The third freedom: New group seeks to address shelter needs for homeless

August 2018 Posted in Community
Silverton Sheltering Services (6)

Silverton Sheltering Services was formed to address Silverton’s growing homeless crisis. Its Board of Directors are, from left, Sarah White, Pastor Leah Stolte-Doerfler, Judy Goetz, Michele Finicle and Brent Jacobsen. Not shown: Andrew Sprauer. Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

It took just one winter for Silverton Warming Shelter volunteers to realize Silverton’s got a homelessness crisis.

The past two years they’ve provided a place for people to stay in freezing weather. However, once it gets above 34 degrees, the shelter closes, leaving little settling-in time and even less for workers to connect with the people and their needs.

A core group enlisted support and by April nonprofit Silverton Sheltering Services was born.

“We needed to address the situation in a more focused, organized way,” Brent Jacobsen, Silverton Sheltering Services Board President said. “We’ve got a board made up of dynamic, caring people, each with their own areas of expertise and experience.” Jacobsen, Ph.D, recently retired from a 40-year career in education.

“We’re out in the trenches; we understand how significant a problem it is,” Jacobsen said. “You can either sit back and pretend it’s not happening or get proactive; see how to plug some holes, help some people and help them help themselves.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 11.27.20 AMHuge affirmation came in the form of a $25,000 grant from mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency – the agency’s entire yearly funding for rural Marion County.

“The grant is huge; it provides seed money for the warming shelter but it’s also a vote of confidence that the team we put together is professional enough and that they believe in us,” Michele Finicle, SSS Secretary and Development Director, said. She served as North Willamette Valley Habitat for Humanity Development Director and was the alternative education teacher for suspended and expelled students in three school districts.

“The majority of those students were homeless and had a lot of food and shelter insecurity, so it really tailored who I was as an educator,” Finicle said. Yet her real training started long before.

As a child Finicle suffered bouts of housing insecurity, her family of five traveling up and down the coast living out of their car or a tiny travel trailer.

“When you’re out on the street and invisible it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Finicle said. “I saw my parents working 12, 14 hours a day. Some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen can’t afford housing – and a lot of it is luck.”

Of the visitors to last winter’s warming shelter at Oak Street Church, 31 individuals were homeless – 25 with strong Silverton ties. Silver Falls School District identifies 70 to 90 students as homeless.

“Our fear is that those numbers will continue to grow,” Finicle said. “Right now, it’s pretty invisible; they’re tucked away in the bushes in several locations around town. We need to get on the front end of things before it becomes a very visible problem like it has in Salem
and Portland.

“We won’t be successful unless the whole community gets involved,” Finicle said. “We’re just the body bringing all the players to the table.”

They support the St. Edward’s Episcopal Church proposal for “cottages” for women needing shelter and services and are seeking to hold a community homeless education summit.

Most important, however, is securing a place for Silverton Sheltering Service’s hub of operations. They’re looking around. By Thanksgiving they plan to open a seven-day-a-week shelter through February.

“Someday we’d like to have a place that’s open during the day, where people can leave their belongings while they go to work, use laundry facilities or get some case management so Sarah isn’t running all over alone to meet with folks,” Jacobsen said.

“If you haven’t known people who are homeless, it can be intimidating,” SSS Executive Director and Case Manager Sarah White said. “We have preconceived notions of what leads to homelessness that don’t always align with the reality. When you do get to know them, you understand that they’re just like the rest of us. They simply lack housing.”

She told of an ailing grandfather who got custody of three grandsons. He arranged for a bigger apartment and moved out his things. The boys arrived, but the moving date kept getting pushed back and the little family resorted to camping at Silver Falls Park while
they waited.

The apartment deal ultimately fell through and with scarce low-income apartments in town they found themselves camping in the woods indefinitely, sometimes sneaking into parks or onto private land.

“Some of the kids were really little at the time,” White said. “The grandpa had serious health problems and ended up having a heart attack while they were out in the woods. His grandson, who was not old enough, had to drive him to the emergency room in the middle of the night.”

When too many family members under one roof raises threats of eviction, adult children will often protect their parents’ housing by moving out, telling their parents they have a place to stay so they don’t worry. But they don’t.

Three years ago, as a caseworker for Silverton Area Community Aid, White calculated the average rental price in Silverton at $1,300; now she thinks it’s closer to $1,600.

“It’s a math problem,” White said. “My heart is with those who are having a hard time and I’m definitely not alone in trying to help wherever I can.”

For years local churches have provided free, weekly community meals: Monday dinner at Oak Street Church; Wednesday dinner at First Christian Church; and Saturday lunch at Trinity Lutheran. Volunteers typically serve 500 people a week and are poised to respond to people who show up in dire circumstances, as when an older woman, disoriented and without a place to sleep, showed up at First Christian one Wednesday night.

The church put her up in a hotel and she met with the sheltering group who found she had people in Boise. They made the connection and provided a bus ticket. Because of that she thrives today.

“From a community point of view, it is our responsibility and our joy to share what we have and to come alongside our neighbor, and whoever has the most need is the neighbor we are called to first,” said Pastor Leah Stolte-Doerfler of Immanuel Lutheran Church and SWS Vice President. “People with homes have all kinds of ideas about what it looks like or feels like for people who don’t necessarily have a home right now, and to be able to have those conversations in the community absolutely will benefit us all.”

Judy Goetz is new to town, landing in Michele Finicle’s neighborhood nine months ago. The 30-year self-employed accountant is now plunging into the community as Silverton Sheltering Services Treasurer.

“I’ve never been homeless, but I feel like everybody is a paycheck away from there,” Goetz said. “I’ve never worked for a nonprofit and I’m excited about it.”

Jacobsen, third generation Silverton native, said the effort comes from a place of heart and concern – for all of Silverton.

“We all love our little community,” Jacobsen said. “We’re trying to get out ahead of this and keep Silverton the beautiful, unique little village it is.”

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