Portland, USA

Community of likeminded radicals

This winter we handed out 750 Shelterbags in the Pacific NorthWest in partnership with local organizations Greater Good Northwest, Rose Haven, and Transition Projects. With your help, we were able to bring these critical products to the Western United States, all the way from our social factory in South Africa where they were produced.

Photography and story by Tony Dočekal
Est. 11 minutes

“As the city of Portland pushes for a homeless ban and further criminalizes homelessness, these Shelterbags are so important.”

– Eboni, Founder Greater Good Northwest
Knut from Norway
Eboni demonstrates a Shelterbag

This winter we handed out 750 Shelterbags in the Pacific NorthWest in partnership with local organizations Greater Good Northwest, Rose Haven, and Transition Projects. With your help, we were able to bring these critical products to the Western United States, all the way from our social factory in South Africa where they were produced.

Many who find themselves on the streets experience great isolation, and do not have access to people with the resources and committed presence to ensure their well-being. We recognize that it takes more than a product or charity to create transformation in the lives of individuals and communities impacted by poverty and trauma. That’s why we focus on building relationships with partner organizations that have their boots on the ground, and we are listening to the voices and leadership provided by people who have lived experience. We visited Portland to include their voices in the solutions, from those with power and resources to those directly affected by the issues.

Some of us may have been led to think that homelessness is an effect of personal failures. But people working full-time in low-wage jobs in Portland are paying up to 80% of their salaries on rent alone.* In order to create change, we have to be willing to listen to those affected without judgment, and we are here to share our lessons learned.

We learned the city of Portland made a promise of sheltering every homeless individual, but couldn’t make this a reality. More people came in from other states, and people still ended up being sent away at the door of overflowing shelters.

Just as we arrived in Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler introduced a plan that addresses Portland’s ongoing homeless and housing crisis, banning unsanctioned camping across the city, and making it illegal and fineable to set up a tent. The city plans to open three large regulated, sanctioned camping sites, and provide easier access to mental health and substance abuse recovery services and more safe spaces for homeless people to stay.

But what does this really mean?

Greater Good Northwest

Eboni Brown, director of Greater Good Northwest, contacted us in 2019 through Instagram. At the time, we weren’t yet able to deliver Shelterbags to Portland. But a few years later we can finally get this partnership off the ground.

Greater Good, a non-profit born in the middle of the pandemic, prioritizes presently and historically underserved communities, so people of color, black individuals, indigenous individuals, LGBTQIA+, and formerly incarcerated individuals. All these communities have the least amount of services nationwide when it comes to housing support services.

Eboni transformed an old motel into an alternative shelter in an area with very limited resources. It is a non-congregate shelter, meaning everybody has their own room, with a door to lock. Here, Greater Good runs a transitional program, providing case management to navigate people into housing and make sure that they are able to keep that housing. “We are there to support them through that transition back into housing.”

Greater Good also strives to change the way houseless participants are served in their community. Developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with the population they serve, allows their team to act as mediators and connectors between participants and a variety of houseless services in the area.

Eboni and Bas handing out Shelterbags
Eboni, Founder Greater Good Northwest

“I really believe in the work Sheltersuit is doing, employing people who otherwise might not have a chance to access these opportunities. I believe in Bas’ mission and I understand where he’s coming from. I’ve lost a lot of people on the streets, so his message really speaks to me.”

Eboni, Greater Good Northwest

“Disrupting poverty starts with ourselves. It starts with me using my privilege, my power, to give opportunity to
this community.”

Eboni, Greater Good Northwest

The community realized our value

While the census for the shelters had been cut in half to help with the spread of covid and all the services were closed down, Greater Good started as a mobile team, bringing out food to even the deep woods because nothing else was open. “Nobody wanted this place in their neighborhood,” Eboni says. “We were being yelled at and everybody wanted this place shut down. That’s the issue in communities all over. People would rather have these folks sleep on the sidewalk than have a shelter in their neighborhood. And this makes no sense.

A true community should not be fighting over resources. You’re not competing, you’re sharing. We had to do a lot of community engagement in order to all co-exist here. Now, multiple people in this community depend on us for clothing, food, and services. So yes, there was a lot of pushback. But once people realized our value, it very much changed to positive. They know they can call us when they see someone in need, and someone will show up to help.”


When Eboni was 6 years old she met John, the only homeless person in the neighborhood. He told her to leave him alone, and they developed a friendship from there. He was the one who first established with Eboni that these are our neighbors, whether they are in homes or not. He made her see that everybody that lives here plays part in your community. “And my life has been completely dedicated to services since then.”

Since her sister died in 2019, Eboni became a lot more radical. “Because that is the only way to get things done around here. I want to give my friends every opportunity possible to navigate those services and use the system as it was intended for them to use. I couldn’t do that at any organization that I worked for, so it was nice to be able to develop my own. All the people that work for me are radical individuals. A lot of them I met when I was protesting.”

