Eight years ago, Deandre Kenyanjui was living on the streets, struggling with addiction and mental health. Today he works at the Multnomah County Office of Consumer Engagement, where his first major project was to lead the stakeholder engagement process for developing the new Behavioral Health Resource Center that opened in December of 2022.
The county purchased the downtown Portland building in January of 2019 with the intention of creating a peer-led facility for unhoused community members experiencing substance abuse and mental health crises. Deandre’s journey with the project started when Multnomah County Health Department director Ebony Clark was looking for someone with lived experience who knew how to navigate the political landscape, understood behavioral health systems and could connect with clients.
From the start, a chance to “dream big”
Deandre got to work immediately, convening meetings of stakeholders that included both people who have been through the behavioral health system – bringing their knowledge about its strengths and weaknesses based on their experiences – and service providers who work in shelters and other programs. The group met monthly and was instructed to “dream big,” with no limitations on what the vision could be. One of the most significant things that came out of these group discussions was the need to have a peer-run organization working within the facility and a manager with lived experience.
Suggestions from the peer stakeholder groups informed everything from the murals, seating and laundry facilities to the values, policies and procedures. For Deandre, it was “a really interesting time to watch government pay attention to the people who were most impacted by the system and say, ‘Hey, we're going to listen to you guys and take that information, and we're going to integrate it and we're going to build off that’.” It was a surreal experience that makes him emotional every time he thinks about it.
“We could be ourselves… that was so empowering”
Alexandra Appleton was one of the first people Deandre reached out to form the stakeholder group. At the time she was working at a shelter and had her own lived experience with homelessness and substance abuse.
“Those were the rooms with our people in it,” Alexandra remembered. “I've been involved with so many advisory councils and stakeholder groups… and I feel like we didn't have to worry about anything. We didn't have to like, save face – we could be ourselves every single time in those meetings and that was so empowering.”
Today, Alexandra is manager of the new facility. One thing she most appreciates about the program – based on her own experience navigating services – is how everything is in one location. The center contains a day shelter on the first and second floors, which is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and includes plenty of seating, tables, coffee machines, bathrooms, showers and spaces to meet with service providers. The trauma-informed design features wood paneling, lighting that changes depending on the time of day and a welcoming mural with soothing colors.
Peer support specialists from the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon – all of whom have lived experience with homelessness – will greet each person who walks through the door.
More services, more people helped in spring 2023
The third floor will open in spring 2023 as an overnight behavioral health shelter that can serve 33 people. Unlike other shelters in the Portland area, residents will be able to stay during the day as well as at night and will have lockers to store their things. Though the program is designed to accommodate participants for about 30 days, no one will be turned away if they don’t have somewhere to go by the end of that time.
The fourth floor will also open in spring as a 90-day ‘bridge-to-housing’ program that can support up to 19 people who are transitioning to permanent homes. Like the other three floors, it has spacious bathroom facilities and two lounge areas. It also has a community kitchen that can host cooking classes and where Deandre hopes people with more experience in the program will help newer participants learn cooking skills. Both the third and fourth floor shelter programs will be partially paid for with Metro’s supportive housing services fund.
For Alexandra, peer support and modeling have been important for all stages of her journey, including her current role at the center.
“If it wasn't for me seeing [Deandre] at the county, then I wouldn't even have believed that I could be at the county,” she said. “Same with housing, same with recovery, same with being a good mother [and] being a good mentor to my peers. There's just like a wonderful feeling of community when you're around people that have shared similar experiences."
Deandre agrees about the importance of being able to talk to someone who truly understands what you’re going through, not just someone who’s read about what you’re experiencing in books.
“It is an energetic thing when an individual can look at you and be like ‘That person actually understands what I'm talking about’… that’s what this space offers is that the moment someone walks in the door, they're going to be greeted by somebody who has been right where they been, whether they know it or not,” he said.
As Alexandra points out, it’s unusual for a project to have people with lived experience inform all phases and aspects of a program and facility like this, rather than just coming in at the beginning or end. Deandre agrees, explaining that “it’s not just in the visual of who's working here, but from policy to ethics to practice to safety, it has been influenced in design by people with that experience.”
“I hope to honestly carry the carry the dream and the imagination and the original peer stakeholders had moving forward,” said Alexandra, “and continue to lead with the values that we implemented or want to implement.”
In advance of the center’s opening, the county’s outreach team had been going to encampments to let people know about the center and when it will open. Their team also went around to service providers in the county and beyond to spread the word about the center. Ultimately, Alexandra explained, the most powerful outreach will be peer-to-peer from people who’ve been in the center and used the services.