In 1986, Jean DeMaster was working in an alcohol- and drug-free housing project, and a woman who had been sober began drinking again. “I had to be the one to say, ‘You can’t stay here if you’re drinking,’” DeMaster remembers. When the woman returned to the streets, she was murdered. “I realized there has to be enough housing for everyone,” says DeMaster. “For people struggling with addiction, for people who are mentally ill, and especially for families.”
That mantra has informed an illustrious career spanning multiple local agencies, ultimately landing DeMaster at Human Solutions in 2002. “Nobody can resolve their homelessness from a shelter,” says DeMaster. “They’ve gotta have housing.” When she started as executive director, Human Solutions managed 360 units of low-income housing—they’ve now built 700, including the award-winning, $16.9 million Rockwood Building in Gresham. That’s a total of 18 buildings across eastern Multnomah County, serving about 400 homeless families a night. But Human Solutions also provides the full gamut of support: eviction prevention for families on the brink of homelessness, utility assistance, employment training programs, and more. And after a year in Human Solutions housing, 87 percent of families are still there, paying rent every month.
“I see homeless mothers in downtown Portland, and I know that if things hadn’t gone so well for me, I could’ve ended up the same way,” says DeMaster, who retired in September. “It can feel tragic, but when we are successful in this work, it feels really great.”