Homeless people now have a place downtown where they can gather indoors during the day.
Filling Empty Bellies, a nonprofit that offers food to anyone who is hungry, recently moved into an underground space on Commercial Street.
In the main area, visitors can sit at tables and enjoy the day’s meal, prepared and served at noon primarily by Osarch Orak, the executive director.
“There’s still a lot of people that don’t know we’re here yet,” Orak said.
The coffee is on all day. A computer for personal use sits in a far corner. A closet stocked with donated clothing for people to pick out and keep just opened to the public.
A shower and laundry are all underway, Orak said. He wants to arrange for other local service providers dealing with housing and mental health care to have regular presences there. And he hopes that eventually, at night, he will be able to convert the dining area into a shelter that operates year-round.
A permanent location
The space is Filling Empty Bellies’ first permanent location after years of serving out of cars at Peoples Park and Ninth Street Park. It also marks a major step toward establishing the kind of full-service resource center that many local homeless advocates and social services agencies have long envisioned for the region.
Above Filling Empty Bellies, Beacon Clubhouse recently took over the ground-floor space, last occupied by Capricorn Pub & Fine Foods.
Beacon Clubhouse, which formerly operated in the First Baptist Church on Seventh Street, is not a facility of the daytime drop-in variety. To be a clubhouse member, a person must have a diagnosed mental illness.
“Obviously, we have to interview them, make sure they’re the right fit and it’s gonna be safe for everyone,” Orak said.
The clubhouse gives members a social group, creative outlets and training in the habits necessary for holding down a job. People can hang out on the couches in the lounge area and relax with their coffee and lunch. There’s a TV and a solid selection of DVDs.
But members are expected to engage with the operation: opening the place up, watering the plants, helping in the kitchen, taking out the garbage and recycling, checking voice messages, doing reception and clerical work.
“It’s the idea that, through this common effort, we’re bonding and making relationships,” Erin Carlsen, the executive director of the Beacon Clubhouse and Orak’s partner, said.
Both organizations are slated to become projects of LiFEBoat Services (the “FEB” stands for Filling Empty Bellies). Right now, Beacon Clubhouse is operating under the nonprofit status of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oregon. Orak has a feeling LiFEBoat will soon outgrow the space.
Because Orak and Carlsen rent a commercial space, which is owned by Portland property owners, they haven’t needed to enter into a good-neighbor agreement akin to one signed by the Astoria Warming Center, which is in a residential area.
Jessamyn West, the executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, said in a statement: “The ADHDA recognizes the need for the critical services that LiFEBoat provides. We look forward to the positive impact their work will continue to have on the community and downtown area.”
Orak and Carlsen have been saving money for a daytime drop-in center since 2018, raising thousands in funds, grants and donations. They said they were well positioned to pull it off because they know the population they’re serving on a pavement level.
When Carlsen ran Filling Empty Bellies, she and founder Corri Buck “woke up, made food and served people on the street,” she said. “Brought them underwear. Brought them colonoscopy bags. Picked them up at the hospital when they were sick. Threw birthday parties for their kids. Threw memorial services in the park. Like, every day we were there, serving people on the ground.”
Orak was homeless himself in Clatsop County for years and ate with Filling Empty Bellies. It was how he and Carlsen initially met. Now they have a 7-month-old son named Belau.
“One of the criticisms we get is that we enable people,” Carlsen said. “We keep them on the street, or we don’t help them move past being on the street.
“And it’s like …” she gestured at Orak. “There’s a lot of people like Osarch, that just need a little bit of help at a certain time in their life to get them to the next level of where they’re going, whether it’s school, or employment, or housing, or whatever.”
Beacon Clubhouse boasts a culinary unit in the former Capricorn kitchen, with mostly new equipment, plus the pub’s left-behind sinks and range hood. And it has an art unit, whose output — collages and paintings, images of hearts and flowers and suns — decorates much of the interior.
‘It’s a blessing’
A mural in progress on a yellow wall of the clubhouse depicts a lighthouse, its column striped red and white. Soon the artist, a clubhouse member with a service dog, will add beams of different colors radiating from the lens. At the end of the beams, she plans to paint hands representing the people who come there — or perhaps she’ll ask her fellow members to donate their handprints to the mural.
Downstairs on a recent afternoon, just after the lunch rush — Orak had served a chicken teriyaki stir fry with a cut of apple on the side — three men sat in a row at a table.
One of them, a middle-aged man, said of the new location, “It’s a blessing.”
“Not that people would die without Filling Empty Bellies,” he continued, “but … people gotta eat.”