Monday, May 3, 2010


This one was created with the amazing help of Michelle Andujar whose exhaustive interviews helped us get a real bird's eye view of the issue in Salem.

When the temperature hits 40 degrees at night, Katherine Jhllenkenes starts shaking.

"You have to drink sugar and water or wine," said Jhellenkenes, 48.

She typically gets about an hour of sleep. On a good night, she might get two. She rests a lot during the day to make up for the lack of sleep. The evening before she was interviewed, Jhllenkenes was awoken by a police officer in the park where she'd bedded down for the night.

"The officer got really rude. It was very important to him that I wasn't sitting there," she said.

Last month, NASA shot a rocket at the moon to determine if there was any water present. The cost: $79 million. By some estimates, a quarter of that amount could have housed every homeless person in the state and wrapped them in assistance services paving the way to re-entering a stable life.

Meanwhile, Mattel, the maker of the American Girl line of dolls, released their first "homeless doll," Gwen Thompson. She retails for $95, none of which is donated to homeless charities. After members of the public raised a furor, the corporate parent issued statements from HomeAid America, Inc., a non-profit housing provider, thanking Mattel for their assistance in Project Playhouse. Project Playhouse builds extravagant miniature homes that are auctioned off to the affluent for their kids, the proceeds funding HomeAid.

Back in Salem, Jhellenkenes' most pressing concern is finding a sizable bush, or better yet, a bathroom.

"If you're watered down and you can't walk 5 blocks looking for [a bathroom], you have to think quick," she said.

Another day in the life of Salem homelessness.

A merry-go-round

The problem with painting a picture of homelessness is that no single brush, color or canvas is adequate.

On Jan. 29, 2009, several community organizations banded together and took to the streets and shelters in an attempt to gauge the number of homeless individuals living in Marion and Polk counties. They encountered 3,244 people lacking stable housing or shelter, an increase of more than 600 people over the previous year. The totals don't include individuals living in substandard housing, doubled up with other families, couch surfing or those staying in cars, motels, campgrounds, or the forest.

By all accounts from local providers, demand has increased substantially since then.

"Between July 1 and Sept. 30 there were 2,945 visits to the day center. Double the number of visits from the quarter before, April-June," said Amber Reeves, the project coordinator for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA) ARCHES program, which provides a host of services for homeless citizens of Salem.

The day center provides showers, laundry, meals, and a safe place to stay temporarily.

While there are several shelters in the area, the number of beds available comprise a small fraction of what's needed. Gaining access when beds open up often reveals another set of hurdles.

"The shelters only want to serve a specific segment of the population," said Richard Naylor, who has been homeless about 18 months and spent time at both Union Gospel Mission and The Salvation Army.

John Legee carries all of his worldly possessions in a roller bag. It weighs 70 pounds and holds “the essentials:” a blanket, toiletries and a Bible, larger than average because of the large print necessary for him to be able to read it.

“I don't have glasses,” he said.

Legee has done the rounds at the shelters, but determined it wasn’t for him.

“You'll have to deal with all their personalities. I just don't have the patience, with my depression. I'm 52 years old,” said Legee.

He’s heard most of the stereotypes and he’s unapologetic.

“Us lazy homeless, we walk hours every day so we can get a meal, and then walk to another place so we can shower. Most of us don't have bus passes. It takes half a day to get a shower and do laundry,” he said. “You get loaded so you don't feel it, so you don't feel like a piece of sh-t.”

Getting rousted out by the police only adds to the frustration of being homeless.

“The cops will come by, slash our tents and take our stuff. It costs $250 to get it back,” said Wayne Ross, a homeless man who helped to organize a recent protest in front of the Capitol building.

Drivers passing the protest mostly averted their eyes, some responded with anger or ridicule.

It's illegal to be homeless,” said Herm Boes, former pastor and an advocate for homeless individuals in West Salem. “If you're found sleeping in a park, you get a warning. Second time, you get a ticket that you can't pay. The third time you go jail, if you haven't already for the unpaid ticket. Jail, homeless, repeat.”

Salem’s vagrancy laws, which dictate where one can lawfully sleep, make it difficult to escape the cycle. If one must sleep outdoors, it's done standing up or leaning against a pay phone. It’s illegal anywhere else.

“Homelessness is a merry-go-round, “ said Diane Merry, a program manager with MWVCAA.

The ride can extend far past doing time in jail or prison. A homeless person caught urinating in public can be jailed and forced to register as a sex offender. With a felony on the books, landlords can refuse to rent to a homeless individual and employers can deny employment.

“Many states have passed statutes that protect people against discrimination of women, the disabled, or based on sexual orientation,” said Jeremy Ditrich, a Salem attorney. “But when it comes to ex-felons, the simple fact is that there isn't a statute that protects them from discrimination. It is legal discrimination.”

