Meet the face of the FAC

Benny Westcott

On April 5, Linn County gave roughly three acres of the former Willamette Industries mill property in Sweet Home to the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC).

The nonprofit plans to construct a “community outreach and resource center” for homeless people at the site, located east of Bi-Mart.

While this is the group’s first foray into establishing and running a shelter, it’s been working for the last three years to improve the lives of east Linn County’s homeless population.

Albany resident Shirley Byrd is the nonprofit’s founder, executive director and board member. She was inspired to start the FAC after an encounter with a homeless woman named Theresa at her own home, then in Lebanon, during the winter of 2018.

“She showed up at my house at 9:30 at night when it was snowing, and she was soaking wet and shivering,” Byrd said. “She asked me if she could come in and get dry for a couple minutes. I said ‘Why aren’t you at the shelter?’ And she said, ‘There is no shelter.’ So I spent a week researching where shelters were, because I had no idea that we had no shelter in east Linn County.”

According to Byrd, Lebanon’s winter shelter doesn’t open unless it’s 25 degrees or less for three consecutive days and nights.

“There was really nowhere for her to go to get out of the cold, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,'” she said.

Byrd then discovered a general dearth of services in east Linn County for the homeless. So, in early 2019, she established the FAC, which then connected with the Community Services Consortium and began its first outreach with Byrd, “veteran’s representative” Scott McKee and “harm reduction worker” Blue Valentine.

“We became a real team, and they motivated me,” she said.

Its efforts took off the following year with a little help from the Sweet Home Police Department.

“I proposed to the SHPD, since our team was limited and COVID was setting in, that they possibly could donate the ambulance that they weren’t using to FAC so that we could cover more area with our volunteers and try to go to people where they are, in camps, cars, campgrounds and parks,” Byrd said. “Anywhere people needed services, we went to them.

“Jeff Lynn really contributed to my wanting to progress to a mobile outreach,” Byrd said of the Sweet Home police chief. “I’m really grateful for him. He’s been so nice to us.”

And he wasn’t the only one.

“People from the community started becoming involved and being interested, and wanting to help,” Byrd said.

The FAC discovered that most of the people who needed services were in desperate need.

“We were able to give them referrals to appropriate services and supply them with some survival gear like blankets, socks, water and hand warmers,” she said.

After receiving the ambulance, the group was able to distribute larger items, like tents, sleeping bags and backpacks, acquired through grants, and carry more “partner information.”

“That’s really what we want people to do – seek out our partners and get services that they need,” Byrd said. “We let them know what services are out there and who provides them.”

The FAC will also transport people or make arrangements on their behalf.

“Whatever we need to do to make sure that they get hooked up,” she said.

FAC’s most requested items are hygiene supplies, particularly baby wipes, shampoo, conditioner, and toothbrushes, most of which are donated to the group. Food and water are the second and third most-requested.

“People are not accessing food and water like they could be from other providers,” Byrd said. “That makes me think there’s some kind of gap in the services in east Linn County. There’s got to be a barrier there. Sometimes people can’t carry all their stuff on the bus and go get a food box because they can only go on the bus with what they can carry. So you can’t take the bus to the food bank with all your stuff, and you can’t leave your stuff behind because somebody’s going to steal it or pick it up and throw it away. So it becomes a problem to access those resources.”

According to Byrd, no shower program exists in Lebanon. Sweet Home’s she said, “is not effective at this time.” She wasn’t sure why, but she said that might be due to its early-morning start.

The grant-funded and volunteer-based organization currently has about 30 people on its volunteer list, mostly from Lebanon. Byrd hopes that number increases with the work in Sweet Home.

Byrd’s own brush with homelessness gives the FAC founder a unique perspective. In 2013, she and her then-17-year-old son Chris moved to Medford with a partner she said was abusive. Byrd and her son escaped the situation by living in her car. Occasionally, a resource in Medford would lodge them in a motel.

“That was a special deal,” Byrd recalled. “I was lucky to have a child, because that’s the only reason why I got a motel room. Most of the time my choice was sleeping in a car or sleeping with an abusive partner.”

At the time, she added, her son had a girlfriend with “a very nice family” who let him stay with them.

“I didn’t have to worry about him so much being safe, and it was pretty rural so I could just drive out in the middle of nowhere and park by a field and sleep overnight without anybody complaining,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the same here.”

After a year, a friend came to Medford and said, “No more of this; you’re coming back home.” At that point, Byrd found low-income housing in Sweet Home and restarted her life.

Byrd is no stranger to nonprofit work. In 1975 her mother, Lola Linstad, launched Families & Friends of Missing Persons and Violent Crime Victims, one of the nation’s oldest victim-advocacy agencies, in Washington state, after Byrd’s sister, Vonnie Stuth, was abducted and murdered in 1974. The organization now has a nationwide presence.

Byrd said her mother, now in her 90s, made a significant impact on her.

“She’s always inspired me to volunteer and be a person who helps other people,” Byrd said. “I wasn’t scared to start [a nonprofit]. She really set an excellent example.”

Byrd grew up in Seattle, Wash., graduating from Chief Sealth International High School in 1988. She then became a court coordinator for King County, Wash., which has Seattle as its county seat, and served in that capacity until 2003.

She attended nursing school at Linn-Benton Community College in 2002, after which she worked as a medical-surgical nurse at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital until 2006.

Byrd took some time off after that. She underwent and healed from back surgery and took care of her father, who had suffered a stroke and was passing away at home. She then returned to the nursing profession in 2007, working at the Linn County Jail until she was diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome in 2009. She said she was “terribly” sick for a few years before doctors were able to control her symptoms. She said she began receiving disability benefits during the ordeal, so “I understand the struggles with that.”

“I understand the hopelessness of not feeling like you have a future,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people on the street are experiencing. So I try to really instill hope when I’m talking to people, because I know how important it is. Everyone’s gone through trauma, and some people just get stuck and need some help getting out.”

Byrd has mixed feelings about the road the Sweet Home homeless shelter has taken to become an imminent reality.

“I am happy with the results,” she said. “I am sad that it took so long to get through the political process. And I’m sad that there’s nowhere for anybody to go right now, while we’re starting to set it up.

“The main goal is to get people off the streets and into a safe place where they can access services and resources at the place they live, to make it easier for them to grow and be healthier,” she said. “It’s not just making people feel better on the inside. It’s really taking care of the whole person altogether. Physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Byrd noted that Benton County Health Services employees and College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific, Northwest students said that they would look into coming to the facility for regular medical checks. She added that Benton County Health Services provides dental checks, and the FAC works with Linn County Harm Reduction for HIV and STD testing.

She said her group hopes to have the center active by the end of the summer.

“It’s ASAP, but we have to work at other people’s rates,” she said, adding that the FAC is working with the city on sewer and power lines. The site will feature the old City Hall annex building, a shower trailer and 30 huts.

Byrd’s path to the FAC after that fateful winter evening in 2018 illustrates both its positive impact and its challenges. She said that Theresa, the homeless woman, is now finding her way after living on the streets for many years.

“She’s finally getting hooked up with the services that she needs,” Byrd said.

“She got her disability benefits, which a lot of people are waiting for on the streets. They’re disabled and applying for Social Security, and it takes years to go through. So they have to wait on the street if they can’t work and they don’t have disability benefits.”

But now, thanks to Shirley Byrd and the FAC, another option will be possible.