Mt. Scott Community Center as a Homeless Shelter

By Daniel Perez-Crouse

Since November 2020, The Mt. Scott Community Center has been a 24-hour homeless shelter with 75 beds and it will remain this way until spring. 

Portland Parks & Recreation Director, Adena Long, said, “Portland’s parks and community centers belong to all of our neighbors and PP&R is here to serve all Portlanders, especially those that need us the most.”

Denis Theriault, Communications Coordinator at the Joint Office of Homeless Services, gives insight into Mt. Scott’s recent developments, in addition to painting a broader picture of the goals and processes behind shelter spaces.

Theriault notes that many think of shelters as places where people line up at night, hoping to get lucky. However, Mt. Scott is mainly referral-based; you can’t just show up and get a bed. Moreover, he says it has been at near or full capacity since November.

People who get placed on wait lists for Mt. Scott may have reached out to shelter services beforehand or were referred by others in their community. 

“Before a shelter opens, you want to have a good sense of who’s in line for those beds,” said Theriault. From there, they communicate with people two weeks prior to opening and verify if they still want a bed. 

The purpose behind the referral system is when people secure this bed, it is theirs. People can also bring their pets and belongings. 

“You don’t have to choose to leave your animal outside – that’s your family member too,” he said. It’s not a shelter specified for a particular gender, so couples can be together at Mt. Scott with their beds placed next to each other. 

Having the location open 24-hours means there’s no required time to be there and giving people their own space is, as Theriault says, a way of providing some stability in a trauma-informed way. 

“We don’t want people to feel like they can’t come because they have to leave something or someone behind,” he said 

To clarify, Mt. Scott is primarily for adults without any special circumstance or need that would require a unique space. For example, those who have children would go to a family shelter.

Theriault says the goal is to prioritize locals of a given area for shelters. Although, with temporary shelters, this is less of a priority. 

“No guarantees. We take folks in from anywhere that needs shelter, but we are always open to that conversation.” 

Speaking of that “conversation,” he says there was action made to invite people camping at Laurelhurst and recalls about 20 joining the center from there. 

This is not the first time Mt. Scott has taken on shelter duties. “We used Mt. Scott as a social distancing shelter earlier in the pandemic,” said Theriault. 

Prior to that, he says, the center has been a shelter buffer on particularly cold nights when there were surpluses of 300-400 people needing solace and safety.

When preparing the location to become a shelter again, Theriault said they knew how the location worked and that made its transition relatively straightforward. “We’ve built a relationship with Parks and understand how to manage that space.”

The transition wasn’t without bumps however. Theriault detailed the difficulties of managing a shelter amidst the pandemic, dealing with the issues of space, services and more. 

This is why one of Mt. Scott’s obvious perks is its size and flexibility with a big gymnasium where people can eat and a readily-available outdoor area. “You need all of those pieces to create a safe shelter environment,” said Theriault.

Theriault stressed the importance of keeping people masked up to facilitate safety. There are reportedly masks all around the center and staff have them to quickly offer if people forget. 

“People who are dealing with trauma or behavioral health issues make it harder to remember all the time,” although Theriault says most folks are pretty good about it.

Another issue is community members are not able to help provide like before. 

“The limits on volunteering are a challenge. We have to procure food, make sure people have hot meals and make sure there is a good chain of custody on the food so it stays COVID safe for workers.” 

At Mt. Scott, people get three meals a day. “They don’t have everyone eating right at the same time. They do that in shifts to make sure there is room in the cafeteria. Not everyone wants to be there for every meal, either.” 

He adds, this is because some people are running errands, have places to go or even need to be at their job.  

There are attempts for them to receive the same support services that would be offered at other annual shelters, but as Theriault says, this is slightly less of a priority for a temporary location. 

With spring nearing, the center will soon close, but there is flexibility with the end date. This is to make sure people either transition to a different shelter, or ideally, get rent assistance and moving into housing. 

“You want to spend time with folks making sure you give them those options,” Theriault said, adding that some leave on their own accord. 

When asked why people might turn down shelter at a place like Mt. Scott, Theriault had many reasons.

“It’s only been about five years since we overhauled our system, so people may think things are the way they used to be still. And there are still privately operated shelters that operate with some of those more traditional access limits.” 

He said others may not want to stay at a particular location if it’s far from their networks or they may struggle with congregate living situations in general; preferring self-reliance or a village-style shelter instead.

In a recent statement made in The Oregonian, a former resident of Mt. Scott who was removed claimed to have a bad experience. When asked about this, Theriault could not get into specifics of the individual for “safety reasons.” 

However, he expressed sadness over the situation and said the individual did not fully represent challenges they faced; further explaining there were unreported incidents related to them and multiples attempts/steps were taken before reaching the point of exclusion. 

Ultimately, despite touting its merits and progress, Theriault says shelter is not the way to end homelessness. “The quicker folks can leave shelter for housing, the better our system is. Then we can help more people with the same number of beds.” 

He says thousands of additional beds could be built, but there might not be a place for people after leaving shelters and funds would be better spent on affordable housing. 

This is why there has been a push to improve shelters in the meantime, based on occupant feedback, with increased services, more privacy, specified approaches, and more “…because folks are spending so much time there. It’s a band-aid, but we’ve got to make it a much better band-aid,” he added. 

Mt. Scott Community Center as a Homeless Shelter

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