Home, finally

Benny Westcott

An idea that has been years in the making for many community stakeholders finally came to fruition last Saturday, Jan. 14, when the Family Assistance and Resource Center’s (FAC) Managed Outreach and Community Resource Facility, primarily designed to serve Sweet Home’s homeless population, opened on a parcel of land east of Bi-Mart.

There was an intake of five individuals the first day. By the second day, 13 huts were full. By the third day, all 22 completed huts were occupied. Eight more huts await finishing touches on the site.

FAC Executive Director Shirley Byrd talked about what it was like to finally open the facility.

“It feels really good,” she said. “Just handing them a key to their own place and watching their face light up is amazing. That autonomy that they just don’t get otherwise in other shelters is here.”

Demand is already high for those keys that Byrd mentioned. There’s an eight-page waiting list to get a spot at the facility, with 48 people on it.

The facility provides shelter, some food, and other social services to help clients gain social skills and training. FAC works closely with Western University of Health Sciences, which runs nutrition programs at the site. Medical care is provided at the facility as well.

FAC Program Manager Brock Byers said the facility is the first-ever “low barrier” (meaning low barrier to entry) shelter in Linn County, and the only shelter in Linn and Benton counties that has an exam room with doctor oversight.

Dr. Sam Milstein, of Sweet Home’s Ridgeway Health, will be take appointments every week in the exam room in the facility’s resource center – a building that formerly was the old City Hall annex, which also includes a meal area, a laundry room, and office space.

“What we’re trying to do is get folks into a position where we can normalize actions and activities so they can be contributors to our community,” Byers said.

“It’s not just a place for people to lay their heads. It’s also a place where we provide a behavioral health specialist, a substance use disorder specialist, peer counselors, and community health workers to work through the trauma that our folks face.”

Byers said that “Really, the root cause of homelessness is trauma.”

One of those peer counselors, Jenna Bean, described the role as “people in recovery with lived experience, working with people who are looking to get into recovery. The idea is basically peers walking alongside peers, helping them through the journey. If we had somebody here who said they were ready to go to detox and treatment, I would walk them through that process. Or, day to day, if somebody was having a hard time, I could just talk with them and do a little bit of peer counseling.

“I’m basically an assistant who’s been there,” she continued. “I think it helps a lot to see an example of where it’s possible to go.”

Clinical Supervisor for Linn County Alcohol and Drug Kevin Ort will also be working at the facility.

“Basically, I’m just building relationships with the people here, and then getting some trust and talking with them about their alcohol and drug issues if they wish,” he said. “And through that process I’ve developed some relationships and gotten some people in treatment.”

FAC works with Linn-Benton Food Share and Sweet Home Emergency Ministries’ Manna Meals Program to provide food for clients. Byers said clients can request food anytime if they’re hungry.

FAC has a partnership with Bombas for socks, giving out 3,000 to 5,000 pairs every year, and Hanes for shirts.

Sweet Home Sanitation has donated recycle bins for every hut, which FAC uses as storage bins for individuals.

“When they come into the facility, they can only bring in what they can pack into a bin, and that’s it,” Byers said. “If you looked at the old camp (by the old City Hall), they had all kinds of stuff, whereas here we do manage how much material and things they can have.”

Every client has their own mailbox, and there is a charging port in every box so clients can charge their cell phone without risk of it being stolen.

“We’re working on a partnership with Hilltop Laundry to provide community laundry,” Byers said. “So not only is it laundry for our clients, but we feel like we want to have laundry for the whole community. Anybody that needs that extra little help.”

FAC is indebted to a number of other organizations and entities as well for helping to make the vision of the facility a reality.

Byers said the process started with former City Manager Ray Towry and former Police Chief Jeff Lynn, the Sweet Home City Council and specifically the Sweet Home Community Health Committee, “working with us on figuring out what the issues we are facing in Sweet Home are, and what we need to do to solve that.”

“Then it was really the community of Sweet Home and some of our key donors,” he said, mentioning Sweet Home High School students in instructor Will Coltrin’s construction class who built huts, and Weyerhaeuser, which stepped up to provide materials.

Grants were also an important component. Byers additionally mentioned 40 or so partners FAC has that want to participate “in helping in the healing of folks and provide services for the community.”

Byers said the process of the city clearing the former homeless camp behind the old City Hall last week after the FAC facility opened went “pretty smoothly.”

As of Friday, he said, “no real problems” have occurred yet at the new facility.

“We did have a medical situation where we had an individual that really felt they wanted to go be checked out,” he said. “It ended up being nothing, but it was a good exercise in working closely with our EMTs and medical groups.”

Despite the smooth sailing so far, he said, “There’s a little bit of a learning curve for some of our folks, because we do have rules and such.”

Among those are no drug or alcohol use on site. The facility has numerous cameras, and FAC employs a security guard.

Byers said that so far the clients are “so appreciative” of the facility. “It’s like learning to manage your own house,” he said. “You can lock your own door and make sure your stuff’s safe. You don’t have to worry about it. We haven’t had too many issues with any arguments or anything. Everybody’s recognizing how special this is, and they’re wanting to participate and help and just do their thing.”

