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.
The next year Lenore moves to another neighbor's home with more children. When domestic violence cracks through this neighbor's home, she moves again. By sixteen, she is pregnant with a daughter and back in the home of the second neighbor. Lenore cycles from place to place. Each move, each change of address is significant. Each is a decision—a way to move forward or at least away. Relentlessly impermanent, this nomadic life breeds resilience and plasticity of expectation. Each dot on the map changes her; each couch or spare bedroom matters. If each were a peak, there would be a flag.
Lenore stops home briefly but leaves when things get bad. A job at Jack in the Box is a small anchor, and she gets a place at Pier Park Apartments, her own place. They didn't ask for identification, so at seventeen, she has keys and a Pack and Play for the baby hiccuping in her belly. She is young and in love with her little girl's father. Things look promising. "I just thought we were going to move into an apartment and create a family. I was hopeful that he would get a job, and we would just build from that moment on. But that was not the case. "On his end, not on my end." she states flatly. She has always done her best. "He chose to do other things"
The baby is born, and the new father goes to jail. No car, and with a new baby, Jack in the Box falls away. Lenore describes her crippling sadness. The lonely young mother she describes feels far away from this desk ringed with photos, in this thriving home, she is creating for so many families. Outside the office door, the building buzzes with life. Art projects swing from scotch tape, and the coffee maker steams.
"He went to jail. I had no income. My biggest fear was that I was going to lose the place for me and my child to stay." A fear shared by so many of the mothers that come through The Woodlands, nowhere to stay can mean losing your child.
Sitting on the thin mattress, baby in her lap, it occurs to Lenore that she knows somebody that can change her age to 18 years old. She pays him and palms her new fake id. A lingerie shop had just opened on Lombard street. The next day she shows up there to work. She can count on herself.
"I see people that have been living in their cars with their kids for years and making it work. They are no different than the next individual. They just fell short, and once upon a time, I was there. I didn't have nothing." No help. She was all she had. She doesn't want anyone else to feel this way.
Lenore remembers walking into the first lingerie shop. It is brand new. The woman behind the counter is hiring. She asks for ID, and Lenore has it ready. "If you want to work, you're hired". This decision feels good at first. She feels safe, "It seemed legit" There is a woman behind the counter who wouldn't let anything happen. She thinks to herself, she needs to take care of her daughter, take care of herself, and dancing is what she has to do to do that. She walks out that first night with enough to pay the rent.
It is a fluke. The income isn't steady, and she changes shops frequently. On 48th and Powell one night, while running errands, a woman calls out in her direction from across the sidewalk, "Hey, I know you!" Lenore studies her face. She tries to sort out the features and pick the voice up out of the slightly slurring words. "I hate saying this to somebody, but I was like, who are you?" Lenore remembers. The woman replied, smiling slowly, her face weathered with drug use. "Yeah, you're Kylie" The name Lenore uses at the shops. She leans warmly in Lenore's direction, "Hey there honey!" No bells go off. Then the voice. No, she does not look the same at all. A former coworker. Officemate at the lingerie shops. Looking rough. Heroin maybe? "She was a mom, like me." Lenore reflects, "and she was also, just you know, going through it."
The difference in the air at The Woodlands is that everyone is in some stage of going through it, staff and the families. No one is on the outside looking in.
In the low tones of the smoking circles outside the lobby door, everyone greets one another, even if with just a nod. Denise, a resident with long brown hair greying at the temples and a black McDonald's hoodie, she describes The Woodlands in the early dawn chill as a place where she can focus on getting housing, getting healthy, and getting well. She watches over the tip of her cigarette as her kids climb onto the bus for their forty-minute bus ride to their school in West Lynn.
"She's just had my second grandbaby, and we just got into it last night" Lenore shakes her head worried and frustrated. Her daughter has been leaving the baby at her other grandmother's house, and Lenore is worried the grandmother might take her. "You don't know what anybody's intentions are" Despite all of the flux and chaotic years of raising her daughter Lenore never left her for extended periods with anyone. It is not how she rolls. Her daughter is newly twenty-one and pushing back against Lenore's attempts to give advice, to rebuild the bond they had when they were both young, and it was just the two of them. They still talk, but Lenore is haunted; maybe she wasn't there for her child the way she wished she could have been.
Optimism can get you into trouble and keep you there, perhaps why a shelter can be a stoic place.
Lenore leaves her daughter's father time after time for violent behavior and returns time and again filled with hope; the last straw comes out of her little daughter's gap-toothed mouth. "He kicked me", she says. "Hey", She stamps, “My dad kicked me". Lenore looks as though slapped as she repeats these words. Her cheeks are lightly blooming red, eyes narrow. "He was mad. She was in trouble," not an excuse for violence. Lenore does not believe in ever hitting a child. She yelled at him, "Why? What are you touching her for?"
