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SAVING GRACE
No one's turned away.
Story by Aria Seligmann - Photos by Linda Smogor

Outside a nondescript building at the far end of a fenced complex on 1st Street's industrial grayness, a group of women sit on a wooden deck, smoking. The cloud of cigarette smoke's as thick as the fog that settles in over the railroad tracks, no longer visible even from this short distance on a shrouded late November night.

A woman arrives at the gate, pushes through it, tentatively approaches the door. Another gets up, holds open the door for her, asks, "This your first time?" The woman nods. "Come on," says the door holder, "I'll show you what to do."

Up a flight of stairs, inside a large room patchworked with shiny brown tables and chairs, the woman is ushered to a desk staffed by one of several program volunteers, homeless women who work long shifts in exchange for a small stipend and their own room. "Read these rules and sign the form," the volunteer tells her. The woman will abide by the rules and submit to a TB test within seven days.

Her belongings are tagged and placed in the baggage room, a shelf-lined closet where each woman is allowed to keep up to three bags of possessions, safely locked up.

"Don't leave any medications laying around," she's told.

Then she settles into a hard wood chair. She's at the Eugene Mission, where a promise of a bed, food and Gospel is offered to everyone, where no one is turned away (except those obviously under the influence who refuse a ride to Buckley House).

The Mission was founded in 1956 by Christian businessman Dick York. It began serving women in 1979 and currently contains three separate buildings: one with 218 beds for transient men and 85 beds for male Program Volunteers; one with 32 beds for mothers and children and one with 56 beds for women.

Program Volunteer Susan Perkins

Amanda

Teresa

Christy

If the beds fill up, mattresses are laid under tables or in the hallway so it's never too full. Especially for the women, the opportunity for safe shelter is a blessing.

Running the Mission costs $1.4 million per year, with money raised solely through private donations and funds earned through the collection of recycled newspapers dropped off in Eugene Mission boxes around town. The Mission also relies on food and clothing donations from individuals and organizations. Many grocery stores drop off their excess; many gardeners do too, come summer. Three meals per day are served. Clothes are handed out.

When the new woman arrives, the others are waiting in the common room for dinner. They sit at tables reading books, flipping through magazines, knitting, working on puzzles, talking. Some doze in their chairs. Some stare straight ahead.

Someone walks through the room trailing a scent of perfume behind her and suddenly an overwhelming cacophony of hacking begins. Many Mission women suffer from asthma, allergies and serious respiratory illness. Over the din, Assistant Manager Susan King shouts, "We call it the Mission croup."

Flu's gone around twice this month. Some of the coughing's due to that; some to heavy smoking. King goes off to find the culprit who's broken the no-perfume rule — she must be someone new.

No one at the Mission asks anyone why they're here. That's private. And the reasons are as varied as the people themselves. Mental illness. Addictions. Often just hard times.

Twenty-year-old Amanda is here because her parents got mad she didn't have a job and kicked her out. She applied at the Bon Marché, they told her to keep checking back and she has, but no luck. "All my parents want me to do is get a job and get responsible, then I can move back in."

Teresa has been here three and a half weeks. She was living in Sweet Home when the roof of her rented house caved in. Mold had built up. Inside, she says "there were mushrooms growing up through the carpet." She didn't have money to find a new place and doesn't want to disturb her son in Yachats who's about to get married. "I've got family in Idaho but they're poor and don't have extra room."

The mold from her old place gave her a liver disease and she's concerned because the Mission has a mold problem, too, and she's feeling pretty sick.

Another woman who didn't want her name used is going to LCC and doing a work internship but isn't getting paid. She whips out her wallet and shows off photos of two small children, ages one and two. Her husband and kids are living with her mother-in-law, who asked her to leave because they don't get along. "As soon as my husband finds a job, we're going to get our own place."

Dinnertime. The women line up. Before they leave, King leads them in prayer. She begins reading First John 4 and ends on line 8: "He who is not loving knew not God, for God is love." She then adds, "We pray for each lady, for her needs, and to take the sickness out of this place."

 

The cafeteria's in the men's building. The men are out of sight, except for the ones cooking and serving food. Inside the bright yellow room, a sign reading "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want" dominates. Each woman grabs a tray, a fork and a spoon. No knives. The men make little eye contact with the women and are not allowed to talk to them, except to ask, "Meat loaf? Scalloped potatoes? Vegetables? Bearnaise?"

"What's that?" asks Amanda.

"Sauce to go over your vegetables."

