Asking to be identified only as Allen, the 53-year-old occasional Tualatin resident works hard to keep up appearances.
Well-coiffed, smartly dressed in a blazer over a sweater, Allen doesn’t have the look of a man who lives in his car and depends on the facilities at the Sherwood YMCA to maintain his hygiene regimen.
Once securely employed in construction, Allen was laid off more than two years ago. He has family in the area. When his unemployment benefits ran out, he moved to Arizona for six months to live with his parents and save money.
“Relatives and friends are there for you, but unfortunately they can’t give you what you need the most, because they don’t have that themselves,” he said.
Back in Oregon, Allen could find only sporadic work. He was soon living in a van donated by a local church, and now lives out of a sedan.
It is a lifestyle he describes as “playing Zorro.”
“I feel like I’m putting on a show for everybody else,” Allen said. “There’s a hidden world that you don’t want nobody to know.”
It’s a life of hyper-vigilance: Allen estimates he averages about three hours of sleep a night, and he has lost so much weight his pant size has gone from 36 to 31 inches.
Living in a car, “you’re constantly worried about that (knock) on the window,” he said, adding that Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood police have for the most part been compassionate to his plight.
For a man who grew up solidly middle-class, Allen quickly became savvy about the logistics of living out of a vehicle.
“If you have a car, if you want to feel safe and secure, you want to be in well-lit areas,” Allen explained. “You never, ever want to spend the night at a rest area off a freeway. There’s too much (illicit activity) that goes on there.”
Walmart parking lots have proven a safe bet, he said, and the lots of businesses that are open 24 hours are safest of all because there are always people present. Even with the social stigma around homelessness, you never want to be physically isolated, Allen explained.
But even living out of his car has at times proven a logistical paradox: He nearly lost his car insurance when his provider learned he didn’t have a residential address.
Allen identifies as a new kind of homeless demographic.
“People like myself, there’s a lot of them out there. You’re not going to find them because they don’t want to show themselves,” he said.
Single male majority
Single men represent 56 percent of the total homeless population in Washington County, and 39 percent of those living on the street. Without children, they are also the demographic for whom there are the fewest shelter resources available.
There is the Bridges to Change Mentor House in Hillsboro, which works with the county’s Department of Housing Services to offer a 90-day rehabilitation program geared toward both men and women recently paroled from prison. Fairhaven Recovery Home is a Christian nonprofit that offers transitional facilities for those attempting to overcome addiction.
But beds are limited for those like Allen, homeless, but with no legal or substance abuse obstacles — resources can seem scant.
Churches and faith-based organizations attempt to bridge the gap by offering seasonal shelters and warming centers. Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin offers shelter every Wednesday during winter, according to community global outreach director Faith Carter. Homeless guests are invited from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning, during which time they can access the food pantry, take hot showers and wash their clothes.
“When Washington County declares severe weather, we open every night,” Carter added.
This requires a flexible volunteer base to run the shelter: Rolling Hills aims to provide one volunteer for every five guests, and the facility can comfortably accommodate more than 20 people, Carter said.
More of its guests now own vehicles, Carter has noticed. They are in situations similar to Allen’s: Accustomed to the stable home base that comes with gainful employment, but unable to find consistent work.
“The profile of homelessness is changing — we have the working poor, they have a job, they have a car, they don’t have a place to live,” Carter said.
Allen himself came to Rolling Hills to take advantage of the Tualatin Food Pantry housed there. He said he was at first reluctant to take advantage of charity.
“I have a sense of pride. I’m Irish,” Allen said. “It was difficult to think of going to a food bank. I humbled myself.”
With the food pantry as his entry point, Allen found immense comfort in the church, he said. Having lost his apartment, savings and a relationship as a result of his homelessness, he admits he was at one point suicidal.
As county and church organizations work together to address a growing need, Allen’s has proven a success story. He began taking advantage of Rolling Hills’ weekly shelter night, and one evening found himself opening up to a shelter volunteer who he later found out was the church’s senior pastor, Bill Town.
