The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Local leaders focus on how to assist homeless in need


May 30, 2018

Longtime Planning Commission Chairman Henry Wolthuis is leading a new committee with the goal of helping the homeless off the streets and possibly into work.

That’s a long-term objective.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in this,” said Wolthuis, a retired local dentist. “We’ve put together a committee this week. The goal is to provide some kind of public restrooms to include showers, primarily for the homeless.”

Wolthuis met with the city’s ad hoc healthcare committee May 23 to discuss his ideas. He has met and discussed the committee and its goals with others in the community.

“As preliminary as it is, Bill Matthews from the chamber (president), would like to see it combined with a resource center to help these people reach the proper resources,” Wolthuis said.

During the healthcare committee meeting, Matthews noted, while not speaking on behalf of the chamber, that Sweet Home has no community facility to direct the homeless to the many resources available to help them.

The chamber has tried to assemble a library of services to assist them, Matthews said, estimating that some 50 people are calling cars out in the forest home.

“It could seriously improve their quality of life, if they only had information,” Matthews said.

The ultimate goal is to get a roof over the heads of the homeless – to get them a permanent address and where possible employment, Wolthuis said. “This would be a step in favor of that goal.”

The committee includes Wolthuis, Dick Knowles, Kate Hall of the Cascades West Council of Governments, Shanda Deardorff and Gye Deardorff.

“I would like to get one homeless person on this committee, at least one,” Wolthuis said.

Others have agreed to support and provide resources to the committee’s effort, Wolthuis said. They include retired Larry Horton, school board member Jim Gourley, Councilor Lisa Gourley, Matthews and City Manager Ray Towry.

“I consider them ‘quasi committee members,’” Wolthuis said.

For the restrooms, Wolthuis said, he’s got his eye on the American Legion building, 1127 Long St., which might require demolition and new construction. He has had initial conversations with the commander about it. Wolthuis said he wants to consider other locations as well.

“I envision some restrooms, kind of like Costco,” Wolthuis said. In a sketch, he places them in the back half of the building, with handicap-accessible showers in the back.

In front, “I would like to see it done nicely,” Wolthuis said.

It could have areas for clean linen and soiled linens, which could be washed at a laundry facility by volunteers. It also would have an area with information about resources, for public assistance, help with job searches, mental health and emergencies.

“We just have to research a lot of possibilities,” Wolthuis said.

Wolthuis said he would like to see the facility run by volunteers or the homeless who use it and maybe form an organization among themselves to take care of it.

During the healthcare committee meeting, Mayor Greg Mahler said the feedback he receives is that with the blankets, food and other help given to the homeless in Sweet Home, “the more we’ve given, the more the homeless come (from Albany and Eugene). Are we inviting too much?”

Wolthuis told The New Era the goal is not to “enable further homelessness.”

“If we enable anything, it’s going to be to turn in job applications.”

The Deardorffs were homeless, living in an RV they moved around until recently. Shanda Deardorff approached the healthcare committee earlier this year, looking to the city for ways to help the homeless. Showers were one of the key problems they faced while homeless, as a matter of dignity.

The new committee was scheduled to hold its first meeting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 29 at the Sweet Home Public Library. He anticipates the committee will meet once a week as it gets organized.

At the outset of his involvement, Wolthuis had a homeless man in his vehicle. The man apologized to Wolthuis because he had not been showered recently and he stank.

Wolthuis said he met the man when he took him some leftover food from a Rotary Club meeting. The man told Wolthuis he had lost his Social Security and veteran’s benefits after giving his food card away to a woman who took it and disappeared. The man had a notice explaining that his payments had been stopped, and he would need to contact Social Security to reinstate them.

“He was frail, had been evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent. Funds that were rightfully his were stopped. No money, no food, no shelter, no phone, no friends to turn to – no anything,” Wolthuis said. He was living off of blackberries.

“Our system really wasn’t working (for him), and in my opinion, was leaving him to die in the blackberries by the tracks.”

Wolthuis said he spent several days working with the man.

“We used my cell phone on speaker and made several attempts to reach Social Security in Washington, D.C., at the designated number,” Wolthuis said. “No one was able to help, and our efforts were futile and frustrating.”

They made an appointment in Albany where the representative was kind and helpful, but had to do a lot of research before finding out they had been discontinued because the man was “vulnerable and irresponsible.”

Wolthuis took him to Albany and then to Corvallis to sort out the man’s benefits, he said. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I smell so bad.’ And the truck smelled bad.”

It had probably been weeks since he had a shower, Wolthuis said.

Wolthuis said the homeless will sometimes take sponge baths in sinks at the United Methodist Church, 846 6th Ave., during Manna Meals, a free dinner provided to anyone in the community three days a week by different churches.

No public restrooms are available in Sweet Home, Wolthuis said. “Is it possible that ‘even the least of these,’ should have the opportunity and the dignity of being able to clean up and have a shower?

“Could it be done in a way that would not further enable or facilitate the lifestyle that they are forced or choose to live?”

At this point, public restrooms are just an idea, he said. “I think we need to push most of this (forward) with volunteerism.”

He knows people, churches and contractors in the community who would be willing to split it up, with little cost to the city, he said. “I think we’ve got enough groups and organizations that we could divvy up portions of this project and move ahead with it.”


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