"No thanks." She picks up a bottle of ketchup and pours it over her plate.

Each woman grabs a soda, a glass of milk or water and heads to a table, which has a loaf of bread, butter and jam. The mothers and children are already there. The talk is light, easy banter. Some women don't talk at all.

No one is allowed to get up. No seconds. "We have to keep it from being chaos," says King.

After dinner the women go back to their building. Many remain outside, smoking, visiting each other or their boyfriends, fiancées or husbands who are staying in the men's building. On the deck, they're talking politics. "It's ridiculous how homelessness is treated in Eugene," says one woman. "It's not a crime. We just need help."

"We need job training," says another.

"Traveler's right," says another. "They can find money for a library. Why not us?"

Another named Christy, agrees. "I had an apartment and a job in Springfield. Then I lost my job. That's why I'm here. Nothing more."

She stands up and gestures to make her point. "It's not us versus them," she explains. "It's we, the people."

Inside, some women sign up for their required daily shower. There's some time to kill before mandatory chapel services at
7 pm.

The chapel's downstairs in what used to be an apartment. Wooden chairs line up row upon row facing the kitchen. The men get ordained ministers, the women get laypeople, students, other volunteers from various churches. "Tonight's speaker had to cancel, so there's a video," King announces. "It's Joyce Meyer, Miserable Sinners and Miserable Saints.

"Oh, that's a good one," says one woman.

"Yeah, she's great," says another.

The video shows Meyer, who looks more like a modern career woman than evangelical preacher, in an attractive purple suit talking to a packed convention hall in New Orleans. Saints and sinners are both miserable, she asserts, because they don't understand grace. Her presentation is lively, entertaining, and she only reads from the bible directly a couple of times.

When Meyer asks, "Can someone give Jesus a big hand for a minute?" a smattering of women sitting in the chapel clap. During the video the coughing and hacking again intensifies. The mold is even worse in the basement.

(Assistant Director Lynn Antis says the mold problem should be fixed by the addition of two new exhaust fans in the upstairs bathroom, but the electrician is a month behind schedule and hasn't gotten there yet.)

Some complain about mandatory chapel, but King says, "The mission was started by a Christian man. We share the Gospel because we believe it. But we're not forcing anyone to receive it."

During the video, some women nod off in their chairs, others pay attention, some lean their heads against the wall. Many are tired, others are sick, most are both.

When the video's over, King says "thank you" and the women get up and go upstairs. It's time for bed registry and a snack. Tonight it's day old chocolate-covered doughnuts from a grocery store.

While the women snack, watch TV and visit, a woman approaches the volunteer staffing the desk. "There's a guy outside sitting on the curb. He's trying to sell drugs. He's drunk and he's got needles."

The volunteer calls over to the men's building, relays the report and hangs up.

"They'll take care of it," she tells the woman. The woman wanders away, muttering, "That's pretty scary."

Each woman is assigned a bed and is only allowed to take a see-through plastic bag upstairs (to prevent carrying cigarettes, knives or drugs to bed). In the bathroom, each woman is handed a towel, a small condiment cup of conditioning shampoo and a clean Mission nightgown to put on.

Some have chores to do. The first three nights at the Mission are free, then guests either pay a $2 bed fee or work. The Mission calls it "work therapy," a way to get back into a routine, up at a certain time with something to do. A supervisor to report to, a shared goal accomplished by working with others. "We find something to do for anyone who wants to work," says Antis.

Amanda doesn't have money so she works. She's done "just about every chore there is to do," and tonight it's changing the sheets. New arrivals get clean sheets and everyone's are changed once a week.

"I'm hoping I get a bottom bunk tonight," she says, pointing to one. "I want that one because it's sturdy."

Three rooms contain bunk beds lined up dormitory style. They're all covered with bright new handmade quilts donated by local church women's groups. "I worry when they die," says King, running her fingers along a bright patchwork bedcovering. "Who's going to teach the younger ladies how to do it?"

Lights out is promptly at 10. Wake up is 6 am sharp. At 7 am, a light breakfast is served in the kitchen.

Then they're on their own.

The men have outside job opportunities, such as landscaping, cleaning up truck spills or unloading trucks, but the women don't get work or job training. Bus tokens are only given for medical appointments, so transportation is an issue. But Mission staff will help guests fill out job applications and will refer them to outside sources for food stamps, welfare and Section 8 housing.

Mostly, women are encouraged to find their own way, but if they've been there for close to a year, the maximum time allowed, King says the staff will help them locate other sources of help.

