It’s the middle of December and the temperatures are dwindling dangerously close to freezing. It’s about midnight — the time the doors of the Roseland Theater open and the post-concert crowd emerges, wrapping scarves around their necks and shoving hats on their heads. Their excited chatter leaves steam in the air as they filter out of the theater in different directions, toward parked cars or to the corner of the sidewalk to hail a taxi, the promise of a roof and a warm bed awaiting them.
For Kate, huddled across the street in the doorway of St. Andre Bessette Catholic Church, this means she will finally be able to get to sleep. For her, however, there is no warm bed, just her wheelchair and a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call as the police officers make their rounds. Time to gather her things. And wait. The red doors of St. André’s will open at 9 a.m. for the church to provide their daily breakfast. From there it’s on to the next place to escape the cold, the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter (SAFES) where she spends the days. And the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next.
This was Kate’s reality for four years — the time she spent sleeping in the doorway of St. André Bessette in her manual wheelchair, a knife tucked away in case someone threatened her, the lack of sleep making it hard to stay alert.
“It makes you more vulnerable because when you’re tired you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you,” Kate said.
And for a woman sleeping on the streets of Portland, paying attention is key.
“Men feel like they can take advantage of us because we’re out here,” Kate said.
According to the Portland Housing Bureau’s 2013 Point-in-Time Count, 38 percent of the city’s homeless population were women, a 22 percent spike in women who are “literally” homeless — unsheltered or in emergency shelter — since 2011. Only 21 percent of the available beds in shelters, however, were designated for single women at that time.
“You can clearly see that in actuality a homeless person is not necessarily an elderly man sitting on the corner of the street,” SAFES Executive Director Bernadette Basilio said. “The definition of a homeless person completely has changed.”
SAFES is working to provide for these homeless women, who are among the most vulnerable to violence on the streets. Operating out of a new and much larger building as of 2013, SAFES is now able to expand their emergency shelter options to 45 mats, rather than the previous 15. The winter shelter, which opened Nov. 1 and extends through April, is in addition to SAFES’ regular night and day shelters.
And now, after nine months without permanent leadership, Basilio is seeing SAFES through the development of 42 new single-room occupancy apartments, which are scheduled to open by the end of the year. This new housing option will protect 42 more women from the cold and the dangers of the street.
And these dangers aren’t lost on the women who face them.
“Safety is the biggest (concern), because men have to worry about safety, but we are more vulnerable than them,” said Crystal, a woman who used SAFES’ services in the past and is now housed and works at SAFES as a resident assistant.
Crystal was on the streets living with addiction for five years. In those five years she found shelter under the the Vista Bridge, the Burnside Bridge, the Morrison Bridge, next to the I-405 off ramp, at the Park Blocks in front of a church and in the doorway of an old theater. But wherever she found herself laying her head at night, she made sure she wasn’t alone. She always kept a companion close for safety.
Not all women, however, have this option. Sandra, who came directly to SAFES after being kicked out of her nephew’s home, isn’t from Portland and didn’t have a network in the city. So unlike Crystal and the many other women who seek safety in numbers, she had no companions for protection. As a survivor of child and sexual abuse, her fears of being forced to sleep outside were amplified. Luckily, she was never unsheltered.
“My constant fear throughout homelessness was, ‘What am I going to do if I get kicked out of a shelter and I have to walk the streets all night?’” she said.
Some women who are alone and do find themselves on the streets at night feel they have no other option than to keep a weapon for protection. Kate kept a knife, and now keeps a taser. Another anonymous woman currently taking shelter at SAFES kept multiple knives and pepper spray when she was sleeping on the streets.
In the city’s survey, almost half of homeless women reported being affected in some way by domestic violence. In addition to the emotional toll, it leaves women actively fleeing domestic violence situations vulnerable to their abusers.
“A lot of these women have abusers and not good histories going on, and sometimes those histories kind of show up in the neighborhood,” SAFES Program Manager Anna Cale said. “Community safety is something that we really try to talk to the women about and support them with.”
