Portland Homeless Family Solutions has been helping families out of homelessness since 2008.

Portland Homeless Family Solutions has been helping families out of homelessness since 2008.

Courtesy Aaron Leitz Photography

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Portland Homeless Family Solutions, as its name implies, helps homeless families get emergency shelter, connect with services and move into permanent housing. It also helps some families so they don’t lose their housing and become homeless. The nonprofit’s executive director, Brandi Tuck, joins us with client Sherry Kopp us to tell us more about how the programs serve families and how the nonprofit’s $2.5 million grant will expand the number of people it’s able to serve.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Portland Homeless Family Solutions just received a five-year $2.5 million grant from the Bezos Day One Fund. The nonprofit helps homeless families get emergency shelter, connect with services and move into permanent housing. It also helps some families to stay in their homes in the first place. The new grant will let the group expand the services they offer. Brandi Tuck is the executive director of the nonprofit. She joins us now, along with Sherry Kopp, who recently got housing through Portland Homeless Family Solutions. Welcome to you both.

Guests: Thank you for having us. Thanks for having us.

Miller: Brandi, first I wanna start with the big picture. You have described your mission as to empower homeless families with children to get back into housing and stay there. What does that first word “empower’' mean in practice?

Brandi Tuck: That’s a good question. We work with families who are experiencing homelessness, and we help them get back into housing. It’s really important for us that we recognize that the families we work with are the experts in their own lives. They know their situation better than we will ever know their situation. And so we’re not here to tell them what to do or how to change their life. We’re here to listen, to walk alongside, and to empower, to allow people to come up with what goals and changes they want to make in their own lives, and then for us to help them do that. So that’s what we think of empowerment.

Miller: Can you describe the shelter, which, as I noted in my short intro, it’s just one of the services you offer, but maybe one of the most visible. So what is the shelter?

Tuck: We operate a shelter called Family Village in Southeast Portland, around 92nd and Woodstock area. Our shelter hosts up to 17 homeless families with children at a time. And it’s the first shelter in Oregon designed using something called Trauma Informed Design and Architecture. And this kind of design helps people heal through the crisis, the trauma, the stress of homelessness. And it helps people feel peaceful, feel at ease, feel hopeful and help get back into housing. So we know that while shelter is a piece of the continuum to help people get back into housing, that shelter is not the solution to homelessness. And really helping people get through shelter and move back into housing is really the solution to homelessness. So we make sure that all of the families who stay at Family Village have that pathway back into permanent housing.

Miller: How long do they stay on average?

Tuck: Our average length of stay is about 85 days. So just under three months. But we have some families that are in and out in just a couple of weeks and some other families take a little bit longer, but on average, it’s a pretty short turnaround time.

Miller: If you’re designing a shelter specifically for families, how would it be different, how was it different than one that you would design for individuals?

Tuck: We have run a couple of different shelters over the lifetime of our organization. And I think what we’ve learned with trauma informed design is that we should really be designing shelters for everyone using Trauma Informed Design and Architecture. But what we really think about with our shelter is providing individual private bedrooms for families so that they have a door they can lock, they have some safety, security and privacy. We try really hard to build dignity for the people who stay in our shelter, so that they feel like they have power and choice and autonomy and control over their situation as much as possible. So the individual private bedrooms is a big piece. The trauma informed design piece has a lot of connection to nature. It’s a lot of natural light, natural materials, stones and woods and things like that. We have the color palette of the ocean. It’s lots of flexible spaces that can be used in multiple different ways. And it’s really about creating emotional and physical safety through our built environment.

Miller: Sherry Kopp as I mentioned, is with us as well, a current client of Portland’s Homeless Family Solutions as of a couple of years now. Sherry, can you give us a sense for what was going on in your life a few years ago before you started getting help from this nonprofit?

Kopp: So in 2019 I fled a domestic violence situation, and I was kind of a well-to-do person. So it caused a lot of embarrassment for me [and] a lot of rejection. When I fled I became homeless with six kids. And so I had a lot of shuffling between hotels and couch surfing and having my kids in different homes that were safe at the time. So I was down on my knees when I found Portland Homeless Family Solutions. I had been on a wait list for two years for a mobile homeless team. And finally when I did get the call, I was kind of up against the wall on whether I would go or not go, because it’s a scary situation. I was 13 years in recovery, I went back to active addiction. I was around very questionable people, so that was scary in itself. And so I had never really been in a shelter situation. The day I decided to go to shelter, it changed my life forever.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the reasons that you actually thought you might not go? Because it seems like you were in a dangerous and unstable situation, but you also weren’t sure you wanted to go to a shelter?

