PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Don lives in a tent near Blanchet House. He’s lived on the streets for about 35 years. “I ran out of money,” he said. “My Social Security doesn’t hit the level — I get like two thirds, one third of what it takes to minimally live in America.

He said living in a tent on the street in Portland is OK “as long as you kinda keep to yourself, keep your hair clean.”

Tom Morgan has a place to live right now but come to Blanchet House to eat. On this day, it’s hot dumplings and coffee. Tom said his eyesight makes cooking hard.

A worker sets out water for those in need at the Blanchet House in Portland, June 1, 2021. (KOIN)

“There’s people who, a guy hit me once out here because I told him he, I didn’t think his mother didn’t raise him to speak the way he was speaking, which was apparently offensive to him,” he said.

Even though his eyesight isn’t good, he sees how hard some people have it out on the streets.

“I think it must be awful to vigilant all night long and taking these extra stimulant drugs so you’re on type of your so-called game. I’m sure it wears you out,” he said. “I don’t know what that would be like as a lifestyle.”

Old Town has gotten attention for being at the heart of Portland’s homeless crisis. Many institutions in the neighborhood got private security after they said people in severe mental health crisis threatened or assaulted their employees.

But Blanchet House — founded in 1952 as a “house of hospitality” — is surrounded by tents. No matter how bad things get, Executive Director Scott Kerman said they’re not giving up on their mission.

Kerman told KOIN 6 News the biggest change over the decades regarding homelessness in Portland is the type of drugs in the mix.

“I think if you were to talk to someone who was working with Blanchet House 35 years ago, they were probably really dealing more with alcoholism. And, that’s changed,” he said. “First crack, then heroin and now meth are just game changers because of the impact it has on someone’s mental and physical well-being.”

A lot of that drug use starts when people on the streets are experiencing trauma. A cycle of addiction can follow.

“What has significantly increased is the mental health crisis that we’re dealing with,” he said. “We’re dealing with addiction and addiction hostility, especially with methamphetamines. We’re dealing with fentanyl overdosing.”

The caterer Vibrant Table donated 500 meals to Blanchet House in Portland, December 3, 2020 (Blanchet House)

Exacerbating the issue is a new, more dangerous type of meth coming on the scene.

“We have received reports that there is a meth on the street that is really increasing meth psychosis, meth-induced hostility,” Kerman said.

Plus, there’s the pandemic. Like everyone and everything else, the Blanchet House was affected — and so were the people they serve. They’re handing out clothing, hygiene and care kits at levels never seen before.

“We found ourselves almost overnight re-inventing how we serve food and doubling the number of meals we serve each day,” he told KOIN 6 News. “The changes in the people we’re serving is profound and heartbreaking. Some of the people that we we’re serving, we knew before the pandemic. So, we can see in real time how the last two years has impacted them — their mental health, their physical health, their addiction struggles.”

Scott Kerman, the executive director of Blanchet House in Portland, January 2022 (KOIN)

Kerman took his efforts to help to the Portland City Council and won $1.25 million to put toward a new “peer support specialist” team.

“The housing insecure people we serve at Blanchet House are not dangerous criminals, but they are suffering. They are despondent and they are scared,” Kerman told the City Council. “The joint city-county budget package contains an initiative that I have developed with our colleague agencies seeks to provide this healing and restoration. This initiative creates a consortium of care among agencies serving Old Town and its neighboring districts.”

He said it’s a first-of-its-kind program where different organizations will share the same 6 members broken up into 2 teams.

Blanchet House (KOIN)

“They can help the people we’re serving by de-escalating crisis and by forming relationships,” he said.

The hope is it will create a continuity of care and will allow their current volunteers, like Heidi Price, to focus on feeding the lines of people who show up everyday.

“It’s fun because, like, sometimes we’ll have mocha to give out and everyone gets excited and then we get excited,” she said. “We try to treat everyone like they’re our friends or someone we know.”

Price has been volunteering at Blanchet House for about a year. The feeling, for her, has changed.

“Originally when I came down here I was nervous and kind of scared but it just makes me sad now. I just feel really sad. Especially when we had that cold snap,” she said. “I just feel like at least we can help in whatever way we can. I don’t know what the solution is, but at least we can help.”