runaways back to their families. Runaways are now referred to Harry’s Mother, a longtime nonprofit residential facility run by Janus.

At intake here, the information is logged into a computer database shared by the service providers. If a teen shows up at New Avenues, the staff can look up his computer file to see his background and case management plan, and what services he’s received. (Youths sign an agreement for the agencies to share the information.)

Some youths “try to lie about name and age,” Morrow says, but staff ask for ID cards and call family members, schools and other agencies to verify a youth’s identification, and limit services until they do so.

From intake the youths can walk upstairs to two dorm-like shelters run by Janus, a 30-year-old nonprofit that operates youth and family services at 25 sites in the Portland area. A youth can stay for up to two weeks in one of the 30 bunk-style beds at Porch Light, the emergency shelter.

Those who accept case management go through more thorough assessments to determine their needs, and can move into the Street Light shelter for up to four months (with amenities like lockers and laundry machines as enticements) or into the transitional living programs at New Avenues and Outside In.

Youths have been turned away after exhausting their time at Porch Light and not accepting case management, says Kevin Donegan, community services director at Janus.

“If young people are not interested in exiting street life, they’re not going to get services in this system,” says Cowdery at New Avenues. “We’ll say, ‘You’re not welcome.’”

At Outside In, Oliver still can’t stomach that. “Outside In does not turn kids away because they don’t want to be in case management,” she says. (They do have to accept case management for the transitional living units.)

However, the case management push keeps some kids from even trying to get into the system. “I have a lot of friends who won’t go to a shelter unless it’s winter and very cold, because they don’t want to have to go into drug treatment or don’t want to change,” says Cherilyn, an 18-year-old who lives at New Avenues. “They’d rather do that [stay on the streets] than have people telling them what to do.”

Building Trust

To see how much homeless youth services have changed here, one need only look at the hippie that got a $5.5 million haircut.
Outside In began in 1968 “as a clinic and center for the hippies, the alienated youth of the time,” says Oliver, who joined the agency in 1980. Home was a few dilapidated row houses.

Home today is a 32,000-square-foot, four-story brick and glass edifice that sits in a mural-filled courtyard. Opened in January, the structure was built with $5.5 million in donations – largely from local businesses backing the new approach to homeless youth.
“It’s not a place for kids to just crash and hang out,” Oliver stresses. “It’s a place where we’re trying to build relationships and trust.”

Outside In handles 18- to 21-year-olds, while New Avenues takes in 14- to 19-year-olds. “Kids need different approaches at 15 than at 19,” Oliver explains. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds can be assigned to either place, depending on their developmental levels.

Youths start gathering in the courtyard before the doors open at 9 a.m. The activities inside include recreation (arts, computers), a medical clinic, breakfast and lunch (“Food is a big draw,” says Program Director Zarod Rominski), free clothes (more than 5,000 pairs of socks given away this year), employment assistance, GED classes and help in applying for college financial aid.

“Last year we helped 10 homeless kids enter college and helped 68 homeless kids get jobs,” Oliver says.

The agency also provides 30 transitional living units on the third and fourth floors, and partial funding for up to 10 apartments around the city. Youths must be employed or in school to live in any of these units; they can stay for two years.

The new system has enabled the agency to just about double the number of beds it provides, Rominski says.

It has also cut down on the number of youths coming to Outside In, from about 1,000 a day to 600. “With the number we had before, we were limited to maintaining order and [providing] lunch,” Rominski says. “Now we’re able to do programming. We have more time for one-on-one engagement.”

Youths do not have to sign up with a case manager the first time they walk in the door. But within a few visits, every youth will be approached by a youth worker about how to move on – toward family reunification, independent living, a diploma or a job. Come for a meal, Cowdery says, and “somebody’s going to ask you what you need.”


New Avenues’ day program is housed among downtown shops in a former business school, while its offices and 20-bed transitional living program are in a renovated office building that feels like a professional suite – a building that the nonprofit owns. For this New Avenues raised $1.5 million in 18 months. The big donors are commemorated in stone plaques on a wall: the Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation, the Portland Trailblazers and various real estate entities among them. (One smaller donor not on the wall: Enron.)

The federal government has added at least $450,000 in grants and earmarks through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 2000.

