Shelter helps Portland’s homeless women

From, January 10, 2012

An emergency shelter for women who live on the streets of Portland is helping about a third of them get into stable housing.

The program is run by the Salvation Army. It’s called the Female Emergency Shelter.

One of the recent success stories is from a woman named Billie Robinson. If you met her on the streets of Portland you might not guess her story. But talk to her and you can hear the resolve of someone committed to change.

“There’s nothing I can’t do, I know that,” she said. “Because I am a survivor.”

Billie Robinson looks like anybody else on the outside, but on the inside she’s never felt that way. She grew up in Billings, Montana and described her childhood as rotten and full of disappointments. She ran away from home and started shooting up heroin at the age of 14.

Thirty years later she had one divorce, two grown children and a raging drug and alcohol addiction. She hopped a Greyhound bus to Portland for a sort of vacation. Soon she was hanging out on the waterfront and sleeping under the Morrison bridge. She would get high with other homeless men and women.

“Yep, just to make it through the day,” she said. “And then you get up and do it all over again.” Robinson said.

When it got cold and wet, she made her way to the Salvation Army’s Female Emergency Shelter on NW 5th Avenue in Portland’s Old Town. In a world of addiction and danger, the shelter offered sanctuary.

“I’ve been coming here for many years and every time I’ve come here you know I’ve never been turned away and never been judged on my life style,” she said. “It’s a safe place to come.”

The shelter offers women a warm place out of the elements, and at night 50 beds are open for sleeping. The waiting list has 160 names on it; it’s first-come first serve. Everyone gets assigned a case worker to see if they’re ready to leave the streets.

One day, Robinson decided she’d had enough.

“I got tired of running. You know I didn’t like who I was. I used my drugs to numb myself. I was running out of places to run to,” she said.

The shelter workers knew Robinson well. She’d been in and out for years.

“When she came to us in 2011 she decided that she was really ready to make a change in her life,” said Megan Kidd, Executive Director of the shelter.

For the first time in a long time, Robinson really wanted help and vowed to follow through.

“I don’t know what God has in store for me but I know my future’s going to be good. I have confidence, I have self-esteem,” Robinson said.

The addict says she stopped using heroin 14 months ago. She put down alcohol and pills last August. As she walks the streets of Portland now, Robinson can still point out the best doorway for sleeping. It’s important to know where you will be left alone, she said. But she’s no longer interested when old friends want to get high.

It’s a struggle. But she really is changing her life. It feels incredible, she said.

“It’s awesome. I can look in the mirror and like who I am. I have confidence. Like I said, I know things will be different,” Robinson said.

In fact things already are different. After eight years of being in the cold, Robinson no longer sleeps under a bridge or in a shelter. She now goes home to a small apartment in a downtown building.

For Billie Robinson, the streets of Portland are now simply a place to walk. Not a place to live.