Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Q&A with Shari Dunn

Shari Dunn was raised in a working-class, blue-collar, African-American neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has lived in Sunnyside for the last six years. The former CEO of Dress for Success Oregon, she’s the founder and CEO of ITBOM Consulting. ITBOM stands for I’m the Boss of Me—where she does strategic equity work.

How have you liked living in Sunnyside?

Shari: For the last six years, I have loved living in Sunnyside. I could actually walk to my previous job. I love being within walking distance to a park. It’s just this last year since I’ve been in my condo that it’s been hard, because of crime.

We don’t have mailboxes anymore. We had to take them out of our lobby because someone was breaking in weekly to steal our mail, so now I have to go to the post office to get mail. Then they escalated—they tried to break into the elevator to take metal out. We’ve had our storage units broken into. We’ve had cars stolen. We’ve had someone camping in our boiler area who keeps turning on and off our boiler, which is where our hot water comes from. At the height of the winter storm, we had our heat turned off because [the camper] was hot and didn’t like the noise. When our storage area got broken into, the trail of stuff led from the storage units to the [Sunnyside] camp.

Have you interacted with the police at all?

Shari: We call the police all the time and that’s pretty much it. I mean, what are you going to do? The person is gone. Over the Memorial Day holiday, we hired a security firm and the security guy saw someone, but he did not feel safe getting out of his car because there was a car with the thief and he couldn’t tell how many people were in it. By the time backup came, they had left. I guess for me, if a professional doesn’t feel safe…. But I’m in the building with these people and that is stressful. We’re at the point where we are trying to figure out what to do next.

Is everyone in the building concerned?

Shari: Everyone’s concerned. There’s no one that’s saying “How dare you be mad at a houseless person!” or “You’re lucky to even get mail!” But I encountered that at the Sunnyside Association Neighborhood meeting. Someone was like that. I went to the meeting because I was curious as to what was going on. There was this narrative – I don’t know if the Association put out or that The Oregonian put out – but in the winter it was like: “Oh, the neighbors don’t want a sweep of this camp. The neighbors all support this camp.” And I was like, do you know what’s going on in our building?

Did they?

Shari: Well, I told them. I think people take this a little bit like Israel and Palestine where whatever you say about one it means you hate the other, which is not true. I know people who have experienced homelessness. My nephew has experienced homelessness. He has been kicked out of a shelter for his behavior and lives with my mother in Wisconsin. So I feel like a lot of people are telling me what they don’t know about, which gets a little weird.

The issue with homelessness is about humanity and what is our obligation to each other. And I just don’t think our obligation is to turn people out in this heat. Or in the winter. And yet people were advocating that they have the right to stay out. That’s not a civilized society.

You’re a consultant, a professional problem solver. What do you think we should do?

Shari: Number one, this idea about opening up more space for people to camp is a good idea. I think we need to think about things that are not in use right now, like the Lloyd Center. You could set up facilities, showers—there’s a lot of potential in that space. And then set about proper triage. In most emergencies, you go from who is less injured to who is most injured, and you design your solutions based on that. But in this case, you do a bit of a reverse triage—you want to find the people who are going to work every day who are homeless, and prioritize them for housing. Then—and this is probably a state issue—we need more beds for drug and alcohol treatment and more beds for mental health treatment. And then there’s a group of people who are not competent to make decisions, and we as a society are going to have to decide, are we going to provide inpatient care for some period of time? Like this African-American woman in downtown Portland I’ve seen walking around in underwear, screaming. That is not an answer. There is no housing that’s going to help that. What she needs is somebody to say “I need to help you because you cannot help yourself at this moment.” That’s what I was doing. But no one asked me.

What do you mean? The Sunnyside Newsletter is asking you right now!

Shari: Thank you!

Devin Browne is a freelance journalist currently working on a story about mail theft in Portland. Please email her with any stories, tips, or info at devin.e.browne@gmail.com.