Problems with the law pile up with mental illness, other medical issues, family problems and simply having a space to store one’s food.

“A couch surfer has no right to property storage. They can't buy in bulk or store discounted food so the problem becomes worse and worse,” said Ron Hays, executive director of the Marion-Polk Food Share. “A friend of the food share lost her home and put all her things in storage. It was all auctioned off when she failed to make the bill.”

The smallest decisions have unforeseen consequences that aren’t apparent to the average person with stable housing.

“There is a sense of separation and loss equivalent to losing a loved one. If you have to relocate you also lose your built-in support structure. It adversely affects self-perception,” Hays said.

In the Latino community, most of the homeless don't think of themselves as such because they're living in friends’ houses or those of extended family.

“They think, 'I'm not living in a park or field, so I'm not technically homeless,’” said Levi Herrera, of Mano a Mano Family Center, which provides emergency assistance in a variety of situations.

The national housing crisis hit the Latino community particularly hard.

“During the Bush years, many people had access to loans and many Latinos bought houses with variable interest rates. [Realtors] hired Spanish-speaking agents to create a sense of trust and many people thought they were helping them,” said Herrera. “When the economy suffered, the interest rates increased and they lost their homes.”

In the 2008-09 school year, the Salem-Keizer School District recorded 879 students without stable housing.

“And there are twice as many students who are doubled up [in homes with other families] as in live-in shelters,” said Irma Oliveros, program assistant for the district's homeless services.

Oliveros operates a computer lab at the IKE Box for unaccompanied students (school-age kids on their own.) The lab has seven computers and 18 students. Students will stay there as long as she does and police have dropped off students to her care – one of the most recent had been arrested for soliciting.

“Irma becomes their advocate in every way. We had cold meals being delivered for the kids seeking help [at the IKE Box] and she had to request that they be warmed up,” said Patricia Ramirez, coordinator of the district’s homeless education program.

Taken all together, it leads to a sense of hopelessness expressed as anger.

“Homelessness breeds a frustration that inhibits effective communication,” said Donna Armstrong, community liaison for the Union Gospel Mission. “Homeless individuals tend to fall between the cracks.”

Overflowing silos

Homelessness is as frustrating for case managers and homeless advocates as it is for those living on the streets.

Waiting lists for government housing in rural areas surrounding Salem are closed and the program has been frozen since February because of budget cuts, said Patty Arechija, a case manager for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She doesn't know when the situation will get better.

"Two days, two weeks, two months or two years - we just don't know," Arechija said.

Jonathan Baker, the supervisor for the Section 8 housing program for low-income individuals in the same rural areas, doesn’t paint a sunny picture either. The program currently serves 1,000 with 1,700 more on a waiting list.

Within Salem, waiting lists for public housing are also lengthy.

“Rents have gone up and the number of unemployed has gone up. Now, with the dollars that we have, we are helping fewer people,” said Phillip Dean, housing services supervisor with the Salem Housing Authority (SHA), an arm of HUD.

SHA directs most of its funding to homelessness prevention. It currently provides about 3,600 vouchers per month to families in danger of losing their homes.

Many assistance programs are switching to a philosophy of homelessness prevention to stop the hemorrhaging of homeless services.

“It's much cheaper to keep someone in housing than to get them into new housing,” Carla Cary, MWVCAA program director.

At the Marion-Polk Food Share, demand is up 27 percent over the past two years with no signs of slowing.

“I would rather provide food boxes to families so they can pay their rent than provide the boxes after they’ve lost their homes,” Hays said.

Local shelters and other assistance programs are also overloaded. Mano A Mano is carrying a three-month waiting list. The St. Francis Shelter is in a similar situation for the 12 apartments it operates.

The Salvation Army is turning away 15-30 people per night, said Richard Mattos, a case manager.

“There's just no room. It's hard, it's heartbreaking when you have to turn a family away. We offer them blankets, feed them dinner. Other than that, there's not much else we can do,” Mattos said.

Union Gospel Mission has 160 beds, but demand increases as temperatures drop and they often put out mattresses in the common areas.

“The shelter isn't supposed to be anyone's permanent housing,” Armstrong said.

Day centers like the ones at MWVCAA and Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project (HOAP) are overwhelmed as well.

“If you don't have a roof over your head and can't use the shelters, how do you get your basic needs met? There's one shower here and there are hundreds of [homeless]. Where do they go?” asked Verena Wessel, HOAP coordinator.

The MWVCAA simply stopped keeping waiting lists because demand for everything from transitional housing to assistance programs has grown beyond the ability to manage the lists, said Reeves.

“Many programs just run out of money,” she said.

Part of the problem is the way many programs are funded – each pot of money comes with its own set of eligibility requirements and other strings attached, said Cary.

