Adam Ruark sat in his room Wednesday at the Athens Hotel in Northwest Portland thinking about how he got a chance to make a new start.
When the 24-year-old Los Angeles native came to Portland six months ago, he was living on the streets.
At night, Ruark sought shelter at Baloney Joe’s on East Burnside. Whenever he could scrape up enough money for a meal, he would eat.
But two weeks ago, Ruark received a boost. With the help of the Winter Housing Initiative Program, he was able to move into the refurbished Athens Hotel and get help finding a job.
“It was just me and my backpack. That’s all there was,” Ruark said. “I would just set up outside Baloney Joe’s. But when somebody told me about the Athens having this new program, I went to check it out.”
What Ruark found was that the hotel had been converted into temporary housing for homeless people. A news conference was held Wednesday morning in the lobby of the hotel, at 230 N.W. Sixth Ave., to announce the formal opening of the program. It has been in operation since Dec. 16.
Officials and sponsors from the city of Portland, the Portland Development Commission, Central City Concern, the YWCA, the Burnside Community Council and Burnside Projects Inc. were at the conference.
“It means a lot to me to be able to stay here,” said Ruark, who is one of 79 residents living in the hotel, where occupants stay rent-free. “You’re on your own, and you get your own room. They’re giving me a chance to get back on my feet. I’ve applied for an industrial training program, and that should get me a pretty good job. I’m really thankful.”
According to Sharon Nielson of Central City Concern, the hotel will hold approximately 90 residents. Jean DeMaster of Burnside Projects said she didn’t know how many people would use the hotel. But if the need arises, residents who live in single rooms would be asked to “double up.”
A staff of counselors will work with residents to help them find jobs.
“Once the residents are able to find jobs and get back into things, we hope to rotate people through,” DeMaster said. “This will give them somewhere to go 24 hours a day. It’s a tremendous addition to the shelters that we already have.”
Nielson said the program was being funded by a $161,000 grant from the Portland Development Commission. The program will run through May 1.
“What the program is an entree to a more stable life for some of these people,” Nielson said. “Its effects are far-reaching into the future. We’re trying to help these people get back into the community without having to live on the streets.”
WHIP is a cooperative project of the city of Portland, private businesses and community agencies, she said.
Mary Thrasher, 36, came to Portland seven months ago to make a new start. Originally from Houston, Thrasher said she had nowhere to stay until the hotel opened.
“I stayed in some shelters here, but they didn’t mean the same thing as this one,” Thrasher said. “This means I have a place to stay and to keep my stuff. I found a job the other day, and now I should be able to get a fresh start.”
Social-service officials said that no one has been turned away from area shelters, despite the recent cold-weather snap. Woody Piquette, manager of Baloney Joe’s, explained that the weather hadn’t driven everyone inside.
“It’s cramped up here, and it gets that way a lot,” Piquette said. “But there’s still a segment of the homeless population out there that says it hasn’t been cold enough to come inside. If it does get cold, we have to use a different system.”
Burnside Project’s DeMaster said the agencies in Portland were able to accommodate up to 630 people each night. If needed, the agencies have set up an emergency network of homeless referrals in case the number of people seeking shelter rises, she said.