PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Autumn Buck has lived in her home for the last year. Someone was camping near her home when suddenly the camp went up in flames.

She said she doesn’t know how the fire started but heard propane tanks exploding. “It could have been anything walking over there. I noticed that there was tealight candles and stuff. So maybe he fell asleep and had a candle. I’m not really sure how it started,” Buck told KOIN 6 News.

The camper left, but the debris from the fire and his camp stayed. So Buck decided she would walk over there to check the damage.

Cultivate Initiatives started up a little more than a year ago and recently partnered with the city and county to help at severe weather shelters, 2022 (Courtesy photo)

“I had thought, like, I’ll grab some trash bags and go over there and clean it up bit by bit. And I went over there and it was just, it was too much,” she said. “There was needles everywhere. Burnt garbage, human waste, furniture. You name it. It was there. So that was not going to be a one-woman job or even a 5-person job.”

She said she reached out to the fire department and other city departments who told her not to clean it herself because of the hazardous materials.

“So we posted on Nextdoor about it and just trying to ask our neighbors if they had any better ideas of what we could do to get it cleaned up and to help keep it clean. And there was a lot of great ideas. People, some people said to contact the parks department since it could fall under the parks department’s purview,” Buck said. “And then just so happened that a woman who is the director at Cultivate Initiatives reached out to us directly and offered to send a team of her volunteers to clean it up today. That’s awesome.”

‘Chaos, good chaos’

Johnnie Shaver, the director of operations for Cultivate Initiatives, told KOIN 6 News they put passion to work in several ways.

“A lot of us have a background of being unhoused. I’ve been unhoused twice in my life. That’s true for a lot of folks who work here,” Shaver said. “So, we come to this work with a deep understanding and passion.”

Born from an extreme necessity, they started up a little more than a year ago and recently partnered with the city and county to help at severe weather shelters.

“Even in the severe weather that happened, to see the community come together and rally is incredible,” said Y-Ishia Rosborough and Caleb Coder. “It’s chaos. Good chaos.”

Y-Ishia Rosborough with Cultivate Initiatives, a Portland nonprofit aimed at helping marginalized communities, August 13, 2021 (KOIN).

The group also does cleanups and has picked up “more than 100,000 pounds of trash just since September,” they said.

A man named Jay was working at one of those cleanups. Jay, who said he was homeless for 16 years, takes part in the cleanups for reasons he knows well firsthand.

“Trash is the main thing,” he said, “then rats come.” The cleaner it is, the better “and it just makes it look better.”

Shaver said they bring a mobile shower truck to Lents Park every Monday night and offer hygiene supplies and clean clothes.

“Showers and clean water are hard to come by,” Shaver said. “So is laundry. Being able to offer showers and fresh, clean clothing is really powerful.”

“The shower truck is what saved my life, actually,” said Sandra Fairbank, who now works for Cultivate Initiatives. “I was homeless for 7 years and I didn’t take my first shower about a year into being homeless.”

Fairbank said they usually serve about 30 people a day. Cultivate Initiatives is also helping get her into permanent housing.

Autumn Buck said this group of helping more people than they even realize.

“I just want to say thank you to the nonprofit that reached out to us and also all of our neighbors on Nextdoor and the people who came to check on us after the fire happened,” Buck said. “I think some of us can feel like Portland is losing that spark of community, but there’s still plenty out there. People want to help and are totally willing. And it’s amazing. And it’s very moving.”

Cultivate Initiatives also has a community health program, partnering with Concordia University Nursing to bring nursing students to various camps and locations in Portland and Multnomah County in an ongoing effort to “bring critical Community Health services directly to our houseless neighbors, overcoming many barriers such as transportation, lack of trust, and cost.”