Notes from Peace Shelter

A black-and-white photograph of the Washington Center in downtown Portland, shot from a low angle. The entrance to the building is boarded up, and the street-level exterior and curved windows on the second story are covered in graffiti. A three-story bill

Brian Roche

In downtown Portland, on the block of Southwest Washington Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, there is a strange building: a pile of seventies futurist marble, all brutalist staircases and weirdly curved awning-windows, like something from the set of Blade Runner. When I was an adolescent growing up in the city, the building was home to a quiet, dusty KeyBank branch in the ground-floor space fronting Fifth; in later years the Hush Hush Mediterranean Cafe tucked in the corner on Fourth, alongside a wedding dress boutique. I remember the giant purple octopus on the Greek Cusina restaurant across the street, and a sleepy, declining atmosphere that lingered in an otherwise bustling intersection. People with briefcases and full day-planners ate their lunches on the building’s cracked marble steps, and my high school classmates and I waited for the 15 bus on the sidewalk immediately adjacent.

Recently, several local papers have published stories about this block, calling it “an open-air fentanyl market” and “the Skid Row of Portland.” The stories are predictably sensationalist and dehumanizing of the people struggling to live on these streets. Today, the long-vacant building is sealed off behind plywood walls, painted the same graffiti-resistant gray as the plywood walls that still fortify the Justice Center.

I first entered the building at 415 Southwest Washington Street in December 2016, when I was hired as a lead shelter host for the Peace Shelter. At the time, Portland’s homeless shelters were difficult to access. All programs required clean urinalysis tests, up-to-date tuberculosis clearance cards from the Health Department, and a referral from a case manager or a parole officer. The city’s few twenty-four-hour shelter programs provided beds for only a fraction of Portland’s estimated homeless population, and there were even fewer resources available for couples, families, and people with pets. As a result of these barriers, wait times of six months or more were considered unavoidable. Then, as now, most people experiencing homelessness in Portland opted not to deal with the difficulty of attempting sobriety and compiling the necessary documents for entry into those few available programs, all while sleeping outside.

Our program tried to directly address some of these barriers. We welcomed well-behaved pets. We allowed our “guests” to enter our program without a TB test or a urine test. No one was required to show proof of employment or a recommendation from a case manager. All guests were asked to be respectful and mellow, to refrain from violence, substance use, or sexual activity while in shelter, and to avoid a three-block radius of the building when we were closed. We were an overnight shelter only, opening at 7:00 p.m. and closing at 6:30 a.m. Once a guest entered the program, their assigned space would be reserved for them until they stopped returning for it for three nights in a row. These expectations were all meant to prevent lines of individuals seeking shelter from congregating at our doors; in theory, after accessing our shelter for the first time and completing intake processes, people wouldn’t have to worry about getting to the shelter in time to claim a limited space (which is why lines form in front of overnight shelter programs in the first place).

Upon entering the building for the first time, I found abandoned office floors, directional signs for the classrooms of what was once an ESL institute, and anonymous grey spaces thought to be the site of a Navy recruiter office or classrooms of a for-profit college program. Then, as now, garish multistory posters advertising Cartier jewelry or Rolex watches covered an exterior wall of the vast empty building.

We were handed fistfuls of keys for the building, and it was unclear which, if any, corresponded to the unmarked doors. Before we opened, my colleagues and I spent a painful afternoon laboriously trying every key in every doorknob. The key that happened to open the most doors, the third we found that opened any doors at all, I labeled that key the “C” key, and the doors that answered that key were labeled “Charlie.” When then-Mayor Charlie Hales visited us after we became operational, I wondered if he noticed that all the doors seemed to be named for him, and what he might have thought about this particular legacy of his mayoralty. One year later, after the Peace Shelter closed, and Hales left office, and we returned to reopen the same building as yet another shelter program, those labels were still there.

To create the Peace Shelter, we took over just one floor of this empty building, laying down blue painter’s tape marking out sleeping spaces 30 inches wide by 7 feet long. Adult men (and “no more than two large bags”’ worth of their belongings) were expected to keep themselves to these spaces at night, sleeping on mats and blankets we provided, plus whatever bedding they might bring. We hauled in 130 folding mats, the same kind the Red Cross uses for emergency evacuation shelters, and we organized pallets worth of coffee, ramen noodles, hand sanitizer, cleaning solutions, toilet paper, and a great many other items.

I was assigned to work three twelve-hour shifts in a row, Sunday–Monday–Tuesday. The first six hours were typically pretty busy, but then things tapered off until the morning. I made $16 per hour, a wage I was grateful to have, given how poorly paid these positions usually are. My colleagues were a mixed bunch, many of us hired for our lived experience of homelessness.

One of my colleagues was a chemist with a graduate degree who immigrated from Ethiopia. He is the most profoundly polite and carefully respectful person I've ever met. His accent was absolutely unintelligible, but I always knew his heart was in this work. (He later accepted a position teaching chemistry at a community college in rural Washington.)

