Phillip knew he wanted to live in St. Johns the first time he visited Cathedral Park, an expansive, grassy field beneath the North Portland neighborhood’s famous green bridge. When asked why he chose St. Johns, Phillip lit up. He explained that his sister lived in the area and would sometimes give him a ride to and from day jobs, so he had seen the bridge. “One day she took me after work and we bought dinner and we went down to the park right there and ahhh that was so nice. I said, ‘I want to live around this place.’ I don’t know why – this area is just so nice!”
Phillip has experienced several major traumas in his life, including the sudden deaths of his son and partner years ago. After overcoming an addiction to painkillers that a doctor had prescribed to treat an injury and experiencing homelessness for many years, Phillip now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the northwest corner of St. Johns. His home is adjacent to a park with mature fir trees just beyond the edge of his apartment complex, and he can see the trees from his balcony. He loves the lush landscape, which couldn’t be more different from the desert environment in Arizona where he’s from. Most importantly – for the first time in a long time – he feels safe when he goes to sleep at night.
Phillip is a member of the Yaqui Tribe in the Southwest United States and moved to Portland several years ago to be closer to his sister and niece who live in North Portland. “I was at the end of my rope in Arizona,” he explained, “[my sister] said ‘come here and I’ll try to help’.” While Phillip was sleeping in his truck his sister helped him find work and things slowly started to improve in his life. He discovered the Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA) when he visited one of their medical offices to treat his diabetes and soon discovered they offer other services, including housing case management.
Phillip was determined to find a home. He remembers telling himself, “’I’m not gonna sleep outside anymore.’ There was days that I would sleep outside and I would literally put my head down and say ‘this isn’t my life,’ you know? ‘I’m tired of this’. I was homeless for a long time.”
With the help of Joanna Jones, an Elders Housing Coordinator at NARA, Phillip has a safe, stable home for the first time in many years. With her help, he found a two-bedroom apartment with his niece while his sister was hospitalized with COVID-19 and moved into his one-bedroom St. Johns home two months ago. When Phillip set his sights on St. Johns, he didn’t know if he’d be able to afford rent in the neighborhood, which seemed like it would be expensive.
At first, Phillip had help paying his rent from Kaiser Permanente’s Metro 300 housing fund (unrelated to Metro, the regional government). The program launched in early 2020 and aimed to place at least 300 seniors with disabilities in housing. When program funding expired, Joanna was able to connect Phillip with a regional long-term rent assistance voucher, which helps pay Phillip’s rent and is funded by Metro’s supportive housing services.
He loves his apartment: “To me it’s like a castle compared to a cardboard box. I’m so grateful for everyone for helping me get into a house like this."
NARA was established in 1970 and offers integrated health, mental health, substance abuse treatment and social services to Native American and Alaska Native people who have low incomes or are experiencing homelessness. Joanna has worked for NARA for about two and a half years. She is a graduate of the organization’s residential treatment program and has nearly seven years of sobriety. Joanna feels a personal connection to NARA. “I instantly felt at home and felt like I was already part of the NARA family,” she says, looking back to when she was first hired. “Working for NARA has brought me so much joy.”
In Native American cultures, elders are highly respected members of the community, and Joanna loves the opportunities to interact with and support them. “I often enjoy listening to their stories and teachings while knowing the work I am doing is very important and to me is giving back to the community and often does not feel like work.” Joanna offers support ranging from helping clients connect with medical and mental health services, to navigating notices from landlords, to the housing search and move-in.
These days, Phillip is working full time at a North Portland warehouse and enjoying his new home. “You don’t know how much it means [to have safety inside]. When you’re sitting outside and the rain’s pouring on you, or you’re sitting out there at four o’clock in the morning, up against a tree or you’re trying to find a place to hide, to sit so no one bugs you or comes over and tries to rob you or hit you…” he said, explaining the transformational impact of housing. He repeatedly expressed his gratitude to Joanna and NARA for helping him, and is looking forward to keeping his job, being comfortable as he gets older, maintaining his home and getting involved in the community by helping others.
“I’ve been around everywhere and tried to find my place in the world,” Phillip explained. “I think I’ve found it, I’ve just gotta maintain it.”