“We are funded in silos and we end up working in silos,” she said.

Other times it’s a matter of follow-through.

"We have funding for creating the bills [to help the homeless] but not for fulfilling them," said Lloyd Smith, of Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Ways Forward

For as long as many can remember, the dominant philosophy in working with the homeless population has been providing for immediate needs first and then working them into stable housing.

Most advocates are now pushing to reverse that school of thought.

"People should be housed first, then work to get them services," said Roberto Franco, head of Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s Ending Homelessness Advisory Council.

Most areas are hoping to tackle the problems of homelessness with long-term plans focused on created more housing. The state plan will be implemented by the Oregon Housing and Community Services, which will be responsible for coordinating with other agencies and administering housing funds. The MWVCAA is in charge of coordinating the plan in Marion County.

“Ideally, we would like a central intake facility with connections to all the available services and each one sharing eligibility requirements. Shuffling people around because we don't have access to up-to-date information is frustrating for clients and people in the field,” said Cary.

To implement the plan, affordable housing is needed.

In the last biennium, $16 million in state funds from lottery proceeds were marked to build homes specifically for homeless individuals, but none of the final 216 units were built in Marion-Polk counties.

"No one in the Salem housing community requested these funds," explained Franco, and welcomed agencies and private landlords to apply in the future.

The state’s Housing Opportunity Bill will provide $10.5 million to build affordable homes for low-income residents, not necessarily homeless, between 2009-2011. The program will be funded through document recording fees from real estate transactions.

"To apply for funds we have to show we are fully funded and able to provide the housing and long-term services," explained Andy Wilch, Salem Housing Authority administrator.

In short, it’s easier to make the case for a low-income development rather than one for the homeless, because low-income residents stand a better chance of providing funds – in the form of rent – to keep the development going.

"Homeless housing is never easy," said Wilch. So far, the Salem Housing Authority doesn't have plans to apply for the Housing Opportunity funds.

“If they gave us the materials or money, many of us would build our own houses. Instead, we have to wait for real estate deals to go through where [contractors] take most of the money,” said Legee.

Lack of housing is the main complaint of local shelters and the homeless, but while waiting for housing to become available, many are asking for changes that would make life on the streets more comfortable. Relaxing trespassing and vagrancy statutes and establishing a safe camping zone are two areas where they hope to see movement.

"In a country like ours, you can't pitch a tent on a public park,” said Legee, scoffing. “They feed you under the bridge and then they turn around and arrest you for trespassing. It's ridiculous - trespassing under a bridge.”

In 2000, the Portland homeless community established a working model of a safe camping site, Dignity Village (DV.) The site, set aside by the city as a place where homeless individuals can camp without the risk of being accosted by police, has evolved from a “tent city” to a village of small resident-built shelters and lean-tos.

The protest organized by Ross in late October was the first volley in what he hopes is a campaign to establish a safe camping site.

“There’s a 12-acre plot off Turner Road we could use,” said Ross. “The shelters are overcrowded, only cater to specific groups and they’re splitting up families.”

Herm Boes, the West Salem homeless advocate, recently visited DV and came back in awe of what he saw.

“They’re completely self-sufficient. They grow food. They have a hot dog cart they take out into the community,” Boes said.

The village has both elders and a board of directors, all of which come from the village community. Boes asked one of DV’s elders if it would be possible for non-homeless individuals to become elders. The elder bristled at the notion of someone outside the homeless community being part of their governance.

“He responded, ‘That's a shelter, not a community. We run this. We own this. When there are problems we work with the city,’” Boes said.

While a DV-style camping ground is the end goal, Ross said there are reasonable alternatives.

“Even a warming center would help,” said Ross.

In lieu of a formal village, others propose a half-step in that direction.

"I would like to see some sort of a community center, a public area where it's safe, where homeless people can shower, have lockers to store their belongings, and access a mailbox," said Wessel.

Lacking any of that, Legee would gain a measure of solace in simply more humane treatment by authority figures.

"If they're gonna put people in tanks [when they’re arrested], or book and release them, they should at least let them shower and feed them,” he said.

The only certainties at the moment is the problem isn’t going away and the demographics are changing.

“Homelessness is very rapidly encroaching the middle class. It's no longer just people with disabilities or mental illness. It's not us and them anymore. It's quickly becoming all of us. Many people are one month away from being homeless,” Wessel said.

While talking heads proclaim the end of The Great Recession, the best estimates put average Americans at least five years away from feeling it. In the interim, the most powerful gift that one can give homeless residents is a bit of compassion, said Wessel.

“Homeless people are just like everybody else. They're just people, with the same hopes and dreams you and I have,” she said. “I would like for people not to look past those who are homeless. If we have nothing to give, at least we have a moment of time or a smile.”

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