This Thursday evening, Feb. 21, Kathy Oliver will be holding an open house bound to draw one of the most eclectic crowds you'll see in Portland. Oliver is executive director of Outside In, which for 33 years has been one of the city's best friends to homeless youth. The Feb. 21 celebration is to show off the group's new headquarters, a four-story, inviting space at 1132 SW 13th Ave. It's a big contrast to the cramped, funky, code-challenged bunker the street kids left just down the street, but Oliver insists that although the architecture has changed, Outside In's mission of providing help with jobs, education and health care remains. In a profession where burnout is practically part of the job description, Oliver, 52, is a survivor: She came to Outside In 22 years ago and never left. She's probably best-known for launching one of the nation's first needle-exchange programs in 1989 in an effort to reduce the spread of AIDS among street kids. To keep the program running, Oliver had to overcome opposition from then-President George H.W. Bush and worries of insurance companies.
Willamette Week: Outside In is known as a fringe agency. You make your own rules, let kids paint the walls and stick with controversial programs. Because of this, you've been able to connect with homeless youth in a way other, more mainstream programs haven't. Can you maintain this vision in a newer, less funky facility?
Kathy Oliver: I worked hard with the architect to develop a facility that doesn't look like a box, an institution or a jail. Our mission statement is "On the edge," so I wanted the building that looked edgy. Ultimately, it had to look different and attract kids. They worked with the artists to design the murals on ground level. The center panel was completed entirely by the sexual-minority kids. When they poured cement, all the kids were invited to put their handprints and footprints in before it dried. I had some worries that some of the clients wouldn't be as likely to come because we are in a new facility, but that's not been the case. We offer the same nonjudgmental services.
I spoke with some homeless kids yesterday, and most of them had positive perceptions about Outside In. However, a couple said they're not willing to go to a facility for help. How are you trying to appeal to these kids?
Some kids aren't ready right now, but hopefully we can help facilitate moving them into the program eventually. We offer programs like support groups for sexual-minority kids and Gorilla Theater as a first step to moving such kids into case management and housing.
What's been your greatest success at Outside In?
I don't know that I could single one thing out. Clearly the needle-exchange program has been a tremendous success. It took a lot to start that program in the face of controversy, and it keeps people alive. Also, through the homeless-youth program and the employment programs, we are able to help youths facilitate amazing changes in their lives.
How did you begin working with homeless youth?
When I started at Outside In, I was hired on as a grant writer. I only planned to stay two years, and in that time wanted to stabilize and diversify the funding base. Somehow, I stayed ever since and quickly became director of the program. With this agency, I feel like I am truly doing meaningful and important work that makes a difference in someone else's life, like preventing them from dying of HIV, and just giving them a chance to make some more positive changes in their life.
But isn't it a job where you can never do enough?
There is always more to do. But being able to see what the need is and providing services keeps me here. After all, there are not many places in Portland--or anywhere in the country--where I could go and start a needle-exchange program.