30, Executive Director at Cultivate Initiatives
2023 Prize Winner
When the Wy’East Shelter, a 125-bed all-male shelter that prioritizes space for houseless veterans, seniors, and men with disabilities, opened its doors on Southeast 122nd Avenue in 2018, many residents of the Mill Park neighborhood greeted it with disdain and outrage. A hastily organized information session at the nearby Pizza Baron restaurant drew a few hundred people who came to express their fury at the new shelter.
The experience left Caleb Coder, a recent transplant to Portland who lived in a house that adjoined the shelter, feeling frustrated that all these people would show up to, as he put it, “reject our new neighbors.”
“I walked away from that being bummed,” he says, “and really asking if there was a third way, and rather than rejection, people came together to be for and with our new neighbors.”
Working with local restaurants and NGOs, Coder started holding regular “Eat and Greet” events, offering free food and a space for people in the neighborhood. “It was a safe place for our unhoused neighbors to be and exist,” Coder says. “And for our neighbors housed and unhoused to come together to interact and get to know each other as humans.”
Those get-togethers proved to be a catalyst. During winter storms, he and Wy’East manager Y’Ishia Rosborough and a small team of volunteers would offer propane stoves and hot soup—and, more importantly, human interactions—to their houseless neighbors. They were soon commissioned to open a warming shelter in East Multnomah County.
As their team grew, so did their ambitions, leading to the creation of the nonprofit Cultivate Initiatives. Started in 2021, the organization has expanded its size and scope in a short time to oversee a team of former or currently houseless workers, hiring them at a living wage to help clean up the streets in east county and around local businesses. With help from Concordia University Nursing, Cultivate Initiatives brings health services and mobile showers to seven different locations on a weekly basis.
But perhaps the biggest initiative was the creation and stewardship of Menlo Park Safe Rest Village, a temporary shelter of 60 small pods for houseless adults and couples to sleep in and store their belongings while they receive services like getting an ID or signing up for the Oregon Health Plan—all with the ultimate goal of helping them more easily transition into permanent housing.
It’s a huge step forward for Coder, who came to the city to attend seminary and wound up working in carpentry to stay afloat. And it’s the kind of work that makes him more than worthy of the 2023 Skidmore Prize. At the same time, he prefers to direct the attention toward the good work Cultivate Initiatives has done.
“As soon as we become the hero, we miss the point,” Coder says. “We stand on many people’s shoulders and community-based organizations and advocates and people who want to see our community thrive. That’s what it’s about. We’re a small drop. Yet, if we get a handful of drops, then we have a bucket, and then we have a body of water.”
- Robert Ham
Skidmore Prizes are sponsored by Comcast