Free community fridges flourish in Portland, along with problems

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Jeana and Mark Menger sleep with their car keys near their bedside, and they have a plan.

Should a man who has frequented the community refrigerator full of free food on their Portland street make good on his vow to burn down their bungalow, they will climb out their bedroom window and drive off to safety.

The couple estimate they’ve donated a few thousand dollars of sandwiches, soups, hard-boiled eggs and other staples since a neighbor set up the fridge on their street last year. They say they have been willing to accept occasional middle-of-the-night screaming from visitors to the fridge — and food and broken glass smashed onto the street by patrons experiencing mental crises — because they believe in doing what they can to fight hunger.

But the man who showed up this past spring has deeply shaken their sense of security.

“He started to yell ‘I’m going to kill you! I’m going to burn your house down! I have nothing to lose!” recalled Jeana Menger, who said the man returned weeks later with a miniature blowtorch to set paper on fire and scorch a nearby bench.

None of this is what they expected when their neighbor joined a grassroots mutual-aid movement spreading nationally to feed the one in 10 residents who lack predictable access to food.

Like Little Free Libraries with their unique and whimsical designs, hundreds of fridges often housed in festively painted wooden structures have sprouted across the country in front of homes and businesses, including at least two dozen around Portland. The area also hosts about 20 food pantries stocked with dried goods.

“Take what you need, leave what you don’t, give what you can,” hand-painted signs at the fridges proclaim.

Portland Community Fridges

The Sabin fridge, freezer, pantry and microwave located at NE 13th Avenue and NE Failing Street in Northeast Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Indisputably, the fridges have done a whole lot of good, including this week when a heat wave prompted supporters to stock fridges with cold water and ice. But some of the fridges also have run into a very Portland problem.

Residents earnestly want to help, then are confronted with eye-opening reality: Visitors who ring doorbells at night, enter yards or use the structures and landscaping as toilets. Entire contents of fridges inexplicably dumped onto pavement. Rodents. Knocked over fridges. Cut electrical cords. And in extreme cases like with the Mengers, people in mental crisis who threaten to hurt the very neighbors who stock the fridges full of food.

Several volunteer groups promote and operate the fridges; the largest is PDX Free Fridge. The group has no clear public leadership. Its website features no names. It also doesn’t list a phone number or address. Rather, it directs visitors to contact the group through email, Instagram or Twitter.

The organization isn’t registered with the state as a non-profit, though it accepts donations through Venmo.

City code doesn’t contemplate community refrigerators in parking strips and front lawns. But city, county and state officials said they’ve received few or no complaints about the fridges’ food safety or compliance with zoning rules.

When contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive by email, PDX Free Fridge declined an interview and expressed disappointment after the news organization left a voicemail for the person who set up the community refrigerator on the Mengers’ street. The organization wrote that they didn’t “consent” to a story being told and thought it could “jeopardize the safety” of their project.

Other than the Mengers, two neighbors who also spoke to The Oregonian/OregonLive expressed mixed feelings about the refrigerator. They said they see significant problems, but they don’t want to undermine the program, especially because they have homes and are able to buy all the food they need.

Stephanie Blair, executive director of the St. Johns Center for Opportunity, which organizes the St. Johns Farmers Market, said she has seen food from a fridge next door thrown onto the market’s lot. Staff has cleaned it up. She knows there have been other struggles. One day someone posted on Facebook that the fridge’s metal shelves had been stolen, she said. The host of the fridge didn’t return a call from The Oregonian/OregonLive.

This clash, Blair said, is inevitable at a time when so many Portlanders want to be a part of social change but aren’t prepared for the challenges, including attempting to de-escalate encounters with people in mental crisis.

“I think people are really trying to come from a place of wanting to help,” Blair said. “You have to know what you’re getting into, and you need to be prepared for the good and the bad.”

A container of Banana Boat sunscreen and a bottle of aloe vera sit on a shelf of a pantry next to a free fridge in Portland.