Staff will also provide Christian counseling. "We ask people where they're at in their relationship with Christ," says Antis. Mission staff believe that turning one's life over to Christ, engaging in work therapy and, since many at the Mission have drug and alcohol problems, living in an environment free of those substances will help people get on their feet.

"I wish I had the budget to be able to more directly deal with the drug problems," says Antis. "But no agency is able to deal with it. I was very disappointed when Passages (a drug treatment center) closed down."

And with more budget cuts looming for public agencies in the coming months, Antis is worried.

"I don't know that any of us know exactly where the numbers are going to land," he says. "But we do know that it's going to affect the homeless community in a bad way and it will affect the Mission, of course."

 

A ROOM AT THE INN
Keeping familes warm and dry, safe and sound.
By Bobbie Willis

It's difficult to reconcile the tiny-ness of the child with the volume of spaghetti dinner she has thrown up all along the hallway of the church youth center that is her home for the night. The youth center is part of the Interfaith Shelter developed in partnership with First Place Family Center and St. Vincent de Paul to provide overnight shelter and meals for homeless families with young children.

The child, Mandy (name has been changed), is four years old with big, dark eyes, no front teeth, a clear, small voice declaring, "It was my birthday the other day," and, "I'm going into kindergarten," and "Oh, my tummy kinda hurts… ." She tries to find her mother, tries to find the bathroom, but the spaghetti supper and the stomach flu she's been fighting two weeks now win out.

Mom is trying to put Mandy's baby sister to sleep. When she hears the commotion, she rushes with baby in arms to find watery-pink puddles of vomit in the hallway. Mandy's clothes are soiled, there's nowhere to bathe her, and the baby begins to fuss. There are eight or nine families at the shelter tonight with kids hedging toward then backing away from the puke.

In a sudden flurry of excitement, people move in to help — Mandy's dad finds a mop and bucket; someone roots out a jug of disinfectant; someone else finds clean towels and runs warm water in the bathroom sink. Two or three people clean up what they can gingerly with paper towels.

In twenty minutes, Mandy is as clean as the towels and sink will allow, and she is warm in pink pajamas; the hallway smells pine-y fresh; Mandy's mom and dad are left with a pile of wet, puke-y clothes and towels, not to mention childen who still need to be tucked in for the night.

The families sleep in two large Sunday school classrooms that have been converted into very basic living quarters: on the floor lay vinyl-covered matresses dressed with clean sheets and industrial wool blankets; fabric-covered screens try for some semblance of privacy between each family's set of matresses — screened-off areas are considered rooms.

One boy, maybe five or so, has befriended another boy a little older. Wanting to bunk with his friend, the littler boy bleats, "Mama, can I spend the night at his house?"

"No, no," his mother shushes. "You have to sleep in your own room," which is almost painfully ironic, such talk of houses and rooms. But with the buzz of all these families living under one temporary roof, nobody has the time or energy to notice things like irony.

 

Interfaith Shelter program is distinguished — in the model of First Place — by its commitment to families: parent or parents with children less than 18 years of age. The program provides homeless families with 30 days of overnight shelter and, ideally, the time to establish a more stable, independent living situation.

It started winter of 1990, when a small group of faith centers came together, deciding something had to be done about the situation of homeless families in Eugene. The group has since grown to encompass about 50 community faith centers. Volunteer power now allows the shelter to be housed in a different facility nearly every week of the year, putting no unfair burden on any one organization. Those faith centers who have the space open their doors to set up the shelter. Those who don't have the space contribute instead by coordinating volunteers who cook hot dinners and breakfasts for the families and others who stay overnight in case of emergency.

 

Every Monday, there's a "family meeting" at First Place, a debriefing where Assistant Director Tim Rockwell goes over the house rules for the new night facility. Night Shelter Coordinator John Kreklow has spent the day, as he does every Monday, moving the shelter from the last church to the new one. He stays with the families until 10 pm, when the overnight volunteers go on duty.

The families caravan to the shelter around 5 pm — some in their own cars, others in the First Place van. They have supper at 6 pm, then family activities before the children's bedtime. The grownups stay up later, stepping outside often for cigarettes and conversation.

Everyone is in bed by 11 pm. The flu and cold season is magnified in such close quarters, and the night-quiet is punctuated by a houseful of hacking coughs, soggy sniffles and stomach-bug trips to the bathroom.