Intensely protective of her daughter Lenore packs her up, leaves her apartment, and decides to try a shelter downtown." My mindset was at the time that I don't need this apartment. As long as my daughter has clothes, food, and a safe place to sleep at night, then we're okay."
The shelter was cold and spare, the walls cold white. "I stayed there for two nights, and they put us in this room. It wasn't comfortable. I'm not saying that it should have been comfortable, but it wasn't welcoming." Traumatized and shaken, Lenore bristles at the small, stark space and list of chores thrust in her hand. She thinks, "Hey, I just experienced this (trauma) let me get some resources, let me get my thoughts together". She came for help. This place doesn't feel like help. It doesn't fill her up or help her heal. The experience never leaves her, and the memory rings in her head years later, she hears the words "Trauma-informed care".
Her daughter's toddler years pass by in a chiaroscuro of lights and darks. Warm memories of cuddling on the bed together watching Rugrats cartoons wrapped in thick velour blankets are tainted by months of depression and sleeping the day away. The promise of a new relationship appears and then turns violent and flickers out.
Each disappointment builds Lenore's resolve. The months slide by, each different and the same. A new job at Subway holds for a time. She stays there, gets on track. She moves into a townhouse, takes in her mother, put out by her stepfather. Settling her onto the couch. When money gets tight, she quits Subway and reenters the sex industry. They move again. Her daughter turns five, and it sparks over cereal. "I can't be jumping around to different motels if my daughter needs to be in bed at a certain time." Her little girl is ready for school.
Things start to come together to change. She is bringing money in. A new job at USA Pawn, a new relationship. It all seems promising. They move together into a bigger, more affordable apartment. Her daughter is in school. No longer at the lingerie shops, Lenore decides to work as an escort to make more money in less time. A thought nags at her. What does money mean to who she is? To her success, her identity? "It's like here's one thousand dollars over here. You can have it in thirty minutes or here's one hundred over here, and you can have it in eight hours. It was almost an addiction, an addiction to fast money." The bills are getting paid. But the stress of work and her now failing relationship takes a toll on her connection with her daughter—no more cuddles and cartoons only slamming doors.
Lenore has always been discrete around her daughter about working in the sex industry. It just never feels like something she needs to share with her. Her daughter has food, clothes, toys, all of the things she needs. Right? That is what matters. When asked why she has such shiny clothes, she tells her little girl that she wears roller skates to serve people food at McDonald's. Lenore believes her daughter is growing up feeling good, feeling that "mom has enough money to take care of me, pay rent, pay bills" but one day, the unease that has been simmering in their house spills over. Everything falls to pieces.
In a rage and filled with spite, Lenore's partner tells the preteen how her mother pays the bills. Everything shatters. The young girl is stunned and shaken. This revelation is an indescribable violation of trust, an abrupt act of betrayal that outstrips years of physical violence. Lenore's daughter is her precious responsibility. This betrayal breaks the bond that Lenore has forged with her little girl over years. The two of them against the world. In it together.
The young girl avoids her mom's eyes and looks away. "You don't see that stuff when you are in it, how a relationship can control you, blind you to what matters. "Even in your early thirties". The shock and shame of feeling like she made a choice that hurt her child is a regret she struggles with daily. "I just wasn't there mentally when she needed me the most. I live with that".
Her daughter is now a young woman, a mother of two, and Lenore struggles with how best to help her. Their relationship is on her mind every day. With one more test to complete her GED or high school equivalency diploma, Lenore offers to pay for it. But her daughter, like any young adult, resists her mother's influence. Every day, Lenore wants to tell her, "Hey, I want you to be more than I ever was." Lenore looks at the wall of baby photos above her desk, eyes fixed on one, and says, she's my kid, you know? Her voice a bit quieter now, introspective." I don't want you to experience all of these bumps in the road. I'm grown up now. I'm in a better spot. I can assist you. I can guide you with no judgment."
It is complicated, of course. Last year, Lenore's daughter's boyfriend, her baby grandchild's father, crashed onto the evening news, arrested for her daughter's attempted murder. "He almost shot her in the head," she says as the words catch and scrape. "He is in jail right now." He will be out next year. Her daughter makes her living on a strip club stage; her grandchild is nearly two months old.
"I feel like I failed in areas with my daughter. I tell her all the time, I was not the best parent, but I was the best parent I knew how to be." Compassion for yourself is hard. Now that she is in a position to help, Lenore is conflicted. She did not have an example, a mentor, a mother in the real sense of the word. She is one for so many others. She wants to help. She respects that her daughter needs to live her own life, but she could not stand aside when it comes to her grandson.