Kopp: One of the biggest things I was hearing was judgment. Another thing is that a lot of programs allow for people with different backgrounds like sex offenders and those sorts of people. And so from my trauma, from my childhood, I have little girls, and I get very nervous and antisocial and I have a lot of PTSD from being around a lot of different kinds of people. It was more just like being introduced to a new setting, as opposed to not wanting to go.

Miller: But you made the decision to go. What do you remember about your first couple of days there?

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Kopp: My first couple of days it was nice. We were introduced with snacks and food, and it really entertained my four year old. They even had donations, and so I made her feel comfortable. I believe they even gave her a toy to start off with, and a little kit with coloring books and things that would make her feel kind of at home, since we had been shuffled for so long. And they let me settle in with the kids before throwing anything down my throat. But the most important thing to me was where they said because I was drinking and I didn’t know where I was going to end up, and the lifestyle, they said we don’t care what you’re doing right now, it just can’t happen at shelter. We want to change your life for the better. I felt like that really helped me open up, because there’s a lot of judgment all over the place and so it really helped me kind of [realize], oh wait, maybe these people care and they really want to hear what I have to say.

Miller: Did that end up helping you get clean, stop using?

Kopp: Oh yeah. Within two weeks of going to shelter, I actually found out that I was pregnant with my sixth child, which I don’t know how that happened, but it did, maybe that’s the miracle because I was protected. So from the minute that I walked into shelter and I had a safe place to be, I didn’t use again. I didn’t share it with them that I was in addiction, just because of the embarrassment, but I just chose not to do it anymore any longer. Then two weeks later I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Walking in there [I] decided I had a safe place to be, I had the food that I needed, I didn’t have to hustle, I didn’t need any money or any of those kinds of things. I literally had open arms to take care of every single need that me and my children would need.

Miller: I noted at the beginning that you were able to get housing through Portland Homeless Family Solutions. How long was it between your arriving at the shelter and your getting a home for your family?

Kopp: I got housing within 60 days. But that was just me, and the anxiety of trying to get into housing as quickly as possible and not really looking at whether that housing would be adequate or safe. I got an apartment initially. The couple above me, they were domestic violence, which put me in a lot of fear again. And the cops were there, upstairs on the calls. And so the only thing I could think to do was to pack up my kids and go to the shelter and ask them for resources, which I’ve never done in my life. It was just like they were family. So when I went back there, they’re like, “you have to get back on the waiting list, that’s just, how things go”. It took a day and a half when I got a phone call and they’re like, “you didn’t finish your time at shelter and so we’ve all agreed to let you come back and finish your time”. And so it was so nice to be able to go someplace, get the resources I needed to be open and honest. And again, finished my time. And now I’m in a beautiful two bedroom, one-bath townhouse with a little yard, and my girls get to have a safe place and my boys [also]. So I’m very blessed by this program and they continue to help me all the time.

Miller: Brandi Tuck, Sherry mentioned the waitlist there. My understanding is, as you noted, that you have room for 17 families at a time in your shelter. How many other families at any other given time are waiting for either a space in your shelter or housing support from your nonprofit?

Tuck: There’s a lot of families that are waiting and we don’t really have great numbers about how many people are experiencing homelessness, but we know that there are over 400 families, which is probably about 1000 kids and parents that are on a waitlist for shelter. And then there’s another 800 families on another waitlist waiting for rapid re-housing resources. So just by looking around anecdotally, we know that the problem is immense and these are kids and families that really need help.

Miller: What does rapid re-housing mean in practice?

