When Greg Baker took the position as executive director of Portland’s Blanchet House back in 2014, he was the only employee. In four years under his leadership, the social services nonprofit has grown to 10 full-time staff members and initiated a number of programs that help vulnerable community members get back on their feet.
Today Baker – who is also an Emmy Award-winning musician – is one of the few, if only, African American men heading a large nonprofit in Portland.
Founded in 1952, the organization operates through private donations from members of the Catholic community. It does not, however, require any of its guests to be religiously affiliated. Through its efforts, Blanchet House has become Oregon’s largest feeder of the poor, with up to 1,000 meals served per day through the help of over 5,000 volunteers.
In addition, Blanchet also operates two transitional shelter programs for men struggling with addictions, unemployment and mental health, as well as a 62-acre farm program in Carleton, Ore. where men in recovery learn woodworking skills. To date, Blanchet House has helped some 10,000 men transition back into society.
The Skanner News sat down with Baker to discuss his social service work and why he feels Portland has a long road to hoe in finding solutions to its homeless crisis. (This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)
The Skanner News: How does the work of Blanchet House set it apart from other homeless organizations?
Greg Baker: A lot of people who come here are not necessarily homeless – they can afford their rent but they can’t afford their meals. So those people, whether homeless or not, get something out of it.
But volunteers continue to come back because it’s refreshing to the soul that one is able to do this.
People want to know that they’re giving something to help others, which I think is the magic of all the work done here. And it continues to grow. Maybe by 2020, we’ll be at 10,000 volunteers and we’ll have an army of people to go out and change the world, who knows (laughs). Blanchet is a sterling model of “all hands on deck” and the homeless feeding the homeless. We also have a 62-acre farm in Carleton that has always been understated. We’re able to house some 22 men there, in various stages of recovery. We take them right out of treatment, so the farm is a calming influence. It’s quiet, serene and rural. We raise pigs, goats and chickens there, and we also have a woodshop where they can go through a program and learn how to make ergonomically-sound Adirondack chairs. We’re also exploring the possibility of marketing and selling those as a social enterprise, which is good because men in recovery need work. And that’s all part of any kind of a treatment plan – they need to be working and they need to be reinforced. Almost three years ago, we won a national grant to build tiny homes at the farm. So our homeless men are building these homes, and then they’re donated to homeless shelters. And a few of the guys who worked on the houses have actually received jobs through the carpenters’ union. All of these elements of program expansion are really working.
TSN: That said, the organization has grown exceptionally since you took the role of executive director. What do you think you’ve brought to it?
GB: We now have two case managers here; when I first got here there were no case managers. Blanchet had traditionally not really invested itself in the long-term care of the men that come through these doors – but today that’s not the case. They have created what we call “a life plan,” and that plan is an instrument that the guest along with the case manager uses to work through areas of that person’s background where they want some improvement. To me, it’s a wonderful negotiation piece. For example, you want to repatriate yourself with your family, we can do that. You want to pay off some bills, we will do that. You’ve got some DUIs you need to expunge, we can help you. We have a seven-month residential program here in downtown Portland and an eight-month residential program at the farm. And from time to time, guys that do a really good job can graduate to the fourth floor at the Blanchet House, which is transitional housing. It’s a free month-to-month lease and and they can stay for up to nine months. As long as they maintain their job, or maintain a certain GPA if they’re going to school, they can stay here.
It’s a rapidly evolving organization. Before I got here, they had never done a fundraiser before. Now we’ll be working on our fourth one in 2019. We also now have a development department, thanks to a grant through the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. And we have a full-time resident manager and we’ll be bringing in two more new employees before the years is out – a data collection person and a volunteer coordinator. All of those things have happened in the last four years. Things are changing for the better and the organization is maturing.
TSN: You’re originally from Kansas City, Mo., where you accrued a myriad of experience in business and politics. Tell us about how you got into social services?
GB: I have a lot experience in government, business and the nonprofits sector. I’m a hybrid person. My master’s is in public administration and I have an undergraduate in social work and psychology. The first seven years of my career outside of college I spent in the social services field, so this kind of work is not unfamiliar to me. I was an administrator for both the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Mo. and for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington D.C. I was an officer for a major corporation in Kansas City and I ran two nonprofits there for some time. So in terms of management, process, and civic duty, I know that kind of work.
Then Blanchet was looking for some change, so I came here and looked at what they were trying to do. I really admired the board’s commitment to the promise it made – and that is to take care of the poor. So I think coming to Damascus as the city manager was part of the journey. I think, ultimately, I was supposed to be here at Blanchet.
After the first 90 days of being here, though, I said, “Look folks, people don’t even know who you are. Outside of the Catholic community, no one knows what you’re doing. So let’s go out there and invite some more people to the table to expand who were are.” I also want to meet the people in Portland – I want to know how they feel about our work.
TSK: In your opinion, what lies at the heart of solving Portland’s homeless crisis?
GB: Personally, as I look at the city of Portland, I am deeply concerned about the increase in the number of people on the streets today. Moreover, I have not seen what I would call a hard plan of how we’re going to resolve this issue. I’m from the midwest, where I worked in leadership for years. The difference between Kansas City and this city is that people coalesce around challenges there. That said, they don’t have issues with homeless there the way they do here; we’ve got roughly 4,000 people on the streets on any given day. But I don’t want to generalize. I know there are people here who are equally concerned and are meeting discreetly to solve this problem, and I say, “Amen, keep pushing.” But at some point, you need to lift the veil up and say, “Here are our best thoughts and here is what we want to do.”
So, the way it looks to me specifically, if you really want to address this problem, you get law enforcement in the room together with the top medical professionals, homeless advocates, educators, community leaders and clergy, and talk about what the problem is, what it means, and what does a plan potentially look like. And we know it’s going to cost money and resources, and there may be a number of plans. So then you line them up and ask, “Which one is going to give us the greatest amount of satisfaction and impact at the most affordable cost?” I would suggest that 85 to 90 percent of people on the street can be transformed and reinvigorated and put back in the workforce – excluding those people who are severely mentally ill, as well as the elderly, who are probably not going to go back to the workforce, but they don’t deserve to be on the streets. But who needs to address this? Us. We’re a great organization, but we’re only one. Our business is the homeless community and we’re not walking away from it. So I say when I meet people, if you want to make a donation to Blanchet, that’s fine. But if you really want to do something, help us find a solution to this problem, so that maybe by 2030 these numbers are more manageable.