Lenore has recently become her grandson's legal guardian. She first intervened and kept him out of foster care after his father was arrested. Now he joins his toddler aunt and uncle in a row of car seats in Lenore's minivan. They ride to preschool together and squabble over snacks. Their father is Lenore's new partner, a warm man she describes as "somebody who loves you." Lenore wants love. But above all, she wants to give love; she wants to help.
Lenore walked her path alone. "At no point did anybody help me. I literally did this by myself," and although she feels deeply pulled to help her daughter, philosophically, she believes in acceptance and forging your future for yourself. Her journey from a homeless teenaged mother to one of the highest positions in her field was possible only with fierce self-determination and resilience. In her personal life and her professional life, this is her conundrum, to step in to help because she can, or be supportive at a distance? It is a constant push and pull.
She sees echoes of her own coming up in her daughter's life, and "you have to navigate your own way out of that." Lenore's life embodies possibility for her staff, her clients. She is their roadmap. Maybe someday her daughter will see it too.
Through her twenties, Lenore buffets her little two-person ship against the storm as best she can. In her early thirties, she finds an oar. Still working in the sex industry, she makes friends with Danielle, an employee at an organization that provides resources and housing to those in need. She has just met her current partner and has a new baby son. Things are good. She is making money, but the continual risk of arrest for sex work and the image of her face splayed across the pages of a gas station mugshot magazine make her feel ill. "I had to sit back and think, these are my children, and I have to do right by them" She makes up her mind one morning without fanfare and applies for a job as a family engagement specialist at a women's shelter. It took over a month to get an interview. "I waited and waited and waited, and my waiting paid off." They tell her she is hired, is perfect for the job. And, just like that, she finds her calling.
Lenore is her own superhero, and If anyone needs saving, she will do it. She will model how to get through. "I have to make security for myself. Self-security means that I can afford every single expense. Rent to bills to childcare to food to the car." Yet the reality is that even in her position with a manager's salary, three children in daycare with no state support makes you very vulnerable. At her current salary, she has lost her WIC support, which provides food supplements to women and children in need, her Oregon Health Plan, the government-subsidized insurance coverage that helps with medical expenses, and childcare support. She thinks there is an assumption because of her title of manager that she is stable and well off but her responsibilities have climbed along with her income.
Living a life "in society" has its costs. When she was working as an escort, Lenore had months where she was making ten to fifteen thousand dollars but risked arrest. Now making nearly forty dollars an hour, she can pay her bills but no more. There is no buffer for emergencies. She is in a stable home but doesn't have little luxuries "unless I put my name on it and use my credit. Just because my story sounds good doesn't mean I don't still struggle."
There is a message here. Use your tools. Be patient, Fairytales are not real, but Lenore has some breadcrumbs. It is not all or nothing. When trying to leave the sex industry, she advises stairsteps, "You can still go to the strip club and have the feeling of needing, getting that money, but also get a job over here because that is stability". Stability is worth the struggle. You can work your way out of a situation, but it is not a panacea.
Lenore believes that no one who experiences trauma should ever be put in a position where they are retraumatized. Now she can do something about it. She studies trauma-informed care and infuses every interaction with her clients with the philosophy of safety, connections, and managing emotions. "My heart is always to help people" Any time of the day or night when a resident has a question or faces a problem, Lenore or her staff are there. "I can't help everyone, but my conversation with one person might change their whole life. Trauma travels with you your entire life, you know. It's like a drug. It navigates you. "She now gives people something she never had, a mentor, a refuge, a little bit of peace. After Thanksgiving The Woodlands' walls bloom with construction paper works of art. Written in the palm of a green crinkled paper hand are the words, "I'm thankful that my family is safe, with a roof over our heads."
One recent chilly morning, Denise, a guest and mother, exhaled a great cloud of smoke on the bench in front of The Woodlands. "They call this place "a Shelter for Kids and Their Parents". I thought it was weird at first. But then I heard about the main manager Lenore spending all the place's extra money on play structures for the kids. That is impressive. "Lenore has found what she wants. She wants to make people feel welcome and safe so they can gather their strength and make their own way.
How does Lenore take care of herself? She spends a lot of time with her kids. "My kids are my safety, and they are innocent, you know? We go on walks, duck pond and stuff like that is just like my Zen. Going and walking with them in like a foresty area. They get the opportunity to be with me and me being able to get the opportunity to breathe"
The phone rings, she looks at it and looks up. When they come to the shelter, she tells me, "Individuals are like; this is it. I can't get out of this. I can't do this." She wants them to know one thing." You can. You can. You can. You just have to want to change. And it might take years. It took me forever." As we walk out of her office, Amanda is waiting at the counter, baby Beatrice on one hip and Haven grinning from behind the other. "Could you help me with something?" Lenore is on it.
*Some names and minor details have been changed in this story to protect identities. This story was reported over the late summer and fall of 2019.