A pantry next to a free fridge in Portland offers hot-weather items, such as sunscreen and aloe vera. (Aimee Green/The Oregonian)

Brooke Jackson-Glidden, who lives in North Portland, had her guard down on July 18. She’d prepared a large batch of celery soup, garlic noodles and salads, placed them in takeout containers and made the pleasant 10-minute stroll to the closest community fridge.

When she got there, she said she noticed a woman across the street who was yelling. After loading up the fridge, Jackson-Glidden said she turned around and the woman was right there. She pounced – scratching her arms, spitting at her, threatening to kill her and pulling her hair until it bled as an estimated 10 people walked by over 10 minutes and didn’t intervene, Jackson-Glidden said.

Close to two weeks out from the attack, Jackson-Glidden is too shaken to contribute more food to the community fridge.

“It brings me joy to be able to do it,” she said, but “there’s this rat brain part of me that feels too scared. That I just can’t do it. I really hope that changes.”

She said she harbors no anger toward the fridge program or the woman, who appeared in mental distress. Jackson-Glidden is a food writer. She said she isn’t trained professionally to respond to situations like that.

“People are living with too much trauma and absolutely no access to mental health care,” Jackson-Glidden said. “I hold my resentment toward city and local government for not providing that care. …It’s too much to put this one issue on people like me — like so many other people in the community who feel like everyone has a right to food — but are now having to manage someone else’s mental health crisis.”

“ALL OF US BELIEVE THERE IS A NEED”

The breadth of the problem is unclear across the metro area. Portland Police spokesman Lt. Nathan Sheppard said the bureau’s Neighborhood Response Teams “don’t really have any issues with them.”

But like several others interviewed for this story, Jackson-Glidden didn’t call police, knowing that people experiencing homelessness in Portland have been disproportionately arrested and that any encounter had the potential for ending in violence. Jackson-Glidden also didn’t call mental health workers at the city’s Portland Street Response out of concern the program is stretched thin and her report might prompt police involvement anyway. Street Response asks that the public call 911 to reach them.

Jeana and Mark Menger said they didn’t summon law enforcement either after the man threatened to set fire to their home.

“He’s a young, Black man,” said Jeana Menger. “There’s no way I’m going to call police.” She said the man had previously told her he had a history of arrests, and she worried that also might escalate any police response.

On an unseasonably warm April evening, the Mengers were sitting on their front porch when the man approached and asked them to buy a bicycle inner tube to replace his flat tire. The couple might have done it, if the local bike store hadn´t closed for the day. Then, they said, the man threatened them.

The Mengers said they tried to defuse the situation on their own — offering the man a patch repair kit. He was able to fix his tire, then rode off. Since then, he’s shown up to the fridge several times and stayed for hours, twice with a small blow torch. They are unsure of what they should do.

They said they’ve texted the neighbor who hosts the fridge about problems, with some results, such as a temporary closure to help get rid of rodents. The fridge host didn’t return a call from The Oregonian/OregonLive seeking an interview. The couple said they emailed PDX Free Fridge, but it took about a month to hear back.

Speaking up about what they see as problems with the fridge on their street has others in the community pegging them as NIMBYs, Jeana Menger said. In June, someone posted a message next to the fridge that Menger suspected might have been directed at neighbors like her. It read, in part: “This work is hard. It is not comfortable. It doesn’t always feel good. But if we do not start acting as a community, nothing is going to get better.”

A cardboard sign written in thick black ink states "This work is hard. It is not comfortable."

Jeana Menger said she believes this message, posted in the free fridge enclosure near her home, was directed at her and some of her neighbors.

The Mengers said they also haven’t received much help from the city or the county. Jeana Menger said, as instructed by the city’s website, she called 911 in May to get through to Portland Street Response about a distressed-looking woman who was spreading her belongings on the ground next to the fridge and talking to herself. She said a dispatcher told her it was after hours and they couldn’t come.

City officials have been vocal about their struggles to adequately fund and expand the hours of its mental health response.

