A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

By Jackie Zapp-Albin

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“I want to go back to Goose Hollow!” whines my preschooler, Moe, at least once a week.  Along with a group of other Havurah Shalom members, we have volunteered at Portland Homeless Family Solutions’ Goose Hollow Family Shelter one night most months for the past two years, and he looks forward to it as a night of toys, friends, and good food laid out by the dinner volunteers.  We check in at 6:30pm with the staff member on duty, and my kiddo makes a beeline for the toy ice cream cart. Soon the other families start arriving, wheeling in strollers and shedding coats. The teenagers occupy the computers, a 10-year-old asks for help with her vocabulary homework, and the parents do normal end-of-a-long day stuff:  return messages, cuddle kids, change diapers, and catch a few minutes on their phones when their kids let them. After dinner they’ll have a chance to shower and do a load of laundry, but for now they just get to stop for a bit. This is where we come in.

As a Kid-Time Host volunteer, I’m another adult ready to engage the kids and take a little bit of load off their grown-ups.  Moe and I hide some plastic animals around the room that are easily found by a triumphantly scornful five-year-old. He hides them next, much more cleverly than we do.  But tonight is pretty quiet. This shelter has room for eight families, and although they can arrive as early as 6:30pm (families are at 13 Salmon Family Center during the day), some are out busy until later.   A newborn baby sleeps on dad’s chest, while the adolescents complete for the highest score on their online game. Moe drives dump trucks with the champion animal finder and I go through the arts & crafts cupboards, tossing broken crayons and organizing glitter pens.  Gradually, more families trickle in. I don’t hear my one of my favorite kids sneak up behind me, and so give a gratifying jump to her “Boo!”

I usually only get to see the same family for a few shifts -- either I’ll miss a month or they won’t arrive to the shelter until after we leave at 8:30pm, and then, hooray, they move out of Goose Hollow and into their own place.  But this kid and I met at PHFS’ other shelter, Family Winter Shelter located at Congregation Beth Israel, and I’ve done a number of shifts there over the past few months.  She and her mom were one of the first families to sign up there right after they opened, and it was my first day there, too.

This shelter was a work of love and desperation, put together from nothing when the county made an urgent request to PHFS.  For the first time in recent history, all family shelters were full, and parents with kids were being turned away.  The PHFS staff partnered with Congregation Beth Israel to make this emergency shelter happen fast, very fast, and the need for volunteers to fill a whole new schedule was urgent.  After PHFS Board Member and Havurah Shalom member John Devlin put out the call at Shabbat School, my husband and I took turns going to a training.  Paul, a paramedic, noticed their need for first aid supplies, and our kids happily dumped out the tzedakah box to shop for band-aids, ibuprofen, cough syrup, and more.  It was pretty cool to us to get to contribute so directly, to see that shelf fill up because of us. We’d always wanted to make tzedakah a bigger deal in our lives, and this was something the kids could really get.  

Since the Family Winter Shelter has more families coming and going and a bigger space, it doesn’t work for volunteers to bring their own little ones, so Paul held down the fort at home while I made it in most weeks as a Kid-Time Host during those first months.  Honestly, it was those families I met that first night that kept me coming back so often. You get to know people a little bit, they might recognize a familiar face and catch you up on the drama with their daughter’s school enrollment problems, and connections can build.

Somehow, conversation is easier at the Family Winter Shelter.  Maybe it's the spacious layout. The longer shift means more time to relax and get to know the kids, too.  Much of the time, the parents are tired and appreciate the ability to get a moment to themselves while I read books, do puzzles or crafts, decorate cookies, or build Jenga towers with their kids.  But that first night, everyone was new and wide-eyed. My new friend was so excited to see a girl her age arrive and vibrated around the space waiting for the right time to say hi. “But what if she doesn’t want to talk to me?” she whimpered.  Her fears groundless, the buzz of energy and fast grade school friendships led to an intensely fun game of speed monopoly led by her mom. A dad laying nearby on a couch watched his son laugh as he collected high rents from another kid. “How’s your day been?” I asked.  He shook his head and told me about scary stuff at the bridge they’d slept under the night before. “Better now,” he answered.

Virginia's Story

A Single Working Mother Trying to Find a Home.