Meanwhile, volunteers provided resume help and a strengthened network during Allen’s job search.
Homelessness and the law
Within the Tualatin Police Department, Sgt. Larry Clow is known for keeping a casual count of homeless camps throughout Tualatin. But even in the face of “the new homelessness,” Clow said, these are not organized colonies made to address a harsh economic reality.
According to Clow, most camps — like the one that exists in a ravine near Warm Springs Road, or the odd gathering under bridges — are abandoned during the day. They are primarily populated by men, he said, with a few “transient women.” Although there are no official statistics available from Tualatin police, Clow said that in his experience, the homeless individuals he finds camping within Tualatin city limits are “longtime homeless transients.”
“It’s not the person that is just down on their luck,” he said.
He describes the contributing factors to this particular homeless population as “a mixed bag” — some grapple with unaddressed mental health issues, some abuse illegal drugs and some are homeless as a lifestyle choice.
According to the 2011 One Night Homeless Count that tallied a total of 1,354 homeless countywide, individual adult men accounted for 30 percent of the county’s homeless population, versus individual adult women, who comprised 9.8 percent. Single men also made up the majority of the street-dwelling homeless population not getting access to social services, at 35 percent.
In Washington County, 189 individuals were classified as “chronically homeless,” which is defined federally as anyone who has been homeless for a year or more, or who has been homeless at least four times in the last three years. A chronically homeless individual is seen as struggling with substance abuse or addiction issues, a developmental or physical disability, mental illness or a chronic illness.
Eighty-two percent of those identified as chronically homeless in the county were adult men.
In Tigard, the 1,600-square-foot home is indistinguishable from other single-story, ranch-style homes. For nearly four years it has housed single men who have struggled with addiction issues in the past, or who have a felony conviction in their background.
At the Jubilee Transition House, residents must have 30 days of sobriety, director Gerry Pruyn explained. “They have to do two things: They have to be appreciative of a place to stay, and want to change their lives.”
Although about 75 percent of Jubilee House’s residents have had substance abuse issues, some, like James Bastin, 22, are struggling with simply getting back on their feet after personal and financial setbacks. Bastin turned to LifeWorks NW, a mental health resource center, after returning to his native Oregon earlier this year. He was unable to find steady work, and living with his grandmother proved to be a fraught situation. No one else in his family could afford to take him in, so he left his grandmother’s home with no place to go.
Bastin stayed in Portland-area shelters for a couple days before he was referred to Jubilee House. In his first week there, he has found comfort in the house’s stability. At the shelters, he said, addiction issues were rampant and many of the adults around him were constantly under the influence. At Jubilee, he feels more able to focus on his goals of finding full-time work and an apartment of his own.
Potential residents undergo what Pruyn described as a “tight interview process,” then have a probationary first month at the house where they work closely with a manager. If both Jubilee and the individual decide the house is a good fit, Jubilee charges a monthly fee of $440 for room and board, and the resident is invited to stay for up to 18 months while he tries to secure work and permanent housing.
There is a religious aspect to this regimen too, with regular Bible study. But Pruyn said Jubilee welcomes those of all faiths, or no faith.
Jubilee’s approach is case by case. Currently, one of its residents is serving time in jail for a probation violation. Because the violation was not alcohol- or drug-related, and because Jubilee views him as committed to his goals at the house, the resident will be welcomed back to the facility upon his release, Pruyn said.
Pruyn admits Jubilee has had to revise its screening process, which has meant acknowledging the organization’s own limitations in aiding a homeless population with mental illnesses.
He hopes that within the year, Jubilee House in Tigard will have proven itself as a duplicable model — one that can serve a broader population.
“When we first started, it was basically single homeless men in the community, because there’s things for women with children, and families, but nothing for single homeless men,” Pruyn said. “In the meantime, I’ve met a lot of single homeless women who have the same type of path that the men have had, that end up on the streets here in Washington County.”