|THE NEWLY HOMELESS: Dennis Smith, 35, and Gina McLean, 47, lost their apartment last month, but got a hot meal from Manna Ministries on Easter.|
Except for the fact it was Easter, last Sunday night was just like any other for the 200 homeless men and women who gathered under the west end of the Burnside Bridge for a free, hot meal.
As MAX trains passed by the Skidmore Fountain stop, these hungry Portlanders lined up starting at 7 pm for heaping portions of vegetables and meat, plus coffee, lemonade and hot cocoa.
For many, the dinner was their only square meal of the day, since none of the social service agencies in the area serves dinner on Sunday nights. With the support of several local churches, Manna Ministries formed in 1992 to fill the gap. It’s been in the same location ever since.
“These people have been a godsend to a very large number of people for a very long time,” says Dennis Smith, a 35-year-old unemployed woodworker who’s been going to Manna Ministries’ free dinners off and on for four years.
Smith, who used to sell handmade jewelry boxes at Saturday Market, was happy to be at the old location of the open-air market accepting a free meal on Easter.
Amid a grim economy, as need for programs like this one spikes along with a record state unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, that’s about to change. And the change could be painful.
Manna Ministries has new neighbors—the University of Oregon and Mercy Corps. And while some public attention has focused on what sign UO will put up, there’s been other news of greater significance for Manna Ministries’ program.
Beginning next month, the church group will be forced to move its operation to a new location. That’s because construction continues on the Mercy Corps building gives the Portland Development Commission concerns about keeping the area safe.
A fence surrounds the area during the day to ward off passersby. On Sunday night, workers removed the fences to allow Easter dinner to proceed. Eventually, however, the area where Manna Ministries and two other charitable groups offer free meals to the homeless on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays will be a parking lot.
If that weren’t enough of a problem, Manna Ministries and the two other groups serving food under the Burnside Bridge do not know where they will relocate. One suggestion, that they move to the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge near the statue of former Mayor Vera Katz on the Esplanade, has prompted opposition from the Central Eastside Industrial Council and questions from the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood association.
“I want to be honest about the fact downtown finds solutions by shipping them outside of their neighborhoods,” says Peter Finley Fry, director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council.
This change, and the resistance it’s meeting, could not happen at a worse time.
According to a city report released this week, the homeless population in Portland rose 13 percent between 2007 and 2009, bringing the number of people living on the streets, in emergency shelters and in motels with taxpayer-funded vouchers to nearly 2,500.
What’s more, the count took place in January, meaning a more accurate picture may include even worse figures, given the current economic freefall.
Before the groups can move, they’ll need permits from Portland Parks and Recreation to use any new space. City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Parks Bureau, is hoping to find a solution with the support of his colleagues in City Hall.
“We are still hopeful and waiting,” says Ginger Gerhart, a church volunteer with Manna Ministries. “The city has been amazingly helpful. They don’t want to see us shut down.”
Reporter Beth Slovic contributed to this report.