No Shelter: Advocate Mubarak says agencies turn backs on Terminal 1

Ibrahim Mubarak, courtesy Mubarak.
Ibrahim Mubarak, courtesy MubarakThe truth of our current housing crisis lives outside in the streets. It’s unsheltered, cold, raw — and doesn’t speak in platitudes.

That’s how Ibrahim Mubarak sees it, and it’s possible nobody in Portland knows more about the topic than he. Known for strong advocacy and direct action tactics, he is once again at the center of local news after Commissioner Dan Saltzman and top housing officials rejected the Oregon Harbor of Hope proposal for Terminal 1 last month.

Mubarak was slated to be the mass shelter’s general manager. That may be why Saltzman killed it.

Saltzman and top staff at the Portland Housing Bureau clearly aren’t buying the unique partnership represented by top businessmen such as Homer Williams and Dike Dame working with a grassroots activist.

An Oct. 25 memo from Portland Housing Bureau Director Kurt Creager to Saltzman said the bureau’s “major concerns … focus on the lack of prior experience and demonstrated capacity of OHOH ….”

Williams told The Oregonian that Saltzman’s office wouldn’t work with Mubarak.

Mubarak blames the city’s decision on a tendency to stick with the status quo despite an urgent crisis that calls for fresh approaches. In blunt terms, he said, the city’s nonprofit sector is impeding progress.

Ibrahim Mubarak grew up in Chicago and remains a Cubs fan. Photo courtesy Ibrahim Mubarak

“We would have been getting that pot of money that they used to get, and they don’t want to share,” Mubarak said.

A former director of the Portland Development Commission, Don Mazziotti said the same thing in different language.

“The proposal to establish a shelter facility managed by the private sector in partnership with the public sector proved to be a perceived threat to the stream of public funding that many of the providers in the nonprofit community rely upon for their operation,” said Mazziotti, now director of OHOH.

Truth-teller, feather ruffler

Mubarak, cofounder of Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too and head of an organization called Right to Survive, is not one to varnish the truth as he sees it.

“[The OHOH proposal] was rejected because they named me to be operational manager,” Mubarak said. “They rejected it because they wanted some entity like Central City Concern or [Transition Projects Inc.], who’s been pimping houseless people who’s in pain, and not doing nothing.

“A lot of advocates want to do something, but they don’t know how to help. So I think [OHOH founder Homer Williams] did the best thing he could possibly have done. Maybe his intention was too much of a reach — a lot of people are not there with him — but a lot of people are not there with me.”

Mubarak paused, and chuckled. He said local nonprofits’ reluctance to get on board with an approach like OHOH is behind the city’s decision.

“From my understanding of what’s going on right now, social services agencies and academic social services agencies are pulling out, they don’t want to have nothing to do with [Terminal 1].”

Who? Why not?

“From what I was told, Central City Concern pulled out, [Transition Projects Inc.] pulled out, and Portland Rescue Mission, and I think Blanchet House, and I think Home For Everyone pulled out. That’s what I’m told.”

Told by whom?

“It’s in the spectrum of people.” Mubarak laughed again.

(Some of the agencies mentioned had a different interpretation of what happened. See sidebar, below, “Agencies dispute characterization.”)

How could Williams and Dame, two of Portland’s most successful developers, let big social service and governmental agencies pull out? A Home for Everyone, for example, is a heavyweight coalition that includes Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the city of Gresham .

“They didn’t let them,” Mubarak said. “What happened, they was digging into the pot of gold that the social services agencies financed from, and [the agencies] didn’t want to share that.”

“How come the CEOs of these organizations is making anywhere from $250,000 to $400,000 a year when we are making nothing and more successful than they are? It’s 25 years that these city officials and high-tech social service organizations have been yanking the chain of the public, saying ‘We need this much money to get people off the streets,’ and not doing it.”

The OHOH concept was approved 3–2 by City Council in August. Perhaps its greatest selling point was Williams & Dame and partners’ proven ability to leverage millions of private sector dollars — meaning scarce public dollars could go to other needs.

Terminal 1 aerial view

Mazziotti was “very confident” they could raise the necessary funds, reporting soft commitments for most of the $60 million to $65 million needed for the “full campus.”

Mazziotti and Mubarak say the OHOH would have been far cheaper to operate than traditional shelters.

“Everything that I’m involved with is low barrier and inexpensive,” Mubarak said.

The Terminal 1 idea, based on the San Antonio Haven for Hope model, was to be a shelter for the chronically or “high barrier” homeless, with ultimately 400 beds and services for addiction, mental health and job training.