 

If home life is something woven, it takes just a snag for everything to come unraveled. These families remember the snags: For a few of them, it was addiction-related. For others, it was insurmountable medical costs. For still others, it was marital problems. Interfaith Shelter gives them time to regroup, time to figure out how to darn things back together. Two young mothers talk about possible jobs that would provide income and time to look after the children. One man suggests the best dollar stores and pawn shops to make their little bits of cash go as far as possible.

They add personal touches where they can: A woman decorates the cloth screen of her family's room with batiks and postcards. They take pride in possession where they can: One man has a blue electric guitar and amp — on the lowest volume, he rocks out a favorite Van Halen song after the children have gone to bed.

Still, the homesickness is palatable. One mother cries every day remembering her house. There's a set of twin brothers, maybe nine or so. In quiet moments something passes across their faces, something that says, "I want to go home." But everyone here tucks away the homesickness, accepts the community's help and tries to figure out the next step. They settle in for the night on floors of churches and Sunday school classrooms — warm and dry, safe and sound.

 

 

A HAND & A BLANKET
CAHOOTS brings the homeless in off the streets.
By Michele Taylor

Pedestrians rush past a homeless woman lying face down in a doorway. Winter winds drive wet leaves into her matted hair. Is she dead? Is she asleep? Maybe she's just drunk? The Crisis Assistants Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, team cautiously approaches to find out.

CAHOOTS operates under the direction of the White Bird Clinic, a nonprofit clinic that was established in the '70s to address the medical and psychosocial needs of Eugene residents caught up in the counter-culture revolution, says Clinic Director David Zeiss. For more than 30 years, White Bird has offered 24-hour crisis care to anyone who has walked in the door.

"I sleep wherever I can find a spot, " says David Payton.

In 1989, the clinic and the Eugene Police Department began a partnership to assist people who couldn't get to White Bird or other treatment facilities on their own, says Zeiss. EPD funded the CAHOOTS van to let medics and social workers transport people to shelters instead of having the police dump them in jail. Skilled social workers would do the job with more compassion than some officers, says Lt. Rick Siel. The partnership has conserved police resources by freeing up officers to respond to calls they are trained to deal with, he adds.

Pairs of CAHOOTS staff hit Eugene's streets from 1 pm to 1 am every day of the week, responding to 450 calls per month. CAHOOTS handles any nonviolent crisis situation, but more than half of their calls concern homeless people, like the woman in the doorway.

The first step in helping her is to treat her with dignity, says Heidi Schultz, a social worker and medic who staffs the van. There's no shouting across long distances to call attention to her. Schultz and her CAHOOTS partner will calmly rouse the client and ask if she needs help. When she comes to, the team moves closer and squats down to her level. They help her sit up. The medic asks if she's injured, while the social worker evaluates her emotional state.

If the woman requires medical attention, the CAHOOTS team will take her to Sacred Heart Hospital. If she's posing no threat to herself or anyone else, she can stay put or get a ride to the Eugene Mission. If drugs or alcohol are the problem, the woman has the option to go to the Buckley House detoxification center. If the woman is having a mental health breakdown, she could go to the Royal Avenue Program, a temporary shelter for the mentally disabled, for help.

Homeless persons typically have drug and alcohol problems and suffer from mental disabilities at the same time, says Schultz. The CAHOOTS team helps them decide what kind of treatment they need at that moment, and to bring them to the appropriate facility. "We provide a service to people when change isn't an option," says Schultz.

CAHOOTS staff Heidi Schultz & Jerry Lippold.

"We treat people no on else loves," says Bob Richards, the director of Buckley House. Staff there will secure the woman's belongings, issue her a mat, a pillow and a blanket, and let her sleep. When she wakes up, there's soup and juice available. The CAHOOTS staff typically drops off 10 clients per day, says Richards. People need a clean, safe place to sober up, where they won't be attacked or ripped off.

The Royal Avenue Program runs a similar service for homeless people in the midst of mental health crises. The CAHOOTS van typically brings in 18 persons per month to Royal Avenue. "We offer a 24/7 service: meals, short-term housing, case management and general counseling," says Program Manager Dean Schlecht. People stay anywhere between four and 30 days, and staff members will seek permanent housing for the homeless. But every month, five to 10 people move to the Mission or camp on the streets, says Schlecht.

"We have several 'frequent fliers,'" says Schultz. "Some of them I adore. They're charismatic and endearing. I look forward to seeing them." She says it's wrong to think that all homeless people are dangerous. She says she feels safe around them and has no need to carry a weapon. "The most valuable thing we can do for them is respect them," she says.

