News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

My name is not homeless

About 10 years ago I was on an extended stay at a Eugene hotel. My mornings began with a walk to Starbucks. Along the way I passed a woman in her 60s bedding in a small alcove; we made eye contact and warmly greeted each other. On my second morning we introduced ourselves and shared conversation. On morning three we were on a first name basis, on my fourth morning I was driving back to Sisters when I decided to turn around and say goodbye. Towards the end of our farewell I handed her money, she pushed back and insisted she wouldn’t accept. I confirmed to her that the money was a gift of friendship. After careful consideration she honored my wishes. We hugged.

This woman forever changed my trajectory. Her dignity in the face of need was inspiring. Having a safe, warm place to call home would be a big step towards a better life. Thus, as we developed our McKenzie Meadow Village land, we agreed to deliver one affordable home for each 10 built. The high point of my development career was working with Hayden Homes team at First Story meeting potential recipients. As a member of the interview team, I had the honor of calling a family struggling with the uncertainty of the rental market and informing them that Hayden Homes would soon be building them a permanent residence. Today they are homeowners.

When we use the word homeless to label a person it shows our lack of awareness. We fail to understand the harsh realities and diverse challenges that they navigate each day. Hidden Homelessness includes those that are “couch-surfing” with friends and family. If their welcome wears out they will immediately be homeless. Transitional Homelessness is the most common, made up of individuals who have lost employment without a “safety net” of family; they are generally younger and are in need of temporary shelter. Episodic Homelessness is a person experiencing three periods of homelessness in a year. Without community intervention and support their problems will become more severe. Chronic Homelessness is someone who has been continuously homeless for a year or more. Nearly one quarter of our homeless population suffer from chronic homelessness, they tend to be older, may have complex health issues, addiction, mental illness, or other disabilities.

Imagine for a minute what it’s like to be chronically homeless. You experience contempt, you feel the fear and anger of a community, and you know that many just want you to go away, another town, another state. You are rarely given eye contact, you’re labeled a nuisance, and, worse, you are ignored. Every day you grapple with the legacy of your childhood and the mistakes you have made. Your home is a tent; you burn wood to keep you and your faithful dog warm. To survive freezing you climb inside three nested sleeping bags. Safety and basic hygiene are a constant struggle.

Oregon has the highest population of unsheltered youth in our nation. These children experience social isolation leading to low levels of self-esteem. They have a higher likelihood of domestic abuse; they struggle with sleep and suffer anxiety and mental health issues. Ultimately without intervention the majority of these kids will turn to alcohol and drugs. They will become another link in the chain of systemic poverty.

Thanks to the love and support of our parents, my wife Zoe and I became homeowners at an early age. The sanctity of home enhanced our ability to survive the early years of marriage and ultimately thrive. My “throw the rope back across the fence” is a commitment to accelerate the delivery of innovative housing solutions in Sisters. In addition, I will do my best to focus state and federal funding on long-term sustainable solutions that serve all communities of our great state. Equally important, I will offer a hand to any community group or organization that commits to train a skilled volunteer corps. As a community we need to offer a helping hand to those suffering chronic homelessness. The way we attend the dignity of others will determine the future of Sisters.


Reader Comments(1)

York writes:

Bill I applaud your sensitive and thoughtful article. As a similar minded individual I invite you to consider meeting to share and discuss ways that we could collaborate on the solutions for those individuals that are not chronically houseless. Sisters needs a place to navigate solutions and steer individuals though case management towards stabilized solutions. Feel free to contact me at SCWS. Lou Blanchard

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