Jeana Menger said in July she called Multnomah County’s mobile mental health team Project Respond about a man pacing around with his hands on his head and his possessions scattered on the asphalt, but a county worker on the other end of the line referred her to the city’s Street Response, which couldn’t spare the staff to come out, Menger said. Contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive this week, county spokeswoman Kate Yeiser said she couldn’t immediately provide comment because she was responding to the week’s heat wave.

The Mengers said they tolerate many of the problems, even if that means sometimes picking up broken glass and chili splattered on the street. And even with the arson threat, they aren’t adamant that the fridge must go. Other neighbors who see problems aren’t either.

“To be clear, all of us believe there is a need,” Mark Menger said. “Food insecurity is palpable. But none of us are mental health professionals.”

ATTENTION AND COMMITMENT

Despite the problems, some fridge hosts and neighbors report triumphs.

Scott King and his partner, both former restaurateurs, have operated a fridge out of their driveway in North Portland’s Portsmouth neighborhood ever since they bought their house nearly two years ago. King said there have been some mental health crises in their driveway, and he’s had to hose off splattered food more than half a dozen times. But those episodes have been outweighed by the good he feels their fridge brings.

He estimated that a few dozen people come by each day. He said demand intensified when a fridge nearby closed, the owner burned out.

“I’ll see the fridge stocked full and within an hour or two, it’s cleared out,” King said.

He and his friends from the food industry sometimes gather for cook-offs, producing extra to-go boxes to stock the fridge. But perhaps one of the most popular items are the Little Caesars pizzas that employees drop off at the fridge after they don’t sell, he said.

“It’ll be filled top to bottom with pizzas,” King said. “And you can see it on the faces of the people when they look inside, how excited they are to see that it’s there.”

Chilled food can lift the spirits during heat waves, he said. “When it gets hot like this, we tend to buy a lot of watermelon and fill the fridge up,” King said.

King hopes to continue hosting a fridge, but the one in his driveway is on its last legs. He wants to find a replacement through a community donation.

Fifteen miles west in Hillsboro, the community fridge in Karim Delgado and Kiley Delgado-Warren’s driveway was inspired by the uprising over George Floyd’s murder. A Black artist painted a mural on the side of the structure housing their fridge, which they’ve dubbed “Liberation Fridge.” It’s not part of PDX Free Fridges. Rather, it was started in cooperation with the volunteer group Love Your Black Community and the Beaverton Food Project.

The fridge is one of only a few in Washington County. A network of volunteers pack it full, sometimes every few hours. It is so busy that it empties four or five times each day, Delgado said. He and his wife donate extra food from their Beaverton bar, 649. Customers contribute, too, bringing food to a cooler at the business.

Fridge visitors are so thankful. “We get really beautiful letters from people,” Delgado said.

One touching note from June read: “I’m a full-time worker and a single dad, yet somehow I still struggle to make ends meet. I’ve driven past this house countless times, but couldn’t let my pride not get in the way. Today I decided to put that to the side for my son’s sake. Thank you so much for your efforts. This is literally life-saving service!”

Delgado doesn’t hide the challenges.

He said visitors to the fridge sometimes knock on his front door at 1 or 2 a.m. A former Marine, he said he feels equipped for anything and never fails to answer. He has given out clothes and tents, let strangers use his cell phone, given rides in his car and lent out propane tanks so people experiencing homelessness can stay warm in winter. He and his wife don’t mind visitors spending time in their yard.

“If someone is screaming in the middle of the night outside our fridge, I don’t get angry at them,” Delgado said. “I get angry at the institutions that have failed them. …It’s a system that condemns the mentally ill and doesn’t help them.”

Delgado acknowledged that attending to the fridge and the people who use it requires regular attention and commitment.

“It sounds like a very easy thing, you plug in a fridge,” he said. “I didn’t put a fridge in my yard and think the job was done. …It’s not like ‘Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come’ and everything will be dandy. You’re dealing with real issues.”

— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee



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