And what about the woman in the doorway? If she's outside the Eugene city limits, she's on her own because the CAHOOTS van does not serve any other towns. If she's in Eugene, the CAHOOTS staff will give her health and harm-reduction choices. "But we're only as helpful as the other services that we work with," says Schultz.

Some people fall between the cracks and have nowhere to go. If the woman has a son over 12 years old, she can't stay at the Mission because the boy is too old to be in the female residences, but too young to stay with the men. If she's physically disabled, she can't stay at the Mission at all, since there is no access there. "Sometimes we just give these people a blanket and walk away," says Schultz.

 

 

SLEEPLESS IN EUGENE
Homeless fight for right to rest.
By Alan Pittman

If you're homeless in Eugene, it's illegal to sleep, or even go to the bathroom.   
An estimated 3,000 homeless people in the local area (about a third children) have to sleep and go to the bathroom. Local shelters have room for only about 1,200 people.

The problem is only getting worse. With the economic downturn and cuts in state social services programs, "We're going to be looking at a tripling of the homeless people in Eugene," says Melissa Mona of the Eugene Homeless Initiative.

"It's a huge problem, and it's getting worse," says Richie Weinman, housing manager for the city of Eugene.

The recession left Oregon with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, thousands have lost jobs and may lose their homes. Unemployment insurance for many of those people expires next month. At the same time, the state budget crisis is slashing social programs. Already the state has cut $150,000 in emergency rent payment assistance for the area. Deeper cuts, including the closure of shelters for the mentally ill, are expected next year.

While Mona and Weinman agree there's a worsening problem, they don't agree on what should be done. The Homeless Initiative is pushing for the city to temporarily allow homeless people to sleep outside while supporting the creation of an autonomous "Dignity Village" of homeless campers based on a Portland model. They also want the city to explore creating a new shelter for single adults. To pressure the city, the group staged a protest outside the county courthouse this fall, including a 20-day tree sit.

Weinman says the Homeless Initiative's ideas are politically and practically difficult. City officials have reacted to the protest with hostility. City Councilor Pat Farr e-mailed homeless advocates in September, "I bristle at the suggestion that, as a Eugene City Councilor, I have any way attacked the homeless," Farr wrote, citing past council efforts to help the homeless. "Unfortunately, some people who possess the ability to take care of themselves choose not to, and that depletes the resources that should be devoted to the people who can't."

Mayor Jim Torrey added to the e-mail discussion, "I agree completely with your [Farr's] comments." Torrey said he "absolutely opposed" council discussion of the city doing more for the homeless. He said homeless advocates should go to the state and the county for money since Eugene was already "the local government leader in efforts to assist the homeless."

The homeless protest ended after police fenced off a large portion of the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in front of the courthouse. Homeless activists complained that police were harassing protesters with petty tickets and confiscating their property.

Mona was cited for delivering food to the fenced-off tree sitter whom she says the city was trying to starve out. Later, she says, the City Council retaliated by taking the unusual step of not reappointing her to the city Human Rights Commission.

While Portland has allowed a Dignity Village and is building homeless shelters, Weinman says the city of Eugene has allowed homeless car camping in about 60 church and city spaces and has focused on constructing affordable housing. "We are doing something," he says.

But homeless advocates question whether the city is doing enough. "When a homeless person is cited/fined $155 for the 'crime' of sleeping/existing in public, and/or has all their meager worldly possessions confiscated by city park staff or police, it has devastating consequences on that person's ongoing struggle to improve their life situation," homeless advocate John Hubbird e-mailed the City Council.

Hubbird praised the city's "hard" work on the homeless issue in the past but wrote, "the problem is, we're bailing the Titanic with teaspoons."

Weinman says the city can't afford to spend more money on the homeless. But the city recently tapped a facility reserve fund to build a new $4 million police crime lab. This year the city will squirrel away another $3 million toward plans to build a new police headquarters.

Weinman says allowing people to sleep in parks would create problems of human excrement and allowing a Dignity Village could violate zoning rules and pose problems with unsafe structures. So where should local homeless humans sleep and shit? Weinman says, "We don't have a good answer."

From what she's heard from police, Mona says the city's unwritten homeless policy appears to be that "if you harass people enough, they'll go somewhere else."

But city studies show the local homeless problem is home-grown. About 70 percent of the homeless have roots in Lane County.

Mona says the city's biggest problem is a lack of willpower. "When a new business comes to town, we shift zoning around as fast as you can blink and give them tax credits," Mona says. "We want to see the city walk its talk in terms of human rights."

 

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