March 18, 2010

YWCA's lost housing needs replacement

— Machines tore down Portland's YWCA three months ago to make way for yet another downtown parking lot. And so a building was destroyed that thousands of women had called ''home'' over the years.

As the big claws ripped down the walls, dozens of mattresses left behind fell into the rubble with the plaster, concrete and twisted metal. Some 300 women had slept on those mattresses in the last year the YWCA was open. Where are they now?

Many of them have crowded into the makeshift, temporary shelter that opened last winter above the Preble Street soup kitchen. The 30-bed Preble Street Women's Shelter has averaged 53 women each night.

There have been many nights with more than 60 women needing a safe place to sleep. That is more than double the shelter's capacity.

Options to save the YWCA's housing were rebuffed. People who should have known better missed (or ignored) the simple fact that closing 68 units of housing for poor, vulnerable women would have a dramatic effect on those women and on this community.

The sad and tragic consequences of our inaction are played out daily with longer lines at the soup kitchen and nightly in the inadequate Women's Shelter. It did not have to be this way.

Let's be candid: As a structure, the YWCA was obsolete. The glass walls provided no insulation. Windows would often freeze on the inside during the winter. Rooms were stark.

Nonetheless, we as a community could have -- and should have -- chosen to repair these flaws, rather than destroy the building while knowing that no alternative housing existed.

Let's also be candid that the so-called ''replacement'' apartments proposed for Danforth Street in no way replace the units lost at the YWCA. While this workforce housing is worthy in its own right, it is only able to serve people of moderate means and stable lives.

In contrast, the housing lost at the YWCA provided for extremely poor women without stable incomes or life circumstances to afford or qualify for workforce housing.

It is extremely unlikely that any woman from the YWCA will live in these new apartments.

What's done is done, and we must move ahead as a community. Our city's motto is Resurgam, and we believe that Portland's old downtown will also ''rise again'' as a vibrant arts and entertainment district.

This neighborhood transformation will succeed because we will add thousands of new residents, not acres of surface parking lots. We support this vision, but not at the expense of our most vulnerable residents.

A new group of leaders is poised to lead the resurgence of our old downtown. Much of the land in the area bounded by Congress, High, Center and York streets is owned by a few organizations -- J.B. Brown, Trammell Crow, Holiday Inn, Cumberland County, City of Portland and Portland Museum of Art. We are confident that these civic leaders will come together and find solutions to common challenges to serve the greater good.

We will stand shoulder to shoulder with others to support redevelopment, while also demanding that we repair, replace and increase the often invisible housing -- old hotels, rooming houses and the rabbit warrens of studio apartments -- that provides a home for our poor.

The poor do not leave our city when we destroy their homes. Instead, they move onto the streets.

We need look no further than the success of Logan Place and other creative housing initiatives to know that we can create housing that takes homeless people off the streets.

It is our responsibility as a just society to ensure that all people have homes. We believe that permanent affordable housing for our most vulnerable citizens is integral to the redevelopment of downtown neighborhoods.

— Special to the Press HeraldIt is our responsibility as a just society to ensure that all people have homes.

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