Shelter for chronically homeless closer to reality

From the Corvallis Gazette Times, July 24, 2010

Tom Foster: It took me 10 days to realize I didn’t have to sleep in my clothes - the depression just bleeds away.

Tom Foster: It took me 10 days to realize I didn’t have to sleep in my clothes - the depression just bleeds away.

A place where chronically homeless people can find a home moved a step closer to reality Friday.

Barbara Ross and Aleita Hass-Holcombe of the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition said that approval of a $510,000 grant request to the Oregon Housing and Community Services Council brought the total in committed funds to $760,000, including the $250,000 from the city of Corvallis’ HOME Investment Partnership Program.

The coalition also has raised $59,000 of the $85,000 it needs for the city to match its efforts. This means that the group can move forward with buying and renovating a burned-out Corvallis apartment building for use by the chronically homeless and launch its “Housing First” plan to help those people.

“It’s for those people who cannot meet the threshold” to qualify for places such as Community Outreach. Like many shelters for the homeless, Community Outreach requires at least five days of sobriety as a condition of shelter, Hass-Holcombe said.

The coalition’s “Housing First” facility is at Northwest 16th Street and Harrison Boulevard. An apartment building there was heavily damaged last August. In November, members of the coalition approached owner Ed Epley, who said he’d sell them the property to use as part of a “Housing First” project to be called “Partners Place.”

Ross said that as long as they get along well with their neighbors, homeless people with chronic alcoholism or drug dependency can stay and work on improving their lives.

“It’s a new beginning,” said Hass-Holcombe. It’s a way to break persistently homeless people’s cycle of pursuing addiction as a way of dealing with the hardships of homelessness.

“The selling point to the public is that it’s a lot cheaper,” said Ross. The New York-based founders of the “Housing First” approach have documented that the cost to the public of arresting, jailing and treating the chronically homeless’ ailments in emergency rooms far exceeds the cost of providing low-cost housing. It also is regarded as a more practical approach than expecting addicted or mentally ill homeless people to solve those problems before offering them shelter.

Backing up that assertion Friday were two men who had been homeless for much of their lives and who recently received the counseling to help them qualify for Social Security benefits and obtain low-cost housing.

“I was living under a $40 million bridge,” said Les Nesbit, a 53-year-old Maine native and former Navy man who became homeless since his marriage broke up in 1990. He lived on the streets of Albuquerque, N.M., for 20 years before coming to Corvallis about two years ago.

The gruff Nesbit, who is by turns amiable and tough-talking, initially told volunteers at the homeless coalition that all he wanted out of a place to live was somewhere to sleep and take a shower. But since he has his own place, he is now motivated to follow a lifestyle that enables him to keep it.

He has shaved the full beard he’s worn and he feels healthier. He’s no longer drinking, and he speaks of starting up his jewelry-making business. He is able to turn fine-quality crystal and quartz and a bit of metal into jewelry that he said has sold for $400.

Tom Foster, 54, also has stopped drinking now that he is living in a trailer park. He’s taking care of himself, and is tending houseplants. He likes being clean and sober and enjoys the improvements to his health. Most of all, he said he likes being more optimistic about the future.