No homes, but still hope

From the Vancouver Columbian, January 30 2009

Hundreds accept a chance at improving their lives

People line up for a hot meal Friday at the second annual Project Homeless Connect. The event, held at the Red Lion Hotel at Quay, drew 340 people in need.

People line up for a hot meal Friday at the second annual Project Homeless Connect. The event, held at the Red Lion Hotel at Quay, drew 340 people in need.

Toni doesn’t know why she’s alive today.

She figures she shouldn’t be. She tried to inject bleach into a vein and doesn’t know what went wrong.

What went right, she said with tears in her eyes, is that her mother found her where she was staying at a local motel and got her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with severe depression and began the rounds of addiction treatment programs until she found one that worked.

Now she’s living with her mother and spending her days at the Val Ogden Center, a vocational rehabilitation “clubhouse” for people with mental illness.

She’s been clean and sober for 90 days, she said. She’s 22 years old, eight months pregnant, single and a veteran of the streets.

“I had nowhere to go, nothing to do,” Toni said. The Val Ogden Center “has been a family for me.”

Free services and that sense of family drew 340 needy people Friday to Project Homeless Connect, a single-day clearinghouse of services and resources for the homeless held at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay. That’s a big jump from last year’s first local Homeless Connect event, which drew 200 to Hudson’s Bay High School, according to Kelly Adams, spokeswoman for the organizing Council for the Homeless.

Dozens of service providers and hundreds of volunteers were on hand, from mental health clinics to the state veterans department, and from barber shops offering free cuts on site to laundromats passing out coupons for free washes. They said they were gratified that the event was so successful — with a line snaking out the door and a scarcity of elbow room inside at times.

They were also alarmed.

“It’s frightening that it looks like this,” said Janet Bentley-Jones, recovery programs director at New Life Church, which runs counseling programs, support groups and a gym for people fighting drug and alcohol addiction — nearly all of whom are homeless, she said.

Given the sour economy, Bentley-Jones said, she’s bracing herself for funding cuts for social services, and a resulting rise in misery.

“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” she said.

“The need is great, and there are not enough resources,” said optometrist Suzanne Zamberlan of Evergreen Eye Care, who was doing eye exams for those who signed up on what turned into a long waiting list. Zamberlan said homelessness brings a greater risk of long-term eye infections and greater risk of glasses’ getting broken, stolen or lost.

“Most folks I’ve talked to haven’t had an eye exam in 10, 15, 20 years,” she said. “Some have prescriptions but don’t have glasses.”

In the end, 30 eye exams were conducted and 12 vouchers for free glasses distributed. Eighty people got haircuts.

Something special

Council for the Homeless executive director Craig Lyons said Clark County has in place a great system for tracking and aiding the homeless, and a unique sense of volunteerism to boot.

“We recorded something like 14,000 hours of volunteer time last year,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s something special about this town.”

This second annual Homeless Connect event came the day after Lyons and many other outreach workers and volunteers scoured the county to conduct a rough single-day homeless census. Results won’t be available until late February, but last year the final number was 1,062 people counted as living locally with no fixed address.

This year, Lyons is hoping the excellent local system and its volunteers will balance out an economy in freefall.

Second chances

Folks in weather-beaten jeans lugging backpacks or shopping bags enjoyed a free lunch of turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls and cake served on white tablecloth.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Al Shamshak, 52, who’s been in the Vancouver area for a couple of months. “I’m very grateful for everything these people are doing today. They treat you like a real human being, and that means everything.”

Shamshak, a New England native — he introduced himself as “The Shak from Boston” — said he’s been on his own since he was 16, and spent 17 years in prison for attempted murder. He’s looking for a job as a cook, he said, and he sent out 47 résumés last month without a response.

“It’s disheartening. I worked all my life,” he said. “Sometimes you get overwhelmed. I think about doing the wrong thing sometimes, but I know I won’t benefit.”

Across the room, James Ingram was digging through used books for his daughters, who live with their mother in Portland. He came up with a couple of American Girl paperbacks and a Nancy Drew mystery, and proudly discussed his girls’ growing reading skills.

His first daughter was murdered at age 17, he said, and his whole world “turned upside down.” He wound up living on the streets, living on alcohol, he said. Eventually he suffered a series of small strokes, he said. By then he’d already pulled himself together, checked his pride and asked for help.

“It came down to, am I going stay on the streets and die, or see my girls graduate?” said Ingram, 57. “I’m getting a second chance to be a dad.”

Always hope

Adams of the Council for the Homeless said she spent the day listening to hard-luck stories in amazement.

“Some of these things you hear — it’s like, if they haven’t killed you, nothing will,” she said. “It just shows, no matter how far you fall, there’s always hope.”

Folks who came to get help were glad to talk about their hopes.

Ingram, who’s got a small temporary apartment — what’s called “transitional” housing — hopes to go back to school, maybe brush up on his Spanish and become a translator. The Shak from Boston, who sleeps in the emergency shelter of a local church, said he’ll keep looking for work. And 22-year-old Toni, sleeping on her mom’s couch and battling depression, wants to open her own cafe one day.

“I’ll be your first customer,” said her friend, Janice Hafer, another Val Ogden club member. “You can put my dollar on your wall.”