Shelter

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Chris Cearnal tells the story of a woman who's perseverance took her from needing shelter, to providing it.


Lenore Callahan is taking care of it. At thirty-six Lenore is the kind of person that makes you remember to check your hair in the rearview mirror before you walk in the door. She is ageless, impressive. Her skin is pale, lightly freckled and her straight hair is pulled tightly away from her face emphasizing her eyes. She dresses casually with care, printed leggings with immaculately white sneakers. She is someone that makes you only want to tell the truth. She works every day to create a way station for fledgeling families out of an old motel.


The 136 mattresses in cardboard boxes neatly stacked in the parking lot in front of The Woodlands family shelter do not fit any of the purple metal bunk beds in any of the rooms, and the families begin arriving any day. The bedroom walls glint in glossy plum and spring green—the drawers in the playroom overflow with craft paper and markers—the wall-sized industrial refrigerator swells with frozen spiderman waffles, and there is still nowhere for families to sleep.


Days later, families begin to step off the bus and pull into the parking spaces in front of the converted Rodeway Inn. They unload car-seats and battered strollers. Lenore greets them, her green eyes shining. "Welcome". Exhausted parents heft one medium-sized blue IKEA bag over each shoulder up the slatted concrete steps. When they click open the door to their room, the mattresses are waiting.


By mid-October Portland's newest shelter is almost full. Thirty-one families heave open the glass door to the lobby dozens of times a day to ask Lenore's staff for toilet paper, a bus pass, or the key to the laundry room. Lenore's favorite is when a parent hands her a wriggling baby over the counter so they can pace child-free for a few precious minutes on the asphalt and smoke. Above the lobby countertop, a sign reads, "Your job is not to judge. Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something. Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken, and to heal the hurting." Everyone behind the counter takes this seriously. Many have themselves been lifted. Some are still healing.


It starts with 211. A call to this helpline gets you on a list, and that list is long. Families at The Woodlands have been homeless or houseless for months or even years before they step onto the gold brocade carpet, lean over the counter and ask, 'What is for dinner tonight?' Houseless is not a term you often hear around here. Here it is homeless or camping or just "outside". "I've heard more people that are politicians use the term 'houseless'... Yeah, never heard of that. And I was outside for ten years." Ellie, a family engagement specialist, snorts with a wry smile. Mothers and fathers ferry their kids zipped up in coats or barefoot past the glass doors into their converted motel rooms. A door they can shut. A room they can lock. These parents are more than ready to leave behind nights tossing and turning on couches, in cars with the engine running and zipped into blue tarped tents. Some have waited on the list since last February for the call.


Lenore's staff are more like family. They chide each other to see a doctor for every cough and stand casually, hair brushing another’s shoulder as they watch funny cellphone videos in the early morning before guests are awake. They embody Lenore's philosophy of non-judgement. "Nobody's perfect, and everybody has lived through something. "It matters what you have known, where you have woken up." Empathy is one thing, but you can't trump personal experience.


Lenore has carefully recruited her staff because they know more than anyone how good that mattress feels on that first night and their commitment to the work is humbling. Ellie and Shannon, toddler wranglers and expert child proofers, were once homeless themselves and hired through Jobs Plus, a state-subsidized work program for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Years ago, they too walked through the door of a property run by the non-profit organization behind The Woodlands, carrying their belongings in a bag. Some, like Ellie, are still raising their families in subsidized housing.


Shannon, with the kind eyes, recently dragged herself to work at 5 am, weak with the norovirus that was sweeping like a tsunami through the shelter. She fought nausea the entire 40 block ride and finally burst from the bus three stops early and vomited on her feet. After walking the rest of the way to work, she sat smiling in borrowed shoes in the far corner of the lobby and waved to the kids as they grabbed breakfast and headed off to school. "For the families, I need to be here." she shrugged. It's important to set an example. You show up for people.


Shannon logged years living in a car parked in front of anyplace with video poker, "open till two in the morning, so it's an easy bathroom to go to". "They are federally guarded" she explains as her hands open a door in the air. Ellie, who hates pizza and loves spaghetti, regularly shares stories of her ten years spent living on "the bike trail", known to spandexed cyclists as the Springwater trail. She is surprised at the blatant camping on Portland's streets in recent years. In her day, you would hide your tent, especially as a woman. You never wanted anyone to know where your camp was. ODOT, the Oregon Department of Transportation, was a persistent threat, a fickle enemy. Sometimes they would leave you alone, and sometimes they would throw your tent poles in the creek. These are the faces that greet new residents and help them settle in—people who have been there.

If the family engagement specialists are the arms and the capable hands of The Woodlands, Lenore Callahan is the heart. More than the manager of this fledgling shelter, she is the captain of this kitchenless ship. She answers the questions and places the orders, determines the policies, cuddles the babies. She sets the tone of this place that Chris Boyd, a navy vet, an expert in calculus, and father of three children under four, calls a sanctuary for his kids. Before moving to The Woodlands, his family of five lived in a Scion, delivering food for Uber Eats up to 10 hours a day to pay for gas and diapers. This is not shocking to Lenore. She is cool and composed, and under it all, she gets it.


Lenore left home at thirteen. "I wasn't too keen on, um, being in that situation." She twists her long red hair in her fingers in her office, papered with baby pictures. Her mom and stepdad were alcoholics, and there was abuse. "My mom wasn't a loving person" she states with a glance to the side. "She worked in a bar, she drank in a bar, she'd come home and go to sleep. I didn't want to be like that ever" She knows at that moment that she needs to get out of there. It takes her years to figure out the life she does want.


She meets an older neighbor looking for childcare and, at thirteen, and becomes a full live-in babysitter. In the seventh grade, Lenore packs up her clothes and moves out of her home and into a small bedroom with the neighbor kids. Each day she feeds them breakfast, loads them on the bus, and trails them for hours through Clackamas Town Center mall. She is taking care of herself, taking care of the kids, moving forward.