“Expectations – that’s what attracted donors,” Cowdery says.

The mood at both day programs is friendly, with lots of light, youth artwork on the walls and a couple of large pet carriers at New Avenues for kids to keep their best friends during the day. (A surprising number have dogs.) New Avenues offers many of the same services as Outside In, plus extras like a recording studio.

Staff at both programs use such activities to gradually draw youth into long-term services. “The trick to working with homeless kids is engagement,” Cowdery says.

The next trick is to engage them in something that will lead to independence – like the school at New Avenues, which focuses on GED preparation. Handling up to 30 kids a day on a drop-in basis, the school demonstrates how hardware like computers must be complemented by staffers who connect with kids – in this case, teachers Geof Garner and Josh Laurie. “When we survey our kids about what brings them to New Avenues,” Cowdery says, “they say the school, Geof and Josh.”

But there are not enough of some types of youth workers, which points out some of the system’s shortcomings.

‘Truly Amazing’

Ask service providers what’s hardest about the collaboration, and they all start with the same item: “The number of meetings,” Morrow says.

Cowdery says they sometimes eat up nine hours a week.

“Continuing meetings have become a part of people’s job descriptions,” says Rominski at Outside In.

That includes regular interagency meetings among executive directors, second-level administrators and program staff to discuss everything from kinks in coordination to individual cases. The Homeless Youth Oversight Committee, which oversees the system, brings together the directors, county and city officials, business leaders and representatives from various social services once a month.

One recent item of discussion: how to hire and train more case managers. “We have a waiting list of 10 to 25 youths at a time” for case management, Oliver says. “I think that’s unconscionable.”

Those needing mental health and substance abuse counseling also must wait for open slots with the city and county. Morrow says this makes it difficult for many youths to stick with the plans they must follow to get services. For youths with untreated mental health and drug problems, Morrow says, “meeting with a case manager is not on their priority list.”

In one sampling of homeless kids who received services, three-quarters showed signs of depression.

The collaboration is looking for ways to expand those services. One tactic is teaming up on grant applications. Last year a collaboration of providers won a three-year, $425,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant (with Janus as the lead agency) to improve integrated substance abuse and mental health services for homeless youth.

The collaboration also hopes to coordinate more with the foster care and juvenile court systems. The collaboration’s database enabled it to document that one out of every four youths seeking services had come from foster care.

Providers expect constant adjustments to the system, especially as the first round of contracts expires and new contracts soon go up for bid.

“The system that’s evolved is a good one,” Oliver says. “It’s truly amazing, considering where we started.”


Ken Cowdery, Executive Director
New Avenues for Youth
1220 SW Columbia
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 224-4339

Kathy Oliver, Executive Director
Outside In
1132 SW 13th Ave.
Portland, OR 97205
(503) 535-3802

Dennis L. Morrow, Executive Director
Janus Youth Programs
707 NE Couch
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 233-6090

Stephanie Vetter, Homeless Youth Coordinator
Department of Community and Family Services
421 SW Sixth Ave., Suite 200
Portland, OR 97204
(503) 988-6295

Data-Driven Insight

Following is some of what the centralized intake process and database system have allowed Portland’s Homeless Youth Services Continuum to learn about the population it serves. The database lets the continuum analyze the youths by numerous characteristics, such as age, race, history of drug use and adjudication, and the services they received, such as emergency shelter nights, individual counseling and family mediation.

Most of the data are from the “Year End Report” for 2001, which compares Fiscal Years 2000 and 2001.

Youths served: 1,871 “unduplicated” youths approached the continuum for services. Of those, 33 percent received only initial screening and short-term relief, while the rest (1,248) continued on to a “full assessment” of their needs.

Of those receiving full assessment: 884 were referred for service coordination within the system, and 127 others received at least one referral to another type of service.

Leaving street life: Of the 181 youths who left service coordination in FY 2001, 67 percent moved into “safe, stable housing.” That’s up from 57 percent in FY 2000. The rate of those leaving coordination to live on the street also rose, from 5 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2001.

Foster care: One of every four youths reported being currently involved with the Oregon state foster care system. Nine out of 10 reported that they had been involved with that system at some time in their lives.

Criminal justice: One in every 10 youths reported being on probation or parole at the time of assessment.


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