The vicinity of SW 13th and Alder in downtown Portland was once a hot spot for drug activity. Homeless people clustered, often blocking and littering the sidewalks with remains of sack lunches. Neighborhood business suffered. But all that has changed. One factor in the transformation was a change in thinking and practice at Julia West House (JWH), a leading mission for homeless and low-income people on SW 13th Avenue, established in the 1980s by First Presbyterian Church. Since 2009, church member Marvin Mitchell has served in the volunteer position of executive director.
Marvin, how did you become concerned about homelessness, poverty and injustice?
A book I read in the early ‘70’s, Seek a City Saint, planted a seed that would germinate much later about caring for the city and its people. I worked in downtown Chicago where I saw plenty of diversity and all sides of ethnic racism. The dramatic difference in the space of just half a block on Sheridan Road made me feel the injustice. I worked for enlightened companies most of my career – often alongside and for women – which helped me see and want opportunities for everybody.
What other experiences have contributed to your work with JWH?
In college, a design class transformed my life by helping me see differently. It was taught by a wonderful, demanding instructor who believed that before you design anything, you have to learn
what design is. He taught us to find simplicity – what’s important and what’s not. I’ve applied that lesson to my work, interactions, everything, throughout my life. I spent years developing large computer systems. I found it’s easy to develop complex solutions, but difficult to find a simple one. My criteria for designing anything is to work it until you cut through to a solution that elicits the response: “How could it be anything else?”
How did you get involved at JWH? And what was going on there at the time?
A friend from church invited me to volunteer in 2002. I started with a great sense of compassion. I wanted to do something to help. First Pres[byterian] ran a food-box program, serving coffee, pastries and sack lunches four days a week, and a hospitality program three nights a week. I felt good serving in both programs because people got warm and fed. But the same people kept coming back. I realized we were helping people stay homeless.
Can you give an example?
My second night at JWH, one guy – let’s call him “Bill” – said he was sole caretaker for his mother. I thought, “Nobody can make that up.” But he did. A friend of mine ran into “Bill” recently. In his fifties now, he dresses well, talks intelligently, and still uses the same story. The truth is, “Bill” is a long-time heroin addict. His story supports his habit.
How did you learn drugs were involved?
Over the years we’ve gotten smarter, learning from partners with more experience, including De Paul Treatment Center across the street, and PHOENIX RISING Transitions, which meets here Monday nights.
Whom does JWH serve?
Half our guests are low-income people with modest housing, and half are homeless people. We help isolated people stay housed by providing a social outlet, among other things.
When did you become executive director of JWH, and what brought you to this role?
I began making changes in 2004, when I chaired the church’s Community Ministries team. The ED title came in 2009. But I functioned from the beginning out of a growing passion to see lives change. Listening to people’s stories over many cups of coffee drove my deep desire. But I didn’t know it was a call until I wanted to walk away, and I couldn’t.
What made you want to walk away?
Exhaustion. This work takes lots of time and energy. But the call was to make many changes and they were still ahead.
What changed initially?
We started the literacy and GED programs, and Life-skills classes in 2005. Other changes waited until we had dealt with our building and relationship with our neighbors.
What were those concerns?
In 2002, this building and the adjoining parking lot were run down and seedy looking. Homeless people littered the lunches we gave out and blocked sidewalks around the neighborhood. I went to listen to our neighbors. After I reported a conversation with one restaurant owner to the church board, First Pres[byterian] secured a large grant for the needed renovations and initial program changes.
Describe the relationship with your neighbors today.
It’s a positive relationship. No food goes out our door and we encourage keeping sidewalks clear. In recent years, we helped clean up the drug problem in this vicinity.
What is the story of the city of Portland becoming your partner?
In 2007, the city came asking for our help with more of Portland’s homeless in the daytime. They offered financial support, which meant adding shower facilities and greatly expanding our hospitality hours. We are grateful for this partnership, but initially it brought new problems. As police directed people here, we were overwhelmed day and night by crowds we’d never seen before, including more people with addictions. That’s when our corner became a hot spot for drugs. Physical and verbal violence also increased dramatically.
How did these issues resolve?
The resolution is a story about our tipping point. I was tired of the constant foul language, so I established a civil language boundary.
What do you mean by a “civil language boundary”?
No sexism, racism, or profanities.
What happened when you ruled these out?