Meet Virginia and her two kids. Virginia worked full time the entire time she experienced homelessness. With the support of our Housing and Retention Specialist, Mary, Virginia and her two kids moved back into permanent housing.

There are so many misconceptions around homelessness. People often wrongly assume that people who are experiencing homelessness don’t want to work and/or don’t have a job.

At PHFS, over 75% of the parents we work with are employed. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to support a family on low paying jobs – especially when you’re a single parent raising kids in a city like Portland where rents have increased dramatically in recent years.

Virginia, a single mom of two teenage kids, Pollux and Shayla, worked full-time the entire time she was in shelter at PHFS.

“Being a single person and trying to raise two children in this economy is almost impossible,” she says. “We became homeless because every three months, without fail, our rent would go up. It wasn’t leveling out any more. There was no way for me to continue.”

Finding a temporary home and support from housing specialists at PHFS was just what Virginia needed to get back on her feet.

After arriving at shelter, she says, “I think I cried for the first two days. I was so relieved that we found a safe place to sleep. I could actually sleep because I knew my children were safe. It was like the world was lifted off of my shoulders.”

Virginia realized her family’s experience was not unique. “So many of the families at PHFS are just like us. They just ended up without a place to live.”

With help and support from PHFS, in March 2017, Virginia and her kids were able to move into permanent housing. “Just having our own door to close and our own four walls was probably the happiest I had been in a very long time."

Spring Break

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What did you do this Spring Break? Hamilton? Hawaii? 

For children experiencing homelessness, vacations from school can be stressful. There’s no guaranteed meal plan or place to rest for the week. School often provides the much needed structure for children living in crisis. 

For teenagers who spend their time on social media and know intimately what their peers are up to every minute of the day, experiencing homelessness over spring break can be even more painful. No tickets to Hamilton, or Palm Dessert or Hawaii - they can’t even complain about how bored they are at home. 

With grants from Juan Young Trust, Trust Management Services LLC, The Alliance at First Unitarian, Thirteen Salmon Advisory Council, and the Rotary, we provide families with tickets to the movies, OMSI, and the children's museum - experiences they can take back to school with them on Monday to feel included.

 Join our campaign to quadruple our services for these children and parents today! 

Families First Campaign

  Shelter property on SE 92nd and Tolman Street in the Lents neighborhood.

Shelter property on SE 92nd and Tolman Street in the Lents neighborhood.

Far too many moms, dads, and kids don’t have a place to call home. We know that over 4,000 students experienced homelessness last year in Multnomah County alone. Our community needs to do better. We need your help. 

A year ago, the PHFS Board & Staff set our long-term vision during a strategic planning process. At the time, we called it our Moon Shot – we want to own a building where families experiencing homelessness receive wrap-around services* to support them moving permanently back into housing. 

Everyone was excited about this long-term vision, and we started making all of our decisions based on whether it progressed us towards the Moon Shot or away from it. We set our intention, and then we happened upon an opportunity….

We thought it would be years before we would make the leap to the Moon Shot. But we found an ideal building in a great location that would allow us to quadruple the number of families we serve at any time. 

So we’re going for it! PHFS made an offer on the building. We are now working through the due diligence process – the inspection, environmental testing, etc. If all of that goes well, we may be able to take ownership in May. 

This is where you come in. We are asking you to support our efforts to raise money for the down payment and basic modifications. Please consider making a transformational investment in the future of these families – so together we can end homelessness for thousands of kids and their parents. 

Warmly,

Brandi Tuck
Executive Director

Welcome!

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Hello and welcome to Portland Homeless Family Solutions’ blog!

Whether you’re a longtime supporter or a new friend who is curious about homelessness and housing insecurity in Portland, we’re happy you’re here.

The purpose of this blog is to give readers a better sense of what it’s like to be part of the PHFS village and to understand the broader epidemic of family homelessness.

We plan to share the stories of families we've worked with, explore the history and causes of family homelessness, and hear testimonials from our volunteers. We'll even recommend some housing-focused books and movies, as well as some of our favorite recipes from meal provider volunteers.

Thanks for following along!

If you'd like to submit to the blog, please contact emma@pdxhfs.org