Last month, three Portland teenagers trying to rebound from sexual exploitation found themselves back out on the street.
The teenagers had been living at Athena House, a residential recovery program for victims of sex trafficking. But the shelter closed Nov. 21 as Multnomah County officials cut off funding amid questions about its management by the nonprofit Janus Youth Programs.
The immediate result: The three teenagers living at Athena House became homeless. Two have since found temporary housing. Another lost contact with the social workers who provide services through Janus. No one at the nonprofit knows where that teenager is now.
“The youth are getting tossed off of the ship, and they’re the ones who continue to be exploited,” says Kristen Lang, who worked at the shelter until it closed.
But county officials and former staffers say Athena House wasn’t much more effective open than closed.
The shelter received $554,905 from the county last year to manage seven beds and serve 21 teenage and young adult clients.
Athena House and its eight full-time staffers were supposed to provide a safe landing spot for the most vulnerable teenagers in the city. Yet interviews with county officials and former Janus staff describe the shelter as a place that instead drove teenagers away.
“Athena House wasn’t operating in a safe and healthy way,” Lang says. “This was not a new thing. For years, the working conditions, and therefore the healing conditions for the youth, were poor.”
For 18 months, county officials tried to persuade executives at Janus to make changes at the house. None came.
When Janus Youth Programs executive director Dennis Morrow reported in November that several managers had gone on indefinite leave and many other staffers had quit all at the same time, county officials pulled funding for Athena House and told Morrow to close its doors.
In a termination letter to Morrow on Dec. 1, the county cited six reasons for ceasing its funding of services provided by Janus to teenage victims of human trafficking. Most were connected to short staffing that undermined the goals of the program.
“With so many people quitting at one time, you can no longer guarantee the safety of the youth,” says Rose Bak, co-director of youth and family services at Multnomah County. “It seemed like the safest thing to do was to shut the center down.”
Morrow tells WW the county moved the goalposts for the program and betrayed Janus’ employees. “They feel very angry and also very traumatized by the process,” he says. “That is what is hitting me the most on all of this.”
But the county is still giving Janus money: $7 million for other services aimed at runaway teenagers, and $1.1 million for new-parent counseling.
Child sex trafficking became a big issue in Oregon in 2013, with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and then-Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel championing programs like Athena House. While the issue has been a political priority, studies comparing sex trafficking in Portland to that in other cities are hard to find.
Athena House was Portland’s only long-term residential program specifically for teenagers and young adults under 21 who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
Records show county officials began warning Janus in mid-2016 that the program wasn’t reaching enough clients, and had failed to meet goals to get most of the home’s residents in school, job training and stable housing.
“We’ve been concerned about whether they’re doing everything they can to reach the youth,” Bak says. “The number served has been extremely low. And we’ve had a lot of concerns about turnover in the staff and what that means for the children in care at Janus.”
Most of the problems at Athena House were caused by lean staffing and poor training. But a few dramatic structural problems highlighted the trouble.
In January, a raccoon crawled under the house into one of its heating ducts and died there. According to employees, the smell of the animal’s rotting carcass filled the home, and staff had to turn the heating off. The stench was so extreme that young people living in the home left their windows open to let in fresh air, employees say.
The house was chilly for weeks before Janus had someone come out and remove the raccoon, Lang says.
Staffers also describe peeling carpets, exposed wires and nails, a broken dishwasher that wouldn’t latch and a layer of grime covering most of the house. Janus was supposed to hire professional cleaners to scrub the home a few times a year, but Lang and other staff say the nonprofit rarely did.
Morrow says cleaners were scheduled to visit Athena House one week after the shelter closed, but the appointment was canceled after the county halted the program.
Other problems at the house stemmed from a lack of training in how to work with exploited youth.
“I made it pretty well known that I didn’t think that we had the appropriate training for the job we were doing,” says Russell Brown, another former Janus employee. “Most of these youth have had adverse childhood experiences. A lot of them are dealing with a lot of substance abuse. I’ve dealt with finding needles in bathrooms. My co-workers have found needles in washers and dryers.”
The window of opportunity to help a teenager find a way out of exploitation is short. Many clients who came to Athena House were already 17 or 18—they could participate in the program only until they turned 21.
“We need to stabilize them before they’re 21,” Lang says. “Otherwise, we just create adults who continue to struggle, continue to do drugs, continue to do sex work as survival work.”
The county ran out of patience last month, because two managers went on indefinite leave and more than five of the staff quit at one time—an event former employees say is not uncommon at Janus. At the same time, county officials questioned spending by a Janus subcontractor, the Sexual Assault Resource Center.
According to records provided by the county, SARC paid its executive director’s salary with taxpayer funds, which was not allowed by the county’s contract with the nonprofits. In addition, executive director Erin Ellis could not provide receipts for $38,000 in county funds. (Deanna Seibold, chairwoman of SARC’s board of directors, says the money will be accounted for and that the board “fully supports” Ellis.)
Janus Youth Programs is responsible for repaying the county the $38,000, because it was the lead contractor hired to provide services to sex-trafficked teenagers.
Employees say the lack of funding, staffing and training harmed the kids living at Athena House for years. Alan Smith, who worked at Janus until last week, says teenagers living at the house would sometimes become so frustrated with staff running the place they would leave.
“A lot of the time, we don’t know where they go—some go back to the work they were doing before,” Smith says. “That’s more enticing because we’re not giving them the support they need.”