Sisters of the Road temporarily closed July 27 because of an increasing number of drug deals between the cafe's customers.
Fistfights resulted outside the Old Town nonprofit for homeless and poor people. And it was no better inside when needles began appearing—one needle was found near a 4-year-old girl.
The child was unharmed. But all the incidents combined to make supporters of the 30-year-old nonprofit realize they needed more time than their typical annual cleaning break to figure out how to fix the larger problem of overcrowding, which enabled drug exchanges to happen easily.
The cafe reopened Sept. 1 with a new scheduling approach aimed at reducing the sidewalk congestion that often camouflaged drug transactions.
And so far, so good, say most cafe staff, volunteers, customers and neighbors.
"Closing the business for a month was a big deal," says Monica Beemer, Sisters' executive director. "But it's absolutely worth it."
One of the most significant changes is that customers—who pay a small fee for meals—are now assigned specific half-hour time slots instead of putting their names on a list and waiting indefinitely outside.
Fifteen people at most can eat every 30 minutes during the cafe's 10 am-to-3 pm serving period. Beemer says that translates to some reduction in how many meals Sisters can serve. But latecomers can still get a meal by bartering their services as dishwashers, cleaners, cooks and servers.
Another change is chalk lines on thesidewalk to designate space for standing, smoking and walking. Paid staff try to supervise the area, though Beemer wishes she could afford a full-time staff member outside. Whether or not the chalk lines will be respected by customers (and the rain) is unclear.
"It's more of a pain in the ass now than it used to be," says one customer, a flutist who refused to give his name. But most customers and staff WW spoke with say the changes make people feel safer and more welcome.
"A year before, the block was full of people, but it seems to be a lot better," says Jason "J-Bone" Ruskovich, a former fast-food worker in ripped clothes and a Dawn of the Dead cap.
During a visit last week, the sidewalk outside the cafe on Northwest 6th Avenue was scattered with three dogs, four bikes and nine shopping carts overflowing with plastic bags, shoes, blankets, pillows and a broom.
Mostly men stood around, chatting softly and smoking cigarettes. A worker soaped down the front windows as people warmly greeted and hugged one another. The scene of people calmly waiting for the cafe's plat du jour—meatloaf, mashed potatoes, sliced carrots and salsa, for $1.25—seemed a far cry from the drug deals and brawls that plagued the organization's walkway before.
"The changes are a real good-neighbor approach to the situation," says Peter Englander, an urban renewal area manager with the neighboring Portland Development Commission."It would be cool if they had done it sooner, but…it seems like the changes seem to be working, and time will tell."
Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards and a longtime neighborhood activist, thinks the changes "have significantly reduced the situation out on the streets. Hopefully, that continues."
Sisters' new system is not fail-proof. A man sitting on the sidewalk obstructed the passageway with his legs, which could commonly happen. Andas of Sept. 15, two weeks after the reopening, two people were caught using drugs on the sidewalk.
Police say they areworking with Sisters, but declined further comment.
That's not a bad overall start for an organization voted as one of the 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon Business magazine.
Beemer says Portland's homeless problem is getting worse (the latest count by the city shows 2,500 homeless people in Portland, a 13 percent increase from 2007), and cites a shortage of substance-abuse services, a lack of affordable housing and low wages. That's why it's so important for her organization to flourish, she says.
"We always say everyone is welcome here," Beemer adds. "But you have to leave your violence at the door."
Check out more photos from Sisters of the Road below:
Sisters, which has an annual budget of $1.4 million, serves about 1,000 people a month.