Before the pandemic began, Ferzon Gonzalez was co-owner of a Northeast Portland restaurant. When the restaurant was forced to close in early 2020 he started working for Centro Cultural de Washington, managing the organization’s new winter shelter program. Eventually, he explained, “I decided that I didn’t want to go back to [the restaurant].” He realized “It was much more satisfying [to] go home and know that I helped someone that didn’t have to sleep on the streets anymore,” he says.
He is now the assistant director of the housing program at Casa Amparo, a new transitional housing community in Forest Grove. Following its success with the winter shelter, Centro Cultural used Project Turnkey funds to purchase a motel that Washington County had been using as an emergency COVID shelter. Over 150 people have stayed at Casa Amparo since it opened its doors in November 2021. Accommodations include single rooms, double rooms, and one-bedroom suites with living-room space. In addition to a safe place to stay, guests also receive help finding housing, in addition other support in their journey to stability improved wellbeing. This programming is paid for with Metro’s supportive housing services fund.
In Spanish, amparo means “refuge.” That is what is has come to represent for many of the families who have come to Casa Amparo after experiencing traumatizing situations like domestic violence or a death in the family. The program’s four case manages help participants find permanent homes, using Metro’s regional long-term rent assistance vouchers, and Centro Cultural offers continuing programming to support the transition. Life skills training teaches practical things like cooking and cleaning, which can be helpful for people who have lived on the street for a long time. They also offer a three- month seminar program, where participants learn tools for empowerment and how to heal from past trauma.
Ferzon describes this program as transformational. “We send them to these seminars and they’re being renewed pretty much. And you know, that’s what I take home every day because it’s really amazing to see how their lives changed after six, seven months.”
Looking ahead, Centro Cultural is trying to find funding for a planned remodel of the motel site. Renovations by Scott Edwards Architecture will transform the building so it looks and feels more like an apartment complex than a motel. Washington County based, Latino-owned GSI builders will be the lead project manager.
Centro Cultural has provided programming around health and economic mobility to underserved communities in Washington County for decades, with an emphasis on low-income Latino families. The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Meet some of Casa Amparo’s guests
Claudia is a single mother with three children in Oregon and an older daughter in Honduras. Life has been difficult for her family since her husband passed away three years ago. They were living in substandard housing and found out about Casa Amparo when one of her son’s teachers visited her home and passed her contact information to Centro Cultural.
Since then, life has been much better for Claudia and her family. “Each day that goes by my children can see that my life, my face is completely different. I used to be completely depressed. I felt like for me like the sun never rose.” Living at Casa Amparo has brought her hope. She describes Centro as an organization that supports people by telling them, “we will help you, and little by little you will help yourself.”
Sarai heard about Casa Amparo at a day labor site where she was looking for work. Her family had just arrived from Mexico fleeing a dangerous situation, but the friends they were staying with could only host them for a few weeks and they soon found themselves without a place to live. In addition to shelter, food and other practical things like bus tickets, Casa Amparo has helped Sarai and her two kids improve their overall wellbeing.
“My family, my children, we have lived through very difficult things,” she explained, “so they have given us the psychological support we need that is helping us to have the tools that will help us lead a happier, more calm life, and overcome those obstacles that we have faced at some moments.”
Sarai and her family now live in permanent housing in Forest Grove. Casa Amparo’s support staff are also helping her get a work permit and she’s looking forward to brighter days ahead. “Thanks to Casa Amparo we are finding a different life, something we can feel good about, and we can see life from a new perspective.”
Martha moved to Forest Grove when she was a teenager. After years of staying with friends and living in other temporary situations, she now lives at Casa Amparo with her daughter while they wait to move into their permanent home. With many school-age children in the building and a school bus stop at the edge of the parking lot, Casa Amparo is a place where Martha’s daughter can get to school easily every day.
Most importantly, she explained, the program has given her a sense of security for her daughter. “I'm able to provide for my daughter what I usually wouldn't be able to provide if I was out on the streets, you know, and that's just having a safe place for her.”
This stability has also allowed Martha to work full time at two jobs. She enjoys the feeling of knowing that she can wake up in the morning and not have to pack up all their things. The program at Casa Amparo is also helping Martha and her daughter stay in the area, where her parents still live, which is important to her. They move into a new apartment soon, right down the road from where Martha grew up.
Chelsea lived on the streets for a long time until she and her fiancé were seriously injured in a bus accident. While they were recovering at a nursing facility they searched for an organization to help them find housing after they were discharged. Chelsea isn’t able to work because of her injuries and didn’t know where they would go with no income for rent.
After calling many numbers and getting nowhere, Chelsea was getting frustrated. “Everyone kept on giving me the runaround.” Finally, her attorney’s secretary pointed her to Centro, and soon Chelsea and her fiancé were able to move into Casa Amparo. Now they’ve found an apartment and are waiting to move in. Chelsea appreciates that the program helps participants get furniture and other things they need to be comfortable in their new home. They also help them move.
“When it comes to organizations, it's really hard to find one that sticks with you,” she explained. “But Casa Amparo was just what we needed. They make you feel like they're part of your family. And that's something that I know from my past history. I was on the streets for a long time and it was hard for me to speak with people. But these people understand me and they'll understand you if you ever need help.”