Mike Lufkin was living out of his car in Sweet Home before the facility opened. Now he lives in one of the huts.

“So far it’s been pretty mellow,” he said last week of the facility.

“For the most part, everybody seems to get it. It seems to be working.”

He added that “some people want nothing to do with something like this, but I’m glad there are some people that do want to take advantage of it. It gives people some programs to help get them on their feet, so they can get some housing and some skills. It’s going to take the whole community to get it rolling.”

Byers noted that Lufkin has already put in hundreds of hours of work on the facility himself, keeping busy with activities like painting huts.

Another client, Heather Thompson, has been in Sweet Home since 2013 and homeless in the city since 2018.

After moving into her new hut, she said, “I’m just thankful. I can’t even explain. I’m so thankful. Because if I didn’t have this, where would I go? It’s my very own now, so I don’t have to worry about it. It’s a life-changing moment.”

Byers said that “Heather is one of our star clients. She totally cleaned the community room, wiped down all the chairs and tables, and swept and mopped the floor.”

Austin Brown, 27, moved into Hut No. 4. He was living in Kentucky before his niece and nephew convinced him to come out to Oregon.

“They introduced me to somebody I thought I’d be good with, but it turns out she used me for $2,000 and threw me out on the street, and I’ve been on the street since and I’ve been just struggling to survive,” he said.

Around March of last year he arrived in Sweet Home. Before he came to Sweet Home, he said, he got thrown out on the street in Corvallis and was living by a creek underneath a tarp. His nephew had a friend who helped him out with money to get to Sweet Home.

In Sweet Home, Brown stayed in a tent behind his friend’s house, outside the Nazarene Church, at another friend’s house, and in the former homeless camp near the old City Hall.

“I tried to stay at the Nazarene Church just to stay out of trouble, because, I ain’t gonna lie, I have a lot of anger issues,” Brown said.

“Certain things kind of trigger my PTSD and make me angry, so I try to stay away from people where I can stay out of trouble and stay calm.”

Brown said he had a job at McDonald’s but was fired for breaking a card reader. He claimed that he didn’t break the reader and that it just froze on its own when he inserted cards.

“Ever since then I’ve been struggling to get a job,” he said.

He said he’s also struggling to “get his child back,” whom he hasn’t seen in three years.

“I’m trying to get back on my feet where I can get my daughter and try to be a good father,” Brown said.

Of the new facility, he asserted that “it’s better than the streets. We don’t have to worry about our stuff being stolen and our tents flooding. It will still be cold, but that’s nothing.”

Overall, Byers said, clients that “people were most concerned about are coming through like champions. They want to do stuff.”

He noted that keeping busy can serve as a welcome distraction, adding that “distraction helps people cope and deal with trauma.”

Byrd said the process of the clients adapting to their new surroundings has gone well.

“It was a very smooth transition because of our outreach services, and they were all very familiar with us,” she said. “So even when they were hesitant about moving here, once they got here, they settled right down. And we haven’t had problems. It’s been pretty nice.”

She added that “I think that a little bit of a sense of security and safety goes a long way. Even the ones that were scared to stay here the first night they were here, we were able to talk them down a little bit. We bought some walkie talkies. Two clients that are friends could each have one in their hut, so if they get scared at night or hear a disturbance they can contact each other, or they can come in here and contact the security guard.”

The huts are intended to be temporary housing, with the ultimate goal of moving clients from temporary to permanent housing, with a step in between of “transitional housing” if necessary.

“This is really emergency housing, and it gets people out of the business doorways and off the streets,” Byers said. But he noted that FAC is working with Northern Investments to acquire transitional, respite care, and more emergency housing.

He said that a lot of transitional housing comes with income requirements and doesn’t prioritize a lot of the types of clients at the FAC facility that are, in fact, ready for transitional housing.

“We have some clients that have difficulties with first and last month’s rent, and clients that have difficulties with different payment scales,” Byers explained. “If you look at rents in this area, it’s very tough.”

He said that if FAC acquired housing, the organization could “get them into a place that’s a little better than an unheated hut, and then really work to get them permanent housing.”

The housing could also be used for other situations.

“When Samaritan releases patients and they need a place to heal and they are unhoused, it allows us the ability to get them immediately into a safe house that has the necessary equipment for healing; emergency beds and things like that,” Byers said.

He added that FAC often gets requests to help domestic violence victims. And recently, a Sweet Home man had a fire at his house, but it took two weeks for his benefits to kick in and his things to be replaced.

“We could have had the emergency housing available for him to immediately go into housing,” Byers said.

For now, FAC leaders are taking it one day at a time in this new endeavor. And after opening, Byrd looked back on all that it took to reach the launch date.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work on Brock’s part to pull it all together as the project manager. And for me, it was just the idea of it all, and the human side of it.

“Together, I think Brock and I made a pretty good team of plowing through the red tape and getting to where we needed to be to get it done.”

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