The OHRA Center in Ashland is open while going through renovations. A proposal to convert an Ontario hotel into a shelter was rejected by city officials last year. (Rep. Pam Marsh)

An Oregon project to turn hotels into temporary housing is getting a second infusion of cash after the first round added nearly 900 units, increasing the state’s supply of shelter beds by 20%. 

Project Turnkey, managed by the Oregon Community Foundation in Portland, was created by the Legislature in November 2020 in response to increased homelessness throughout Oregon. The intent was to provide temporary housing for people who were displaced by wildfires or at risk of homelessness.

Legislators now have budgeted another $50 million for the program.

A year later, 19 new shelters opened in 13 counties.

Megan Loeb is a program officer with the Portland-based foundation who has worked on Project Turnkey. She hopes the new round will again serve as a beacon of hope in Oregon’s homelessness crisis.

 “We know it’s going to take all sectors – working in partnership – to resolve Oregon’s complex housing crisis,” Loeb said.

One of those partners is Rogue Retreat of Medford, which focuses on housing for recovering addicts.

Through state and local governments and community donations, the organization has been increasing opportunities for the homeless for over 20 years. In March 2021, Rogue Retreat received a $2.55 million grant from Project Turnkey to buy the Redwood Inn.

When completed, the conversion will provide 47 apartments. 

Chad McComas, executive director, was thrilled with the new addition but quickly faced the challenge of renovation. Because most of the grant was used to buy the Redwood Inn, that left only $147,000 for building kitchenettes in each unit.

McComas has been working with designers and architects for almost a year now and only 14 out of the 47 rooms are finished with a kitchen and bathroom. 

“They gave us $2.3 (million) to buy the hotel, so they basically just gave us the keys. But it’s going to be about another $2.3 (million) to renovate,” McComas said.

Even though most of the furniture for those units remains in shipping containers, Rogue Retreat is still providing shelter to some individuals. Rogue Retreat has 14 out of the 47 rooms ready for individuals, including three Covid rooms that Jackson County helps fill and 11 regular rooms that are for the general homeless population. 

McComas said there have been talks about exploring a relationship between the state of Oregon and two local hospitals to provide free short-term rooms for individuals who leave the hospital and can’t go back to the streets. McComas also said Rogue Retreat is working on a permanent contract with Providence Hospital to allow short-term rooms with no cost for individuals. 

However, McComas said rent for rooms once the hotel is renovated haven’t been set.

A need to raise money

While McComas anticipates at least half of what they need to finish renovations will come from the new round of state funding, Rogue Retreat continues to raise money. By reaching out and partnering with community organizations to continue building the necessary funds, Rogue Retreat has connected with the community in a new way, he said. People’s Bank, AARP, and Rotary are among those donating to the project.

“That’s been a good thing – getting all of these people together,” McComas said. 

Melanie Prummer, executive director of Peace at Home Advocacy Center in Roseburg, also said she’s faced renovation challenges when moving into a hotel in Douglas County. Peace at Home provides emergency shelter for survivors of assault with 24-hour crisis resources. Project Turnkey paid almost $2.8 million dollars to buy the hotel and help renovate it. Residents have been living there since last April.

Up to 18 rooms are available as shelters where individuals can stay for up to six months without paying rent and two rooms that are transitional housing for up to six months at $400 a month. 

The project has allowed services to be expanded and accessible to more people, but the moving and renovation process was a challenge.

“It feels like we’re always moving stuff around in order to do those renovations,” Prummer said. “Also, just moving to one location to another location definitely took more energy and resources than we thought we would need.”

While construction and renovations continue to move forward, Peace at Home has also turned to the community for support. Prummer wants to connect with community organizations for help sustaining services, including having a community health worker on campus who specializes in helping individuals with their sobriety. 

“The thing that’s really incredible is watching people adapt. We had been pondering this hotel model for four years, and this was really great timing. But we’ve always talked about the challenges,” Prummer said. “It’s really heartwarming to see people’s resilience and their ability to adapt.”

Last April, Robert Beltran counted on Community Action Program of East Central Oregon in Pendleton for housing. The nonprofit used its $1.3 million Project Turnkey grant to buy and renovate the former Whiskey Inn. What is now the Promise Inn started out as emergency housing and before morphing into long-term housing. 

Beltran graduated from the Promise Inn and is now in a place of his own. 

Since getting a permanent home, Beltran said he has noticed his health has improved drastically. He’s thankful to have food all month and the opportunities to eat healthier. Having his own place also means he doesn’t have to walk around town during the day – rain, snow, or shine.

“They’ve really worked with me. Part of the process was about getting all my medical stuff done and just little things like that,” Beltran said. “And I’m now going out on errands and I’m being social. They’ve really administered their services very well I think.”

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, is a supporter of Project Turnkey and expects the next $50 million to fund 10 more building acquisitions.

“We know there are some remodel costs, so in the second round we’re making sure we build in some basic funding to go towards remodels,” Marsh said. “In some cases these are older motels that frankly just didn’t meet some of the standards that we require now.”

Marsh said operational costs will be part of the assessment for the next round of Project Turnkey grants. She said this would allow money to be allocated to nonprofits with a demonstrated ability to manage those costs and will elevate Turnkey sites to become regular homelessness outreach sites throughout the state. 

“I increasingly hear from people a sense that homelessness can’t be solved, and what I want to say is, it can be. Turnkey is demonstrating how you do that,” Marsh said. “There is absolutely a path to get our way out of homelessness and we are going to have to understand it will take some time and some money.”  

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit https://catalystjournalism.uoregon.edu or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.