By LINDA BAKER
Late last summer Salma Azizza was tasked with finding housing for a client whose previous residence had been condemned.
“The first place we looked at had bullet holes in the wall. Nothing had been fixed, and there was a strong smell of ammonia,” said Azizza, 32. Azizza works as a supportive housing case manager at Transition Projects, a Portland-based homeless services provider. “I said: ‘If I’m not living here, neither are you.’”
Azizza eventually found a suitable apartment. The client moved in right after Christmas.
“I adore this woman,” she said. “It was the best feeling ever to know I helped this woman — to know she is now safe in a livable environment.”
Azizza has spent the past few years working for homeless services nonprofits in the Portland area. A mother of three children, she has experienced intermittent homelessness herself and is a recovering addict and child abuse survivor.
“My clients say: ‘Nobody gets me; nobody knows what it’s like to be homeless.’ I say: ‘Actually I do’ and share my story.” She recently showed her sister the water tower she used to sleep under and the smoking section at the bar where she used to sleep.
Using grant funds from Multnomah County, Azizza helps her 19 clients pay rent and utility bills and access food boxes. She also assists with medical appointments, grooming, “anything that is not overstepping one of our own personal boundaries.”
Navigating a fragmented system of care and changing property ownership add to the challenges of her job. Azizza said she is seeing a wave of property ownership transfers; in the space of about a year, one of the buildings her clients live in went through four different property owners.
Another client needs to relocate because of domestic violence. During the application process, the building the client wanted to move into changed hands.
“She paid for an application, viewed the apartment, and then nothing,” Azizza said. “She was just ghosted.” Azizza and her supervisor visited the property, to no avail. “We gave up. We’re looking at other buildings.”
By her own account, Azizza had a “horrible upbringing” — molested by her stepfather and physically and emotionally abused by her mother. The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) placed her in foster care when she was a freshman at Cleveland High School.
Against the odds, Azizza graduated in the top 10% of her class from Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program, an alternative high school. Fulfilling a long held dream, she joined the AirForce, but was medically discharged following a knee injury.
After her mother died unexpectedly, Azziza’s life spiraled downward into meth addiction and homelessness, culminating in DHS taking away her own baby daughter.
Several years later, Azizza was clean, and reunited with her daughter. She and her husband secured an apartment through Central City Concern, a homeless services nonprofit that eventually gave Azizza her first job in the field — staffing the front desk at the Blackburn Center. During the pandemic Azziza took another position helping open Transition Projects’ Banfield Shelter Motel as a resident advocate. In January 2021 she started working as a graveyard shift supervisor.
A member of AFSCME Local 88, Azizza makes $23 an hour, up from the $21 hourly rate she earned last year. She said the benefits at Transition Projects, including mental health days, “are amazing.” She also credits her manager and supervisor for understanding that these are high-stress, high-maintenance jobs. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your clients.”
Azizza faces her own housing struggles. Following a rent increase in December 2022, she and her husband now pay $1,318 for a two-bedroom apartment on NE 122nd, up from the $1,200 they paid last year. They would like to move the family to a better location with more responsive management. “Ridiculous” rent hikes make that virtually impossible, she said.
Legislation approved by Oregon lawmakers in 2019 limits rent increases to inflation plus 7%. But that meant landlords could increase rents by up to 14.6% in 2023.
Despite the challenges, Azizza said she is proud of her job. She likes knowing that she makes a difference in her clients’ lives — and that her own struggles can be a source of inspiration.
“I tell clients: I can dwell in the past and let it take over. Or I can step up and not be a statistic and make a new life story.”