By Daniel Perez-Crouse
Located in SE Portland at 5120 SE Milwaukie Ave. at Mitchell St., The Willamette Center has returned after over a year of being closed and is now actively bringing in participants again to help with the Portland homeless crisis.
The Willamette Center is a 24-hour, low-barrier shelter for up to 120 adults that offers safety and services to regain stability and access permanent housing options. It is a reservation-only facility where participants are 18 and older, with priority for people 55 and older, those with disabilities and veterans. The programming is run by the Transitions Project (an agency that helps people transition from homelessness to housing) and the building is owned by Multnomah County.
It originally opened in 2016 and touted innovative features setting it apart from other shelters at the time, such as serving couples and allowing them to stay together and sleep next to one another, instead of having to separate into single-gender facilities. The shelter also accommodates pets, offers hot meals every night and allows access to various other amenities like showers, community spaces with television and more.
Over a year ago, Multnomah County officials closed it for “renovations that were needed for the shelter to remain open, even without a state of emergency in effect, while also addressing issues that emerged in the years since the shelter opened.” As stated by the county, “The $2.5 million renovation project included seismic and electrical upgrades, HVAC updates, and improvements to the shelter’s common areas.”
RJ DeMello, Senior Manager of Communications and Community Development with the Transitions Project, said the team was able to get into the space and start accepting participants on Monday, December 18. “We are trying to shoot for a pace of 15 or so a day ideally. It’s going to take probably a couple of weeks to get it to full capacity.”
When the facility closed last year, Transitions Project said no participants were displaced, but emptied it of staff which it has had to rebuild for its return. DeMello says some staff have returned, like their former shelter manager, but he says that they still had to build up a full team there—with new members brought in to specifically operate this current iteration of the shelter.
As for the team and their work, DeMello said, “It’s inspiring to see them and the effort they put into it. They realize that there are going to be 120 adults in there, but each one of them is an individual human being with a different story and a different background. They take it upon themselves to make sure they’re there for them and their needs.”
DeMello also noted that, within the last five years, the population served at the center has been getting older and that poses new challenges. This means more people might prefer bottom bunks and more need to take into account medical equipment and other associated needs.
“It’s at a vital time getting 120 beds for 120 adults when the weather is getting colder. It’s a really important part of our continuum of care and we’re excited to be back there to be able to offer this space and hope that we can do a positive job there and help people on their journey and into permanent housing,” DeMello said.
Those interested in requesting a bed at the shelter can call 503.280.4700, visit the Transition Projects Resource Center at 650 NW Irving St., or fill out their online form at tprojects.org/shelter-access-pre-screening-form.
If you want to support and donate goods to the shelter, you can see a wishlist of their most needed items at tprojects.org/donate.