Tuck: Rapid rehousing is the practice of, like I said earlier, understanding that the solution to homelessness is helping people move back into homes. So it is a strategy where whenever someone is experiencing homelessness, we put all hands on deck to help that person or that family address their barriers to housing, get their needs met so that they can move as quickly back into housing as possible and minimize the time that they spend homeless. This really helps the people who are experiencing homelessness end their trauma. Homelessness is an incredibly traumatic experience. And when we look at the brain science behind it, we know what goes on in the brain of someone that experiences homelessness. And so the shorter that we can make that duration, the better it allows for a lot more health outcomes, positive health outcomes, especially for the kids. All of our programs practice rapid re-housing and help families get back into housing as quickly as possible. And then we help them stay there. I think that the piece of rapid re-housing that we need to remember is that it’s about getting people into housing and then providing wraparound services, long-term case management, financial supports to these folks so they can keep their housing and not have to experience homelessness ever again.

Miller: Sherry, what do you think that’s going to look like to you? What do you think it will take for you to achieve that kind of long term stability? So that another traumatic event in your life wouldn’t put you back on the street or back [to] couch surfing.

Kopp: One thing I can say about Portland Homeless Family Solutions is I was a property manager and a realtor for 14 years before I found myself homeless. One thing that I can say is all the barriers to housing, like the credit, criminal, different unauthorized occupants, all those barriers that people experience in homelessness, one thing that works for me is the ability to be able to work, go to a rent ready class while I was there. And then also for me to get different references and to get all of the things that outlines having permanent housing. Structuring, being able to go there and get donated items like paper towels and toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner so that I can pay the utility bill. And the one thing I want to say that is so great, is that I have been in my housing for five months now and they continue to work with me, not just in paying rent or subsidy, but also finding other programs that work. So they’re helping me apply for Home Forward, which will help me pay my rent and substitute the things that I need. So they’re continually working with me and being case managers for me.

Miller: Do you see a way forward so that in the future you’ll be able to pay your rent yourself to get by without this support? Kopp: Oh yeah. So I’m getting my counseling, and I’m working with my psychologist, and getting my mental health back to peace. I have almost a year clean. And so getting back on my feet is a total priority. I’d love to work. So I actually plan on going to work for the shelter. You have to be gone for six months before you can volunteer your time. But that’s the path that I want, is [to] dedicate my time and also helping other people obtain housing.

Miller: Brandi Tuck, what will you be able to do with this new grant from the Bezos-started foundation that you can’t do right now?

Tuck: Hopefully we’ll be able to hire Sherry to come work for us. [chuckle] But really what this does is this allows us to serve more families than we’ve ever been able to serve before. The Day One Families Fund money comes from Jeff Bezos, and it’s really intended to help us increase capacity in all of our main programs. So helping more families get from the streets into shelter, helping more families in shelter by helping them move through shelter faster. And then more assistance to families to help them get back into permanent housing and stay there. So we are beefing up our case manager teams for our housing specialists and our retention specialist to do the case management to help people get back into housing and stay there. And we’ll just continue to serve more and more families every year. Well, this is a five-year grant and we’ll use about $500,000 a year to help more families end their homelessness for good.

Miller: When you see Jeff Bezos blast himself off into space, do you think, how many more families could he help if he weren’t spending his money on pretending to be an astronaut?

Tuck: I do think that sometimes. $2.5 million is the largest grant that we have ever received by far. And so it’s such a huge amount of money to us and we know that there could be so much more that’s done in our community if more resources came.

Miller: Just briefly, you know what we’re talking about here, the work you’re doing, even if it is helping individual families in really holistic ways, it’s still one on one interventions. It’s not systemic change. Just briefly for a huge question, what do you see as the larger policies that would make a broader difference?

Tuck: We really need to focus on helping people that are outside, that are living all over our communities right now, and help them get back into housing. We have vacant land, there are vacant buildings, hotels, office buildings, homes, luxury apartments. There are a lot of spaces in our community that we can help people move indoors, so that they [have] plumbing and electricity and heat and dignity. And so I think that our larger solution is we need to prioritize bringing housing online, whether that’s existing structures that we re-prioritize, or new construction that we make easier to build. And we have to focus on helping everyone who is outside get inside, and be able to receive the services they need to thrive.

Miller: Brandi Tuck and Sherry Kopp, thanks very much for joining us today.

Guests: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, David.

Miller: Brandi Tuck is the executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. Sherry Kopp is a client for the nonprofit.

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