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February 6th, 2013 ANDREA DAMEWOOD | News Stories
 

Gimme Shelter

The YWCA is closing its emergency domestic-violence shelter, but officials hope a new strategy will help cushion the loss.

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Every day at 9 am, the Portland Women’s Crisis Line website updates the availability at the city’s four emergency shelters. Most mornings, it’s the same answer: no vacancy.

Despite that searing need, Yolanda House, a 10-room shelter run by the YWCA of Greater Portland, will close March 1.

The cause, as is often the case, is a lack of money. But YWCA officials say the closure of Yolanda House will mark a change of strategy, from providing emergency refuge to longer-term housing.

Still, the loss drops Portland from 100 emergency beds to 78.

Last year, Yolanda House provided 126 women with housing, safety and advocacy. But the house—opened in 1998 and named after a YWCA staffer killed by an ex-boyfriend—was too expensive to keep open. 

YWCA executive director Leslie Bevan says the state and county covered about $400,000 of the house’s $600,000 operating costs. Another $100,000 came from fundraising. Bevan says the remaining costs drained too much of the YWCA’s $2 million general fund.

The YWCA hopes to turn Yolanda House into long-term transitional housing, rather than the 30 to 60 days emergency shelters allow.

“We’re hoping to keep women from losing their housing to begin with,” Bevan says. “Once someone becomes homeless, it’s very costly and takes a long time to get back to self-sufficiency.”

Bevan says the YWCA—which is seeking a partner for this new approach—will add three new advocates who will help women head off domestic-violence situations, including one at the Multnomah County’s Gateway Center and two at Home Forward, Portland’s public-housing agency.

One former client says the YWCA’s shift in strategy makes sense. Monica Smith arrived at Yolanda House in 2004, gripped by an addiction to methamphetamine and escaping abuse. Smith brought her daughter, then in sixth grade, with her.

Smith says she went from the Yolanda House to an apartment she couldn’t afford, where she was kicked out and lost custody of her daughter. Months later, she landed in another domestic-violence shelter, Raphael House, before finding stable housing.

Today, Smith lives in Estacada and is happily married. Her daughter of whom she regained custody is in college. 

“Recovering from domestic violence is very similar to recovering from addiction,” says Smith, 36. “You’re changing your behavior, looking at what healthy relationships look like. Learning all those things is not anything you can do in 30 to 60 days.”

Emergency shelters are still a part of the spectrum, but they’re always in as much crisis as the people they serve, says Deborah Steinkopf, executive director of Portland shelter Bradley Angle.

Steinkopf agrees there’s a need for more stable housing for women in crisis, but she says the YWCA’s decision to shutter Yolanda House will only put more pressure on the city’s remaining shelters.

Steinkopf says shelters receive half their funding from the government “if they’re lucky,” and that figure has flatlined after the economy hit the skids. 

“It’s not a very sustainable system,” Steinkopf says. “It’s going to force some consolidations and mergers, eventually. It’s really, really hard for us to sustain the level of services that are required to meet the demand in this economy.” 

 
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