National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

In Portland, a Model of ‘Poor’ Service

BY Philip S. Moore

June 1-7, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/1/03 at 1:00 PM

 

Commentator Bill Moyers and a television crew from the Public Broadcasting Corp. program “Now” are profiling the Macdonald Center and Residence in Portland to highlight the suffering of Oregon's poor and elderly.

They came to learn about the human cost of state budget cuts as the Oregon Health Plan abandons thousands of people who depend on the partially Medicaid-supported program for their survival.

Moyers is featuring the Macdonald Center and Residence because it has pledged to keep its commitment to the poor no matter what the state does to its medical assistance. His choice of the center for the episode is just the latest in a series of visits by state and nonprofit agency officials from around the nation.

Delegations from North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Arizona and Florida have toured the facility. They have come to learn more about the center's unique assisted-living center for Medicaid patients and its outreach program for the hundreds of forgotten handicapped, mentally ill and elderly who live in the shabby residence hotels that surround Portland's fashionable high-rise downtown.

Since the facility opened on Sept. 1, 1999, the center has received an award of excellence from the American Association of Home Services and a national award for excellence in affordable urban assisted living from the National Cooperative Bank Development Corp.

As it happened, Moyers visited just as the Macdonald Center's services were sorely needed — and its survival seriously in doubt, says Holy Cross Father Richard Berg, the center's founder and executive director. With 11 vacant rooms out of 54, the center is falling $20,000 short in its budget each month.

Despite the difficulties, Father Berg is determined. “We're trying to change the system by being an exemplar,” he says. “This means we intend to continue in operation as we have been. We're not going to close and we're not going to turn anyone out onto the street.”

Welcome Visits

Father Berg's determination has been the driving force behind the center since it was established 14 years ago. With a doctorate in psychology from the University of Notre Dame, Father Berg served at the University of Portland from 1974 to 1993, first as religious superior for the Holy Cross Order in Portland and from 1978 until 1991 as dean of the college of arts and sciences.

In 1989, Father Berg was asked to take over as director of the St. Vincent de Paul Downtown Chapel, which serves the homeless and poor in Portland's skid row area. Upon arrival he discovered that, in addition to the homeless, nearly 2,000 people were living in the 21 low-income residence hotels served by the chapel.

“I recruited students from Notre Dame and the University of Portland and sent them out to visit those people to see what their real needs were,” Father Berg says. “What we identified was that social isolation is the biggest issue for residents in the inner city.”

What would become the Macdonald Center was Father Berg's response: “The volunteers began visiting these people. At first, a lot of doors were slammed in their faces, but after the residents were confident that they weren't there to evangelize, their visits became welcome.”

More than 1,000 volunteers have served as Macdonald Center visitors, overcoming isolation caused by mental illness, physical disability or addiction. Half of those visitors have been students in four Portland-area nursing schools, and Father Berg says they also developed a community-nursing program.

From that, the idea of an assisted-living facility was born. “They found an incredible amount of serious disability and illness,” he says. To expand care, the decision was made to incorporate the center as a separate operation and build an assisted-living facility for those who could not independently care for themselves.

“The Archdiocese of Portland recommended [the reorganization] and Maybelle Clark Macdonald provided the first million dollars toward the $6.5 million construction costs,” Father Berg says. Additional money came from low-income housing tax credits and donations by local philanthropies, including the Meyer Memorial Trust, Murdoch Foundation and Collins Foundation as well as from individual supporters.

Maybelle Clark Macdonald, along with her husband, Fred, is a local philanthropist whose family was successful in the timber industry.

Despite the limited budget, neither the facilities nor the care are poor, Father Berg points out. The rooms are just 235 square feet, but they are well furnished. Public rooms and hallways are decorated and there is a courtyard. Artists provided 150 framed art prints for the walls.

Welcoming the Poor

Resident Jim Bruckner, who has lived at Macdonald Residence for two years, says it isn't the décor but the attitude of the staff that makes the difference. “This is a kind and friendly place where the staff gives support rather than makes demands,” he adds.

Faith makes the difference, says activity director Pam Noble. “It gives us our strength and determines the way we treat each other. Even though we don't talk about it, faith is essential.”

Meanwhile, Nona Bradford, Macdonald Residence director, says that with a payroll of 30 people, it costs approximately $1 million a year to operate the residence and an additional $300,000 to operate the center.

The Macdonald Center's budget comes from donations, while the cost for the residence is covered by an agreement with the state, where assisted-living residents pay $450 of their minimum $552 Social Security income as rent, with another $1,413 provided for their care through the Oregon Health Plan.

“Every one of our tenants [is among] the lowest-income people in the city of all ages,” Bradford says, “but if we are at full occupancy, we can break even on $1,963 per person. So, while other facilities are looking for higher-income people, we've let the word out that we want [the poor].”

Philip S. Moore writes from Portland, Oregon.