Portland is Enticed by a Texas-Sized Homeless Shelter

San Antonio's Haven for Hope boasts big results and draws harsh critics.

Two weeks ago, Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury traveled to San Antonio to visit Haven for Hope, a homeless shelter built in 2010 that's received national attention for its claims that it's reduced by 80 percent the number of people sleeping on the city's streets.

What she saw was a concrete slab.

The "Prospects Courtyard" sits behind metal detectors and armed security guards, offering an open-air, partly covered sleeping space on concrete for as many as 800 men, women and children a night.

Kafoury doubts that such a plaza would work in Portland. "I don't think our ethos would allow it," she says.

Yet the idea of building a Haven for Hope-style homeless campus in Portland has captured the city's imagination since June 13, when developer Homer Williams told The Oregonian he wants to copy the San Antonio model with a $100 million homeless shelter he calls "Oregon Trail of Hope."

Williams tells WW he learned about Haven for Hope on a business trip to Texas three months ago. He found it impressive, though he thinks a Portland courtyard would need to be indoors.

"It's the first thing that I've seen that dealt with the core issues," he says. "It's not just about a home, it's about mental health and addiction."

Perhaps no issue divides and inflames Portlanders as much as chronic homelessness, and the promise of an outside solution to a seemingly intractable problem is tantalizing. Williams' plan already has the interest of Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler and Portland's business leaders, who want an alternative to Mayor Charlie Hales' recent legalization of sleeping on sidewalks.

But Haven for Hope, founded by an oil-pipeline executive Bill Greehey in 2006, offers mixed lessons for Portland: Along with reducing official homeless counts, it has been criticized as a magnet for crime that makes homeless people less visible without ultimately helping them.

Scott Ackerson, Haven for Hope's vice president of strategic relations, tells WW that Portland might benefit from a shelter similar to Haven for Hope. "Portland doesn't have the campus on the front end," Ackerson says.

Haven for Hope claims since it opened in 2010 that it's saved San Antonio jails, emergency rooms and courtrooms $50 million.

Yet the shelter is expensive: The site's operating costs in 2013 exceeded $14 million, and its construction topped $100 million. Ackerson estimates that 60 percent of that funding comes from private foundations and contributors.

But no aspect of Haven for Hope is as controversial as Prospects Courtyard. The concrete yard serves as a kind of front porch for the campus. People who can produce identification, commit to sobriety and are willing to work toward permanent housing are allowed to graduate to transitional housing. But first they have to join the throng sleeping outdoors.

Between January 2014 and December 2015, San Antonio police responded to 1,877 calls for service to the shelter, including 178 calls about theft, 45 suicide attempts and five disturbances with firearms.

"With 700 people in one space, you're going to have altercations," Ackerson says.

Former San Antonio Current reporter Michael Marks says he's spoken with homeless people who'd rather stay on the streets than in the Courtyard. "The Courtyard can be a little bit of a Wild West," Marks adds.

He says skeptics wonder if the Courtyard isn't little more than a tool for reducing the visibility of homelessness in downtown San Antonio, a popular tourist locale. "Some think it was a push to ensure that the downtown area wasn't replete with homeless people—to keep them all in one place," Marks says.

Ackerson says more than 4,000 people have moved from the Courtyard to the shelter's other housing.

Kafoury visited Haven for Hope on June 6 with Williams. She says Portland could emulate at least some of Haven's strategies, such as providing onsite services.

"I don't believe any community has the silver bullet," Kafoury says. "Whatever the solution, it has to be community-driven. Each city has its own challenges and its own characteristics."

Correction: Due to an editor's error, this story incorrectly listed the date of The Oregonian's story on Homer Williams' proposal. It ran June 13, not June 11.

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