An unassuming building on Southeast Powell Boulevard and 20th will house more than a dozen men through the most vulnerable stages of rehabilitation.
Portland hosts a considerable offering of transitional housing programs meant to ease those recovering from incarceration back into community life. But the Karibu Stabilization Program is the only one of its kind geared toward Black men, with services provided by Black counselors, case managers and peer support specialists.
Black men are one of the populations most underserved by the mental health care industry in this country.
“We’ve got to look at all these aspects of trauma that are associated with just being a Black man,” Samuel Johnson, a Portland-based Black mental health care provider who admires Karibu’s mission, told The Skanner. “It’s like a bag I’ve got to carry around with me everyday, and a shield. And depending on where I’m living, I might have to have a pistol.”
Karibu – Swahili for “welcome” – is run by Central City Concern, with funding from Care Oregon and Multnomah County. Clients are largely referred through the county Department of Community Justice, and can receive either outpatient counseling and resources, or more intensive support through the residential program, where they are welcome to live in the facility for up to nine months.
“The whole gist of it is to get them acclimated back out into the community, and once they’re acclimated, we help them find permanent housing,” Karibu program manager Tori Smith told The Skanner. “And we can also refer them to try to help get jobs. We have a whole menu of services that they can choose from. For example, they may just need help – case management – for glasses, or drivers license, or social security card. Whatever they need, that’s what we try to help them get.”
Smith emphasized the program’s “meet them where they’re at” approach.
“We can meet with them anywhere in the community,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to be in a traditional office setting. It doesn’t have to be behind four walls. It can be at a coffee shop or a park or anywhere in the community where that person is comfortable – in their space. They could already have housing. Those that are in our stabilization program, they see those people as well within their space. They might ask, hey, can we just take a walk and have a talk?”
A significant part of that work is the family and community connection – or reconnection – that can prove essential to an individual’s continued success, Smith said.
“A lot of times, what happens is people are disconnected from their families because they’ve done something wrong, and the family may not want anything to do with them but one of their goals is to say hey, I want to reconnect with my family and I want to show them that I’m doing better,” Smith said. “So we give them the opportunity to say hey, I might just need to make a phone call. Or just, I want to reconnect with my child.
“So taking baby steps to all of that plays a big role in somebody’s life. For instance, if they want to get connected with their spiritual family, their church community, or whatever that looks like for that person, we help with that assistance as well.”
The traditional model of care, with little or no culturally competent training, often fails Black men, Smith and Johnson agreed.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of being in an environment when you have mental health or substance abuse issues and having nowhere to go,” Johnson said. “And then having to deal with the systemic issues, with the systemic racism, of having to go someplace where people don’t look like me. People don’t understand me. People don’t relate to my culture.”
Johnson spoke highly of Karibu.
“The big plus is that I can go somewhere and get the help that I need, the treatment I need, and guess what?
"Somebody there reminds me of myself,” he said.
“So right there in itself, Karibu instills a sense of hope. So that eliminates any obstacles you may have establishing rapport.
"Because I’m going to tell you that in this process, a lot of people having their issues with mental health or substance abuse, the biggest thing is having somebody they can relate to – rapport – and having someone they can open up to – trust – to start the process.”
Both Smith and Johnson agreed on the importance of support staff with similar lived experience.
“It’s kind of difficult to help somebody in the process of change when you’ve never been hungry before yourself,” Johnson said. “How are you going to tell me what my appetite is right now? That is the biggest obstacle, because you’re so disassociated from the client. You mean well, you’re probably highly qualified, but you’ve never been hungry. You’ve never had to go through the obstacles that I have just to try treatment.”
“Every one of my staff members has either been in jail before, they have been homeless before, they’ve been hungry, they have been through the same exact thing as the person we’re serving,” Smith said.
“A lot of times, in our culture, we don’t like to go get help,” Smith said.
"So you’re still trying to break those barriers in getting that person the help that they need.”
Johnson elaborated on the singular experiences of Black men that can often get overlooked in traditional therapy settings.
“Internally, there’s a lot of fear and there’s a lot of trauma,” he said. “The fear is allocated amongst our history and the oppression and exploitation that we have experienced. So the fear of success, the fear of failure, is internal.
“Then there’s the external: Systemically, the Black man is viewed through media, through propaganda, as public enemy number one. So there’s this thing about having to always be on guard, protect yourself. And we’re limited in our scope. There’s some areas today some Black men don’t feel comfortable going into. So we’re going to have to be looking at it from different angles. And the trauma that’s associated with it: I’ve got a threat every day of being killed or being arrested, just by coming out my door. Without any excuse or reasoning or motive, I have the opportunity everyday, with that threat of being killed, of going to jail, just because of the color of my skin.”
Johnson emphasized the roles of “education and expansion” in healing.
“If I’m educated, I know what to do, I know how to act, I know how to behave. I know that I have no fear because I can go anywhere. And the expansion: I’ve got to get out of that mindset of living in a four-block radius. My life is much bigger than three blocks over or the corner store. So once I get that mentality then there’s room for growth and room for education.”
For more information, visit centralcityconcern.org.