Eboni at Greater Good Northwest
Mike, Program Manager Outreach Division Greater Good Northwest

Mike tells us the nature of this particular camp that he’s taking us to, is that it’s pretty high visibility, easy to spot from the bridge. That makes this a camp where a lot of people start out when they are on the streets for the first time in their lives because they know where it is.


One of those people is her colleague Mike. They met on the streets during the many demonstrations over the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Mike runs the outreach program at Greater Good Northwest. Their radical approach is based on identifying individual needs and including people with lived experience on their staff. Mike tells us “we apply the ideas of Mutual Aid and Direct Action, which means that I spent my time building relationships with people, finding out what it is they need to better their situation.”

Mutual aid is an idea and practice based on the principles of direct action, cooperation, mutual understanding, and solidarity. Mutual aid is not charity, but the building and continuing of new
social relations where people give what they can and get what they need, outside of unjust systems of power.

“One of the hardest things is going into camps without trust. When I first started, it took months before some people would even talk to me. But when I can bring a Shelterbag, which provides such an immediate change in their day-to-day existence, that’s a big part of building respect and trust.”

Mike, Greater Good Northwest


Paulo, 30 years old, has never camped a day in his life, yet after a falling out with family, he finds himself learning to make a campfire to stay warm. No easy feat in the relentless Portland climate. He steps forward to talk with me and lets me film our interview. When he feels overwhelmed, I ask him if he wants me to stop. He says ‘no, it’s ok. But this is not a way to live. I try not to think about it. I usually go to the back of the forest to listen to my music and dance.’

“Nation-wide, there are four times as many empty units to live in, as there are people who live outside.The problem is the price, and where those units are located. Unfortunately, the more time you spend in a camp,the harder it is to get back into housing. The folks who are more likely to get out of homelessness are ones who stay by themselves.”

– Mike, Outreach Greater Good Northwest


We met Diane, 60 years old, in front of the winter shelter in Beaverton. She had already heard about the Shelterbags coming into town from the word on the street and she was so excited to run into us. She has spent more than a few nights sleeping outside and was caught in the rain more than once. She said, “there are many people getting soaking wet out there. These are the ultimate solution to this problem.”

When she just moved to Portland, Eboni started working at Rose Haven, our other partner. Here, where she once started the shower program that has helped countless women over the years, Eboni’s best friend Liz is the development director. These two are prime examples of our people helping people movement and we are so proud to be working with them.

“I don’t ever have to have a wet sleeping bag ever again.”

– Diane
Diane at the Beverton winter shelter
Meeting everyone at Rose Haven
Euphemia, Rose Haven

Rose Haven

Rose Haven is a day shelter and community center for women, children, and marginalized genders who are experiencing homelessness, trauma, and poverty in Portland, Oregon. Their mission is to provide day shelter, resources, emotional support, and community connections: helping people navigate services in order to help improve their lives long-term.

On Wednesday, November 9th Rose Haven organized a distribution event, handing out 40 Shelterbags to women who were sleeping outside that night. “This was a global collaboration to get these Shelterbags to Oregon and our guests were so grateful today,” Liz says in an interview with the local media. “Thank you to everybody who worked extra hard to make this happen.

Together we can do so much. 25 years ago there was a survey that eventually became Rose Haven. Today, Oregon has the second-highest rate of literally unsheltered folks in the United States. Sheltersuit Foundation is so needed and created in a very similar way to Rose Haven, by listening to the people. Look out for each other this winter folks. It’s getting cold out there.”

“For the folks living outside in Oregon, this is so critical. If your sleeping bag gets wet and you don’t have a tent, it becomes really heavy, soaking wet. It basically becomes disposable.”

– Liz Starke, development director at Rose Haven

During the distribution event, we had a camera set up outside. Whoever wished to be photographed, was invited to have their picture taken. There we met Tracy, who invited us to come to see her tent. At the time, she was packing up her stuff to either leave behind at the tent in the hopes it would still be there when she would come back, or take it with her in a car she borrowed. She was getting ready to go to the courthouse for a custody hearing.

“My ex was abusive so I left him. He doesn’t know where I am. It’s no fun to be living like this. It hurts.”

– Tracy
Marion, who we met at Rose Haven women’s shelter

“I’ve never seen a sleeping bag like this before. It shows that the guy who designed this really has compassion for people in less fortunate situations. I’m glad I came down and needed a sleeping bag.
I didn’t expect this, I’m grateful.”

– Marion

Also at Rose Haven, we met Marion. More about her in our next Unsheltered Moments story.

We are currently looking for partners and donors to fill a new container for the Pacific Northwest, coming in from our social factory in Cape Town. One container holds 750 Shelterbags. If you are interested in (partially) funding the shipment, or ordering Shelterbags for your organization in the PNW area, please contact [email protected]

Source: More Than A Place to Lay My Head — ThinkTank (thinktank-inc.org)

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