Given the proposed scale and a model that offers a “system of care,” Williams had hoped to contract with existing social agencies. Instead, its business plan listed merely “potential partners.”

On streets by choice

Mubarak arrived for an interview on a bicycle, in a long flowing robe. He left 45 minutes later with the words “Insha’Allah,” Arabic for “God willing,” a common phrase for Muslims.

Mubarak grew up in Chicago. At one point, he described his personal arc as — to paraphrase — “gangland” plus college plus street experience equals success.

“I used to lock myself in McDonald’s bathrooms and wash up, go to Nordstrom’s and spray cologne on me. Nobody knew I was homeless. But everybody’s not like me. A lot of people don’t know how to live on the streets.”

Mubarak uses the pronoun “we” referring to homeless people, and the terms “houseless” and “homeless” interchangeably.

“I do [live on the streets now] part time. I live on the streets by choice, sometimes I stay two or three days.

“I could go to any campsite or place where houseless people is at because I know them. I warn them, or just hang out with them. I drink with them sometimes, get high with them sometimes. I’m one of them. I’m with them, I laugh with them. We argue, we cry, we laugh.”

Having such a close relationship with people who in a shelter might be called “clients,” “guests,” or “residents,” is anathema to social services professionals. Mental health treatment in particular is founded on clinical detachment.

For all their education, Mubarak said, the people who run local social service organizations don’t really know how to help those who need it most — and they’re not always willing to work with those who do know.

“I believe that is job security. They want the public money to go to their entities and not a bunch of people who don’t have letters behind their name involved in and making decisions.

“People are very reluctant to lose their clients, so they won’t get laid off,” Mubarak said. “I blame them because if you’re in the field of helping people get productive, why wouldn’t you share the wealth?”

Class over race

Mubarak was among Black Lives Matter protesters pepper sprayed by police at City Hall in mid-October, but he said race takes a back seat to class in the Rose City.

“To me, I think it’s your social status that matters here in Portland. It’s a classist city, as much as a racist city. If you’re black and you have a lot of money, that’s cool. If you’re white and you have a lot of money, that’s cool. If you’re Native American and you have a lot of money, that’s cool,” he said.

“If you’re poor, it don’t make no difference what ethnicity you are — you’re outcast.”

Mubarak did not fit the model for running the largest homeless shelter in the city.

“From our standpoint, he is the most qualified general manager of a facility that we know of in the general region,” Mazziotti said.

However, Housing Director Creager’s Oct. 25 memo notes: “The proposed leadership have insufficiently demonstrated capacity to oversee and manage day-to-day operations of an emergency shelter.”

Mubarak doesn’t accept that.

“Let’s look at our success rate, let’s shop and compare,” he said. “Nobody talking about the success rate of these camps, these tent cities.”

Mubarak travels often, educating and organizing in other cities. He’s fueled by a fiery passion for people on the edge — even if that means upending the status quo.

“It’s not about me,” Mubarak said, “it’s about people that’s sleeping on the sidewalk in the rain, in the cold, people that’s dying because they’ve been criminalized for getting barriers.”

With hope fading for Terminal 1, what’s next for Portland’s homeless?

“It’s time that we create mass mobilization within the houseless community,” he said.

A homeless “bill of rights” is central to his strategy. That, and tugging at the conscience.

“I’m your neighbor when I’m living inside a house, but the moment I move [outside] my house, I’m a monster. Why don’t I have the same rights as people who live on the inside, a right to sleep, use the restroom, shower, to employment, to use public space?”

Agencies say they were never on board

The Examiner contacted the agencies that Ibrahim Mubarak identified as pulling out of the Terminal 1 project. Three who replied said they remain supportive of private sector endeavors such as Oregon Harbor of Hope but never pledged to be involved.

“Mr. Mubarak is incorrect in his allegations that Central City Concern ‘pulled out’ of the Haven for Hope Project,” Director of Communications Susan Wickstrom emailed. “We were offered the opportunity to manage the project but turned it down because our agency is not an experienced shelter operator.”

Wickstrom added that CCC “stands ready to be helpful at the appropriate time and in keeping with our mission and capacity.”

“Portland Rescue Mission has not been part of the Terminal 1 project,” Marketing Project Coordinator Sunita Szabo said via email.

Executive Director George Devendorf said Transition Projects Inc. participated in OHOH planning sessions and provided input, and still supports OHOH’s long-range plans.

“Given the scale and severity of our homelessness crisis, we know that public funding alone will not get the job done,” Devendorf wrote. “Support from the private sector — and leaders like Homer Williams — will be essential as we work towards the day when all Portlanders have a safe, decent place to call home.”