On the semi-mean streets of Portland, nobody messes with Jennifer Candido.
They wouldn’t dare. Even in the halls of a day shelter for homeless women, a safe place, Candido carries herself with the swagger and attitude of a prizefighter entering the ring – chin up, back straight, jaw set.
“They call me ‘New York,’ and everybody knows you don’t mess with New York,” she says, pulling her ragged Yankees baseball cap down even lower over her eyes. “But I’m one of the fortunate ones. Most girls aren’t so tough.”
Portland-area leaders have succeeded over the past few years in reducing homelessness among military veterans and the longest-suffering street dwellers. That push led to an unfortunate, unintended consequence: A rising tide of homeless women, and a distinct lack of services to help them get indoors.
Now, advocates and civic leaders are scrambling to catch up. On Thanksgiving, city leaders opened a first-of-its-kind shelter for women and couples in Southwest Portland. But that facility, already full every night, is a five-mile drive from downtown and planned as a temporary rather than permanent space.
And it’s just a bed for a night. Escaping the streets for good requires so many more steps – finding a job, taking care of a disability or mental health problem, building up some savings to pay a security deposit and first month’s rent. Even staying safe means finding places to stay not just at night, but also during the cold, wet daytime hours when the few available shelters aren’t open.
“In some ways, the night is easier, because you can hide,” Candido said. “During the day, there’s almost nowhere to go. Nowhere you’re safe and wanted, anyway.”
Homeless women used to be a rarity.
Before the recession, men usually made up 75 percent or more of the homeless population in most U.S. cities. But women were more likely to live in poverty.
The recession and ensuing post-recovery jump in real estate prices forced many women who had been living on the precipice of economic disaster out of their homes and onto the street. Before the recession, for example, women made up about 35 percent of people at shelters during the biannual count required by the federal government. This year, they represented 45 percent.
Overall, women now make up 40 percent of the national homeless count – and experts say that is likely a conservative figure.
“Women are much more likely to try to hide,” said Rebekah Albert, executive director of Rose Haven, a Northwest Portland day shelter for women where the number of women served rose from 740 in 2009 to more than 3,000 two years ago.
Some hide because they have children and would rather sleep on a friend’s couch or car than risk attracting the attention of child welfare workers. Some hide for other reasons.
“I’m an older lady, and I carry a cane and mace and an umbrella, and I keep my things in a storage locker, so I feel pretty safe,” said Veronica Allen, a homeless 71-year-old who spends days at Rose Haven and nights at a friend’s apartment. “But the younger women, they’re beat up and propositioned all the time.”
The younger women back that up. “If you’re alone, it’s constant: ‘I’ll pay you for a blow job. I’ll pay for sex. How much?’ All day long,” said Meme Hampton, a 23-year-old who describes herself as a “houseless traveler.”
Some women seek protection, no matter the cost: “It’s why girls stay with guys who hit them, with guys who use even if they want to get clean,” said Hampton, who travels with her husband, Raven, and their two dogs. She credits him with saving her life and keeping her sober.
Crystal Kordowski, chairwoman of the board at the nonprofit Rahab’s Sisters estimates that 90 percent of guests at her organization’s weekly Friday night women-only dinners are victims of domestic violence. Half, she says, have traded sex for money, a place to sleep or some other form of payment.
“If you want to help women who are experiencing homelessness, you have to have a serious poker face,” said Mary Dettman, chair emeritus for Rahab’s Sisters, where the weekly crowd at Saints Peter & Paul Episcopal Church on Southeast 82nd Avenue has doubled in the past few years. “If you want to build a relationship that might help someone eventually get inside, you can’t judge the choices anyone has made. Those are survival instincts at work.”
Women on the streets also live with some gender-specific logistical challenges. Nonprofits that serve women always need donations of underwear and bras, not to mention even more personal items such as sanitary pads and tampons. Public bathrooms that offer more than a moment or two of privacy, let alone space and time to bathe, are hard to find.
Homelessness can become an unending cycle: Women who can’t find a job and can’t afford an apartment do what is necessary to survive, making choices that increase the chances they’ll be charged with a crime, abused or assaulted.
“Getting off the streets is a full-time job. You’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be brave,” Candido said. “Girls get beaten up, raped, kicked around. At a certain point, a lot of these girls just decide they’re not worth saving.”
The long-term problem, for men and women, is a lack of affordable housing. The immediate problem is a lack of safe places to go right now.
Multnomah County experts estimate that more than 16,000 people experienced homelessness at some point during the past year and at least 1,800 sleeping outside on any given night. One reason: The county doesn’t have anywhere near enough emergency shelter spaces. So the city’s push late last year to turn a vacant Army Reserve Center in Multnomah Village into a 167-bed shelter for women and couples was both a huge help and a drop in the bucket.
“We give them a place they know they can come back to, a place to leave their stuff,” said Celeste Duvall, who manages the new shelter for Transition Projects. “But it’s a baby step, really.”
The army reserve center had been vacant for more than two years when Mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing “state of emergency” last September and he and county Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury made finding more emergency space a priority. The armory opened on Thanksgiving and hosted 17 people that first night. Now, Duvall and her staff are at capacity – or over – every night.
Most guests make the trek out to Southwest Portland via a shuttle that picks up every evening outside Blanchet House, a downtown soup kitchen. The shuttle brings them back downtown every morning starting at 6:15. The space includes a large common room where guests gather at folding tables to drink cocoa and eat Cup of Noodles while socializing and warming up. More than a dozen offices on both floors of the reserve center have been subdivided into 35-square-foot sleeping spots. Blue tape marks each “bed,” though most guests sleep on thin mats or military-style cots rather than actual furniture.
Most guests can’t take showers. “We only have two,” Duvall said, “so figuring out how to spread out time so everyone gets in felt impossible.”
But they can leave their belongings at the shelter during the day. During a recent Oregonian/OregonLive visit, two large storage rooms were crowded wall-to-wall with plastic bags filled with people’s stuff. That’s a big deal: “If you’re dragging everything you own everywhere you go, finding a job is just that much harder,” Duvall said.
Another big deal: The shelter, which is costing the city $121,500 a month, is the only one in the region where women can get indoors without leaving their spouses and their animals.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be sleeping outside, because I’m not leaving my husband, and I’m not leaving my dog,” said Jacqueline Hobbs, a 49-year-old on the streets since December after a mudslide ruined the RV she and her husband had parked in St. Johns.
Now they spend their days at the Multnomah County Library’s downtown branch, trying to find an apartment and figure out how they might afford travel to Denver, Colo., where her husband’s family has promised him a job. At night, they’re indoors, along with their dog, Angel. Because they’re a couple, Hobbs and her husband share 70 square feet. Angel, decked out in a dark blue doggie hoodie, pads along beside them as they settle in for the night.
“It’s as close to a home as we can get right now,” Hobbs said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
But for how long? City leaders have promised neighbors the shelter is temporary, just like a new men’s shelter opened this week in downtown property donated by developers Menashe Properties.
“What happens after six months is the big question,” Duvall said. “I’m hoping they let us continue. I’m hoping it morphs into something bigger, better, more. I’m hoping it morphs into somebody donating an eight-story building, or maybe a high school.
“Think about what we could do with a high school, with a gym and lockers and showers and a cafeteria. We’ve got enough women out there. We could fill a couple high schools.”