Everyone grumbled at first. We established civility with daytime guests and little by little the atmosphere changed. But there was pushback. Some guests said, “That’s how we talk.” Others serving the homeless objected, “Asking them to clean up their language is asking them to change their own culture!”
So, some people felt it was acceptable for people to debase one another?
Yes. But we have proved these habits can change. We reached our tipping point on civility in the last few months, and respect and civility are normal modes of communication at JWH now. We’ve gained insight that civil language is connected to respect and trust. Our guests say it’s great at JWH not to have to hear all that stuff. And now they tell newcomers, “You can’t speak that way here.”
Are you saying that enforcing civil language changed the whole atmosphere at JWH?
That’s exactly what I’m saying. Holding this standard created space for trust and respect to grow. Another result is we are known as a “house of peace.” People show up here from across the country, telling us no one anywhere asks them to clean up their language or holds them accountable.
Are you saying no other agencies have these standards?
I don’t claim that. But it is interesting hearing this from those who experience many homeless shelters.
Are there other results of your civil language boundary?
Yes. Conflict has a place to go. When our guests’ language was demeaning, it didn’t take long before disagreements turned physical. Now, we observe guests stopping themselves from uncivil language and physical violence. They find other words. It’s amazing! And there’s a different kind of energy as guests arrive in the morning – it’s active, excited, alive! Conversations seem almost joyous. This is at odds with people dragging in at 6:00 a.m. soaking wet and cold, but at JWH, it’s happening. Our guests’ hope is palpable.
“I found it’s easy to develop complex solutions, but difficult to find a simple one.”
Amazing! How would you summarize the evolution at JWH?
At first our mission was based on our assumption that low-income and homeless people need handouts. Next, we asked people, “What do you need?” They suggested backpack checks, hot showers, and the computer lab. But even when we met those needs, their lives were basically unchanged. Now, we are smarter. We ask people who have reestablished themselves what actually helped their transformation.
What have you learned from them?
One key is being held accountable. This restores dignity. Another is someone who believes in them and offers encouragement. This restores self-esteem. A third is celebrating successes. When they improve their reading, get their GED – each step, we celebrate. This restores hope. Small successes build into real progress. We do all this at JWH, and it takes generosity.
What do you mean by generosity?
We believe true compassion is generosity. JWH volunteers offer our guests hospitality, accountability, training and encouragement, which develops their capacity to help themselves. Now our mission is more in line with the scripture on which it’s based, Acts 3:3-7, where Jesus’ disciples help a lame beggar. He wanted money. Instead, he got strength to walk.
Tell us about your literacy program.
There is a literacy program for women and for men, which never mix. We do one-to-one tutoring and find people reading better than they imagined possible. Many come to us beaten down because someone labeled them stupid. Many start at about third-grade level, but they jump multiple levels in a few weeks. One woman came to us holding her book upside down. No one had corrected this! Four weeks in, she was reading right side up and had advanced from the third- to seventh-grade level. A young man, whose parents introduced him to drugs when a kid, came in reading at twelfth grade level. I asked why he didn’t finish school. He said, “I dropped out because my mother laughed at my good grades.” People’s stories cause me to go home and choke up in the retelling.
I can see why. What is key to helping people improve their reading skills?
All the listening we do establishes trust. Not friendships exactly, because we have boundaries, but our belief in persons – that they can do it – is key. JWH is all about transformation. One way we got smarter is realizing that believing in people makes a huge difference in their lives.
What else does getting smarter at JWH look like?
We used to hire people with social-service experience. Now we also hire former guests, because they know the transformation process best. One worker was in prison 25 years. When he first showed up, in his fifties, he’d been on the street three months and was about to commit a crime to get back inside. He started volunteering here. We helped him find work in exchange for food. Now, we’ve hired him. Tomorrow he gets a key to his first housing since incarceration.
What would you say is distinctive about JWH?
Like other agencies, all our services are free. But our compassion focuses on helping people develop themselves. We walk alongside them to restore dignity and establish responsibility. Our programs have changed steadily over the past six years and fill a number of unique niches in Portland. We do
a few things and do them well. We’ve retreated from services that are readily available elsewhere.
How do you measure success?
JWH is like a school that launches people into life. Our success stories often mean we never see people again; but some who reestablish themselves get back in touch. A mother was court-ordered to get her GED and to secure employment as a condition for getting her kids back. She came to us as her first step and was successfully launched. We eventually heard from her, when her children came home.