Metro’s new housing director, Patricia Rojas, is a long-time social justice advocate. Her parents emigrated from Colombia to the United States and settled first in New York City, where Patricia was born, and later in Texas. They come from humble backgrounds, and have spent their lives working to build a life for their children. To this day, Patricia helps them navigate complex systems.
“I understand the importance of social services. I’ve been my dad’s interpreter, navigator, his social worker, and his bridge into culture in the United States,” says Patricia. “It’s what led me to this work and why housing is so important to me.”
Prior to Metro, Patricia worked as Deputy Director at the Joint Office for Homeless Services at Multnomah County. Before that she served as Executive Director of El Programa Hispano, an organization that branched out of Catholic Charities and which she helped steward into becoming an independent nonprofit. At El Programa, she helped to strengthen and grow a portfolio of culturally specific services in the Latinx community, and dive into the world of housing.
One of the services El Programa offered was rent assistance, and she recalls how much impact it has on a family seeking stability. “There were many families who were impacted by harmful immigration policies, and through the program not only were they able to retain their housing, but were also able to access employment services and in some cases, even start their own business. It was that impact, of seeing how transformative a housing with services approach can be, that inspired me to work in housing and homeless services.”
Patricia’s youth and childhood also help her relate to another challenge that is often faced by people dealing with housing instability. Her biggest hero is her mom, who immigrated when she was only 17 years-old, and managed to raise a family in a foreign land despite battling bipolar disorder. Her grit and strength inspire her to show up to work every day, and most importantly, help her better understand the challenges of behavioral health disorders.
“A lot of my professional life comes back to my experience with my family and community,” she says. “And with my mom, in particular, seeing her struggles has led me to fundamentally believe that we all deserve to be in an environment where we can thrive. That may mean access to opportunities in employment, education, health and other resources to meet our basic needs and help us thrive. So when we talk about a healthy community, a thriving community, and housing and homeless services, we are ultimately speaking about to the pathways that support an individual and help them attain and stay in housing.”
Looking ahead at the work she’ll be doing at Metro, Patricia wants to bring this vision of connecting housing stability with wellness. “We have to think about wellness and health as something that is in the community,” she says. “And by community I mean where we live, through schools, churches, all the places where community happens. Access to support services need to be embedded throughout the community — it shouldn’t be something someone has to navigate a complex system to find. That’s the wonderful thing about supportive housing. It’s a fundamental understanding that if a person is not able to meet their basic needs such as health, housing stability is more difficult to attain. We need to increase the availability of and access to these critical services and housing resources, because it is what our community needs to achieve more housing stability and ultimately to thrive.”
Patricia wants to see Metro’s housing work thrive, and in her case, thriving at a personal level requires music. She ended a long first week at Metro by doing something most residents of greater Portland will recognize as a way to recharge: escaping to the gorge for the weekend. But Patricia wasn’t there just to enjoy nature. She was there to play a socially-distanced music gig.
“Music helps me feel centered,” she said. “It helps me connect with myself and see clearly. I’m grateful that I get to play music again, and I am looking forward to bringing all my energy into Metro’s housing work across the region.”