CENTRAL CITY CONCERNS DIRECTOR, ED BLACKBURN RETIRES
Based on interview by Molly Harbarger, the Oregonian/Oregon Live In 2008, after serving more than 10 years running Central City Concerns’ health and addiction services, Ed Blackburn became executive director of homeless service organizations.
“In that time, he helped the organization grow from about 80 employees to 800. He has overseen $200 million in real estate development for housing and centers to provide a wide range of mental health, addiction recovery and other health services, as well as career training and employment programs. Blackburn switched from city planning to working with the city's homeless population as he was searching for spiritual clarity. In a few months, he found a place where the staff literally washed the feet of the poor and sick – in this case, because of bad cases of athlete's foot – and he found his calling.”
Although he is now stepping down, he remains involved in the development of 380 housing units, built with $21.5 million donated from six Portland health systems. He'll move to emeritus status at the end of September.
In his interview with Molly Harbarger Ed reflected on how the. homeless population has grown and changed, and how Central City Concern and the city have adapted to the fluctuations.
Is the current level of homelessness is a new phenomenon? “When we thought of homelessness when I started in 1992, it was mostly what we refer to as "Skid Row," and Old Town and parts of downtown and parts of the Central Eastside. By early afternoon on most days, you'd have a hundred people just in this area of Old Town, passed out in doorways from drinking, mostly from alcohol use, some other drugs.
“Modern homelessness as we think about it today really started increasing in the 1980s when the federal government began de-investing in the building of low-income housing and switched mostly to a voucher system, tapping into the private landlord market, which had some efficacy and worked to some degree. But now we find ourselves decades later with a huge shortage of housing for those who are 30 percent below the median income. And the marketplace doesn't build a lot of housing for those low-income levels.
Also during that time, in the wake of Vietnam, we saw a big upsurge in homeless veterans. We saw the de-institutionalization of large mental health hospitals, which was supposed to be followed by a lot of community investment in housing and community services, but that investment was never made proportionally to the de-investment in hospitals.
The Great Recession was really a great depression for a lot of low-income people. I think we had a lot of young people here who didn't get attached to the mainstream economy and a lot of other people who lost their jobs and detached.
The opiate addiction has added a new twist, especially with the migratory population. The presence of heroin addiction is something I haven't seen before in the homeless population. So we have a swarm of things happening.
Was there ever a moment or a decision point that was a turning point? A part of what's happening is a result of a good economy. You've got all these people moving here because it's a desirable place to live. I think gentrification in Northeast Portland has resulted in homelessness as families have been broken up. Some of those were efforts to actually improve the neighborhoods, provide mass transportation, make the neighborhoods more desirable. But what happened is higher-income people moved in and bought the property. So a lot of lower-income people were gentrified out to East County and, for some people, they lost family connections, they lost a sense of community.
I don't think anyone anticipated the incredible rise in home prices and the housing market here 10 years ago. When we were building a new clinic in Old Town There were vacancies all over the place. I think not investing in land banking for the future and the building of affordable housing at the lower income levels was a mistake.
We also lost a lot of single-room occupancy hotels. Starting around 2003, the city focused on chronic homelessness. Central City Concern helped bring about $9 million in federal money and we did see that population go down. There were nights I'd go out with CHIERS, our outreach program that picks up inebriated people on the streets, and count people. Over time, there were nights when they weren't counting anybody sleeping on the streets .We were able to get several hundred people off the streets in probably about a year. The idea was the cities were going to demonstrate success and then there'd be a big investment. The investment didn't follow the success. It was right before the invasion of Iraq and so when those wars really got underway, all that funding stopped.
Did you see this influx of homelessness coming?
When I think of all the tens of thousands of people moving here, it seems unrealistic to expect you're not going to have homeless people among that migration
How has Central City Concern changed over the tie you've been here? When I got here in 1992, it was like a $4 million organization with maybe 80 employees -- a lot of those were part time. Many of them making minimum wage, which was pretty minimum back then. We had a few buildings and outpatient drug treatment programs using acupuncture, which was very innovative at the time. But now we're multi-dimensional organization that does really robust health care services. We did addictions treatment back then, but now we also do really comprehensive health care services at our Old Town clinic. It's recognized as one of the best health care of the homeless clinics in the country.
We do specialty mental health services there as well. We have many more units of housing. We had no housing on the Eastside when I came here in 1992. Now, on any given night, we're housing about 2,700 people at our kids and family housing on the Eastside. And we have different types of housing -- for people in recovery, people with special needs, physical health care problems.
We added employment services and, in the last 12 months, we've placed well over 600 people in jobs, working with about 350 employers. We're probably housing 2,000 more a year .Currently we have $87 million worth of real estate investments.
How did you shape your vision for the organization as the city changed? When I came here, I didn't come with a vision of ending homelessness. It was more of a spiritual move. I was working on neighborhood crime issues at City Hall. So when I was hired here as the director of the Hooper Detoxification Center, I knew very little about it and I had a lot to learn
We got into health care services Old Town Clinic, which was run by Ecumencial Ministries of Oregon – were losing so much money they came to us and asked us to keep it open. Our board chair said we can't let it shut down so we got into the health care business.
Are there any exciting ideas out there the city is working on now or you like as an effective way to deal with the city's level of homelessness?
Multnomah County and the city significantly upgraded their collaboration in addressing the problem with the creation of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. I think their collaboration on this issue has produced results in the short term. . Shelters ultimately don't help homelessness. It's housing that is going to solve the problem.
As you near the end of your tenure at Central City Concern, are there any people or moments you are reflecting on? When I first came, I was asked by the executive director then how long I would be staying and I said 18 months. I was going to do a turnaround thing.
But a few incidents really got me. I think the final capping incident was a guy there who was a heroin addict and he had both of his legs amputated below his knees from abscesses that went out of control from shooting up in his lower legs. He was in there almost every day at the sobering station.
I came to work one day and the paramedics were there. He had hypothermia, and they were trying to get an IV needle into his jugular vein. But, the paramedic said these guys become so sensitive to pain and needles that their bodies can sense it.
I went over and, literally, I felt pulled to the ground and I just whispered in his ear and I said, "God loves you, but if we can't get you off the streets and we can't get you clean you're going to die in a few weeks." He kind of looked at me and a tear rolled out of his eye. Then I left. But the staff got him into a hospital into the suburbs, because quite frankly, no one would take him here. I think they made up an identity for him. He then got out of the hospital and the staff got him into a Transition Projects homeless shelter.
A few weeks later, I get a call. It was probably about 11 o'clock at night. A staff member says, "Ed, you really need to come down." And I say, "Oh geez, what happened?" So I walk in and I see this guy sitting in a wheelchair in the back. He looked like he was 15 years younger. He stayed sober and just wanted to thank me.
It was not just what happened with him, but the kind of angel trickery the staff were able to pull. I was very impressed. I can see them now excited to tell me they got him into the hospital. Then I was locked in. It turned into 25