These histories are one of the reasons SAFES is staffed almost exclusively by women.
“I think it’s important for them to have women help them to show them that they can achieve and they can overcome as well,” Basilio said. “Women can be independent, successful and self-sufficient in our community.”
Basilio and the team at SAFES is actively celebrating that image, raising the profile of not only the shelter services, but the lives and potential in the women themselves. In a shift from the hushed environment of years past, today, YouTube videos and social media posts celebrate the poetry and humanity of the women under their roof.
Still, sometimes simply the label of “homeless” creates barriers for women.
When Sandra, who slept at SAFES for two months, sought emergency shelter there and didn’t have access to a locker, she had nowhere to store her things.
“I had to sleep with my belongings tied to me,” Sandra said. “There’s a lot of theft. You can’t leave your suitcase there and expect it to be there 12 hours later. How are you supposed to go to a job interview carrying a backpack and suitcases? ‘Hi, I’m homeless.’”
The stigma associated with homelessness disadvantages these women in myriad ways — from difficulty getting a job to loss of self-esteem. Crystal says she has seen the stigma against homelessness growing since she first experienced it and largely blames the way homelessness is depicted in the media.
“People that aren’t on the street treat us like we have a disease or something,” said a woman who currently uses SAFES’s services.
Sandra — who said she never thought she’d be homeless “in a million years,” is now grateful for the experience because she can understand it and wants to do something to change it. She believes the misconceptions the general public maintain about homelessness are rampant and deeply damaging to the homeless population.
“I didn’t meet anyone who was homeless by choice,” she said. “And as far as being lazy goes, oh my gosh. See how much work it is trying to survive carrying all of your belongings on your back?”
Many of the people on the streets have what is labeled a disabling condition — according to the 2013 Point-in-Time Count, more than half. This could mean anything from a physical disability to a mental health problem to substance abuse. These conditions make finding shelter that much more difficult.
For Kate, who uses a wheelchair, the increased difficulty is physical. Women who possess a disabling condition are exponentially more vulnerable.
“Alone, female, in a wheelchair — it kind of doubles the risk,” Kate said.
Another woman using SAFES’s services has HIV/AIDS. A shelter holding 50 women — as the regular dormitory at SAFES does — who could have anything ranging from a cold to a more serious illness, is clearly not a safe place for her.
And SAFES’s goal is to include as many women in its efforts as possible and protect the women who are especially vulnerable, including those with addictions. So SAFES is a wet and low-barrier shelter, meaning that women will not be denied services if they are under the influences of substances and that the only qualification required to access SAFES’s services is being an adult female.
“Women are already vulnerable on the streets, and if they’re obviously under the influence of something they’re not going to make the right judgment, so we definitely want to invite them in so they have a safe shelter,” Basilio said.
Since Basilio took the helm of SAFES in April, she’s instituted a slew of new programs, including Arts and Crafts, a Narcotics Anonymous group, a Depression and Anxiety group, Rent Well classes, Sewing class and Community Clean Up.
And SAFES’s new building has a wealth of untapped potential — many rooms reaching up to the fourth floor and down to the basement are unused, or used only for storage. Basilio hopes that the new single-room occupancies are just the start, and that with more funds and some much-needed renovations, SAFES will be able to greatly expand its services. Basilio hopes, in the future, to have an indoor garden, a computer room, job and financial training, and more respite care.
Sandra hopes that some of this space will be used to expand the emergency shelter to a year-round option. SAFES’s emergency shelter was the only thing between her and the streets the day she was thrown out of her nephew’s home with no warning, and she knows multiple other women who faced similar situations.
SAFES’s 50-bed dormitory currently has a waiting list of 200 — four times its capacity.
“I’m obsessed with this, I really am,” Sandra said. “Because I will never forget the looks on the faces of the people who were getting kicked out. They didn’t know where to go.”
You can view more about the SAFES program at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzt4Xt0eIvk
Read "The new face of homeless veterans," a piece on the nonprofit Sgt. McDowell's Military Relief, which helps female veterans experiencing homelessness.