Looming threat of closure hangs over shelter

SEASIDE — You trundle in from the cold, water-logged and worn out.

Your stomach smarts, turning in on itself. You haven’t eaten all day.

You were on your feet since dawn, pounding the pavement between appointments with potential landlords, the Department of Human Services and the food bank, your weather-beaten shoes perilously close to disintegrating right there on the sidewalk.

Your backpack bulges with papers – with everything, really – functioning as your desk, your closet, your pantry. Your life is on your back.

You never thought you’d be here: You’d always worked, kept your head down, your nose clean and kept after it.

But living paycheck to paycheck caught up with you, and you got behind on rent, and the part-time jobs weren’t cutting it. You got kicked out with nowhere to go and no family who could help.

You hate the word, hate its texture, the way it feels in your mouth. But there’s no escaping it.

You’re homeless.

You walk through the doors of a nondescript yellow building on the south edge of Seaside hoping for some warmth, some kindness, some food, some shelter.

You sit down at a long table across from Lori Pettit, who sets down a clipboard with a form that reads “Guest Registration.”

She looks you in the eyes, flashes you a kind smile and asks, “Last name?”

Closure looms

Although it has provided shelter for literally thousands of homeless people coming through its doors for nearly two years, that nondescript yellow building, operated by Helping Hands, is heading for closure Nov. 1, unless $45,000 can be raised to keep it open through this year.

A community meeting to discuss the potential closure will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Bob Chisholm Community Center.

Although he has considered, but never acted on closing the shelter before, Alan Evans, director of Helping Hands, is serious about it this time. The cost to operate it is simply draining too much money away from Helping Hands’ core program designed to help clients re-enter society and become self-supporting again.

“The shock of this thing needs to become a reality,” Evans said.

Changing world

“The face of homelessness has changed,” said Michael Easter, the facilities director for Helping Hands.

“What I’ve been seeing in the past couple years is people who still have their cars, still have their laptop,” Easter said. They were “living payday to payday.”

It’s a common refrain, echoed across the country: Homelessness has extended its reach into the working and middle class.

“Our program is changing because we used to concentrate on alcohol and addiction,” Evans added. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Emergency shelter clients like Jerry Howe, an Astoria native and disabled veteran who recently found himself homeless, exemplify this “changed face of homelessness.”

“I’ve known Alan and Michael since they started this thing,” Howe said of Helping Hands, which was originally named Thugs Off Drugs when it started 11 years ago. “I helped and donated where I could. And then I got stuck … and I needed help.”

Howe was tending the grill at Helping Hands recently, barbecuing chicken for that evening’s meal.

The barbecue was a celebration of sorts for Howe, who had just received a Social Security disability check he had been waiting for.

“Now I’m looking forward to getting my own place,” he said. “I’m just kind of playing it all by ear.”

Since May 2012, the emergency shelter has housed between 10 and 25 people a night, and there are few vacancies – especially as the weather turns colder and wetter.

Evans estimates that Helping Hands houses around 600 single-night stays a month, twice as many as this time last year.

Homelessness is an especially pressing problem across Oregon, Evans said, citing state-by-state statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Oregon is rated No. 1 in homelessness,” Evans said, “and we’re rated number rated 47 in services for the homeless.

“It’s such a twisted system that we face,” Evans said.

Evans hopes that the Seaside community and all of Clatsop County can band together to make the system more straightforward.

“This is not a complex thing,” he said. “A community needs to offer help to the needy of the community.”

Evans figures that the emergency shelter costs around $3,500 a month, which is roughly $5 per individual night stay – and, he feels, a small price to pay as a community.

“We’re not asking for a ton of money, we’re asking for your voice,” Evans said.

Community need

Helping Hands tracks its emergency shelter clients, making sure to note who referred the guest each evening. Most clients are referred by churches, hospitals, mental health institutions, law enforcement and local agencies like Clatsop Community Action.

Evans hopes this data will allow him to address representatives from these organizations, city councilors, county officials and community members and say, “This appears to not be just a Helping Hands problem. … Now we can show you how important it is.”

Since Astoria’s Pioneer House closed and began operating as a safe house for the Woman’s Resource Center, Helping Hands has functioned as the emergency safety net for all of Clatsop County, offering beds every night for men, women and children. Because Helping Hands runs background checks on all shelter guests, people convicted of previous sex offenses are not allowed at the shelter.

If the county’s only emergency shelter closes, someone will have to pick up the slack, and often that means hospital stays, foster care and an added load on the state Department of Human Services and the court system – all at a cost to the taxpayer.

Without an emergency shelter, the three square meals and shelter that jail can provide starts to look appealing, Evans said. It’s an unfortunate reality.

“Getting arrested should not become getting rescued,” he said.

The dearth of money in the emergency shelter’s coffers has affected the operation of Helping Hands’ re-entry program, its flagship drug and alcohol treatment program.

“Because there’s no sustainability in the emergency shelter, it actually makes our whole program unsustainable,” Evans said.

Evans hopes to raise at least $45,000 by the end of October. That’s $10,000 to carry on through December and $35 for 2014.

By Jan. 1, Evans wants to meet with community leaders and agencies to craft a plan that will provide stable funding for the shelter.

People in need, like Karen Gillis and her son Phoenix, 16, would certainly appreciate the effort.

“This is a great shelter,” Karen Gillis said. “This is a really good place.”

Karen and Phoenix Gillis had been at Helping Hands for five days in September, and Karen had spent that time walking across Seaside, all her documents on her back, looking for an apartment for her and her son. Her Section 8 low-income assistance voucher was set to expire.

Gillis was ready for a place where she could set down her bulging backpack and get off the street for a while. It was wearing her down.

“Being homeless is like being cut into a million pieces,” she said.

The Seaside Signal, 10.10.13. Link: http://goo.gl/ET3bLq

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