Michael Stoops, former Portland homeless activist, dies

Stoops left town amid controversy but went on to become national leader in field

Michael Stoops, in 2001, when he was director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless and visited Lawrence, Kansas, to meet with local organizations about homeless issues. (COURTESY: LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD via Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A charismatic Portland homeless leader who left town in disgrace but gained a reputation for effectively working on the national level has died.

Michael Stoops passed away early Monday morning, after a long period of poor health. Stoops suffered a stroke in June 2015 while working for the National Coalition for the Homeless, which he helped found.

In the 1980s, Stoops was chairman of the Burnside Community Council, which operated two homeless shelters in Portland. The most visible was Baloney Joe’s, a men’s shelter at the east end of the Burnside Bridge.

Stoops was the most outspoken advocate in Portland for the down and out in those days. He frequently clashed with the business community, City Hall and even other social service providers over how best to help the homeless.

“One of Michael’s greatest talents was drawing attention to the issue of homelessness,” says the Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, who served on the Burnside Community Council board.

“We all know of Portland’s Rose Parade, which even today often results in the displacement of people experiencing homelessness,” Currie says. “Michael started a homelessness parade each summer where entries included social service agencies, a coordinated shopping cart dance team, and the crowning of a king and queen of the parade. No one in Portland could just forget about homelessness when the annual homeless parade came to town,”

You can read Currie’s other reflections on Stoops on our opinion page.

Stoops also took his activism to other cities, including Washington D.C., where he called public attention to the plight of the homeless and lobbied Congress on their behalf. Most famously, on May 3, 1987, he and other homeless advocates camped out on the streets of the nation’s capital with celebrities like Martin Sheen to support the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act pending before Congress. It passed.

Then, on Nov. 19, 1987, Willamette Week reported that Stoops had sexual relations with a number of under-age homeless youth. Stoops took a leave of absence that day and his nonprofit employer retained attorney Don Marmaduke to investigate the allegations. Three months later, the investigation concluded that Stoops had innappropriate relations with clients at Baloney Joe’s.

“To the extent he satisfies his sexual needs with those who are disadvantaged in comparison to him, or who place special trust in him, it is exploitive,” Marmaduke wrote in his report to the board. Stoops resigned the day it was released. He left town shortly afterwards without being charged with any crimes.

All aspects of the story and the fallout that occurred were controversial. Among other things, Willamette Week was accused of acting on behalf of the business community and criticized for outing Stoops as gay. Some supporters said he was the victim of street kids who hustled to survive. Other said none of the clients were younger than 18.

Willamette Week vigorously defended its story. Burnside Community Council disbanded and Baloney Joe’s shut down after Stoops left, although the empty shell of the building remained standing until the Burnside Bridgehead redevelopment project got underway many years later.

The scandal did not prevent Stoops from continuing to work on homeless issues. He almost immediately went to work with the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington D.C. and spoke throughout the country. Among other things, he served as project director for the coalition’s National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project and its Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau. He was also one of the founding members of the North American Street Newspaper Association and served on its board of directors.

“Everyone will tell you that Michael was an inspiring speaker. I first heard him speak when I was in high school and knew then I wanted to do something to help end homelessness,” Currie says.

After his stroke, National Coalition for the Homeless officials credited Stoops with helping homeless people obtain the right to vote in all 50 states and getting unprovoked attacks on the homeless designated as hate crimes.

Stoops was born on May 1, 1950. A 1998 Dallas Morning New story on the Portland controversy described Stoops as a Mennonite from rural Indiana, who graduated from Ball State University with a degree in social work in 1972 and moved to Portland four years later. It credits him with opening the city’s first day drop-in center for the homeless, later expanding services to include separate men’s and women’s shelters, a medical and dental clinic and programs providing food, counseling and employment.

Stoops’ activism in Portland coincided with the work of Mitch Snyder, a nationally known homeless advocate portrayed by Sheen in the 1986 CBS TV movie, ”Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story.” Stoops and Snyder supported each other and occasionally appeared at the same events. Snyder committed suicide in 1990.

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