Then there was an Iraq war veteran who worked at the VA as a case officer and wanted to do more to help his fellow soldiers, which is how he saw our guests. I knew he wouldn’t last long. He didn’t have the stomach for the ugliness of this day-to-day witnessing of humans in crisis, on their worst days, that are also somehow the best of them, too. After six months, he gradually stopped accepting shifts.

Another colleague was the best on-call staff we ever had: she always said yes to a shift at the last minute, and she always started every shift, no matter what position she was posted in, by cleaning fastidiously. She never lost her temper, and she was brilliant at deescalating conflict. But she got written up for sitting with a guest and writing poetry with them for an hour, because my then-manager suspected an inappropriate personal boundary infringement. After that, she never accepted another shift.

One of the guests said that he was a former police officer from a small town in Oregon. He begged me not to disclose this information to his peers for the sake of his personal safety. Another was a former lumberjack. Another was a union roofing guy, with years of expertise and a big stack of clients, but also a bad gambling habit. He said it was better for him to be there, in the shelter, remembering how little he has left to lose.

Most of the guests were in their fifties or older. Many were employed, but simply had one too many marks on their rental history, or couldn’t scratch together enough to make first and last month’s rent plus a deposit, etc.

The really magical time in an overnight shelter is at 4:00 in the morning, when you can feel the energetic shift in the building, as more than one hundred souls settle into deep REM sleep, in some cases for the first time in years. The hoarse smokers’ coughs peter out, the frantic sleep-mutterings subside, and the rhythmic snores harmonize, almost. The whole building seems to sigh with relief. Outside, the crows impassively mob the trees, lining the branches with inky solemnity. Garbage trucks echo distantly, and the cold river breathes through the gaps in the doorframes.

The Peace Shelter closed in July 2017. It was a casualty of City Hall policy fights that I don’t know enough about to speak of here. But the Columbia Shelter program opened in the same premises that November, and I returned to help lead it. I also led the Fifth Avenue shelter in the basement of the Parole Offices building, across the street from the now derelict KeyBank site. In total, I led six different shelter programs between 2016 and 2020. I was in charge of each shelter for about six months on average, the timing dependent on weather, funding, and whether neighborhoods were willing to accept us. (Usually they weren’t). Our agency had no choice but to accept these opportunities to open “temporary emergency shelters” instead of permanent ones, as though the homelessness crisis we’d inherited from our parents and grandparents were just a temporary aberration in the weather. We were so immersed in the crisis of the moment, we couldn’t devote scarce resources with any kind of permanence or foresight.

In my time running shelters, I learned to hate how we worship data. We reduce people to numbers, stripping away identity and nuance to get at bare, anonymous, abstract data points. It’s easier to dismiss the evidence of our senses when we can ignore faces, stories, memories of kindness and vulnerability, and just look at dates, temperatures, quantities.

I’m glad more people are paying attention to this long-abandoned property now. But I also think it’s important to humanize the recent history of this place, to tell the stories that show that this property has long had an intimate relationship with our city’s challenges of poverty and housing. The choices that property and business owners make about these locations and others are conscious choices, made in self-interest. Clearly it’s more profitable for a bank or a property management portfolio to hold a built, heated, and plumbed building empty than it is to care for our neighbors in need.

Should the boarded-up property at Fourth and Washington ever become a shelter again, I urge whomever reopens it to remember the following:

Always stock twice as many coffee urns as you think you’ll need.

Supply orders never arrive on time. The art of restocking a shelter is in anticipating budget deadlines and transport cycles, so as to spread the pain and scarcity across different pay cycles. Even so, it’s likely that you will run out of coffee or ramen at some point. Do not allow this to become routine. It’s more expensive to win back trust and credibility from this community than it is to go in person to Safeway or Grocery Outlet and restock your supplies.

The industrial cleaning solvents used by the prisoner-staffed laundry service we contracted with destroyed the blankets as quickly as if we were throwing them away every week. This was as compelling an argument to not renew the contract, as was the moral injury of paying the Oregon Department of Corrections to compel adults in custody to wash our shelter blankets. At the time, it was easy to overlook this moral injury because of the cost savings. When you consider your funding arrangements, remember to account for the moral cost, if only because the moral cost usually indicates hidden financial costs too. No one is actually prepared to bear either of those expenses on an unlimited basis.

Needleproof gauntlets make you feel invincible and capable of accomplishing unthinkably disgusting cleaning tasks. But always beware of hubris. There are some hazards that not even Narcan can rescue you from.

I led different emergency shelter programs for an average of six months at a time, always moving on to open a new one as soon as the previous had run its term, before burning out on this work just as the pandemic began. In the last program I led, in the fall of 2019, maybe thirty people succeeded in accessing housing, out of more than 350 individuals who churned through that space in six months. You can interpret that particular data point however you like.


Public Policy, Housing, Homelessness


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