Helping Hands Re-entry Outreach Centers has been providing services to individuals experiencing homelessness in Lincoln County for about 18 years. Before being offered a helping hand from an arresting police officer years before that, founder and CEO, Alan Evans, was on the streets for more than 25 years himself.
Originally their program worked with people getting out of jail and treatment programs who needed an opportunity to reenter society. They had contracts with corrections programs to have a clean and sober atmosphere. About 95 percent of the people they served had alcohol or drug addiction issues. Now it’s about 50 percent and about 20 percent of the people who come through their doors now have full time jobs.
“The fastest growing population of homeless today is senior citizens,” he said. “And the second fastest is our families. A single mom with a couple of kids making $16 or $17 an hour cannot afford to live in any sort of housing in the communities that we serve.”
About 11 years ago, when the market crashed, everything changed. They had people who never drank or used drugs come for help. They had senior citizens and mothers with children showing up at their door. So they changed the outlook of their program.
“We had to change the way we did things to meet the demand of people who needed assistance,” Evans said.
He compared their program to an individualized education plan (IEP) that schools will develop for students who may need additional services.
“We do a full evaluation of what people need, the obstacles they face to reenter society and then we tailor individual programs based off of their obstacles and put customized programs together for each person,” Evans said.
This concept of bringing the services to the facility stemmed from developing an IEP for his son in elementary school. They all sat at a table and each person talked about how they could help him. He had an epiphany that if his son had to go down to the street for a tutor and somewhere else for a counselor, he would have never made it. It’s harder to overcome obstacles when getting to where you need to go is an obstacle in itself. So the center is a hub to bring all the resources together and instead sending 60 people to those services, their model is to have those services come to them.
“The last thing we want to do when we come to a community is compete with services that are already being provided. So we utilize the existing services and the community can come together to wrap around that person,” he said. “This partnership with the city has allowed us to expand to our help center model that is similar to the one that we have in Portland.”
Evans said they don’t typically fund their centers with grants in the local communities, but they make up the difference between dues paid by the residents with contractual dollars, larger grant dollars and a private donor base.
According to Lincoln City Council minutes, in January 2020, the city adopted a resolution to convey a property valued at $400,000 to Helping Hands with a payment that would be waived each year as long as it is used for transitional housing. They also provided a loan of $350,000 for renovations. In November 2020, the city was informed that Helping Hands needed an additional $250,000 to stabilize a retaining wall. In December of 2020, the council approved the additional funds and an extension of the loan.
Between navigating the ups and downs of the pandemic and construction issues, the project was delayed but they hope to have occupancy in the building in January 2022, he said.
“Our, our ultimate goal is to serve the people the best we possibly can and do our job, in that we allow some people to change their life,” he said. “We’re not the fix for the homeless problem in the community, but we’re a part of the answer and we look forward to this expansion.”
Typically every January there is a point in time head count of people who are homeless but there hasn’t been a count since the pandemic. Also typically, those counts are lower than the actual number. According to the Community Services Consortium’s 2020 point in time count, the homeless population of Lincoln County was estimated to be between 750 and 1100 individuals, with more than 45 percent located in Lincoln City, with almost 70 percent of those people being unsheltered.
The annual count differentiates between “sheltered” and “unsheltered,” signifying that there are those who may be staying with someone or in a motel but not have an actual address. The “unsheltered” are the ones often seen on the streets.
While the face of homelessness has changed, the stereotypical person suffering from mental illness or drug addiction is still a significant piece of the population.
Residents in the area call the police if someone is yelling or making people uncomfortable, but Lieutenant Jeff Winn unless someone is truly causing alarm or breaking a law, there isn’t much the police can do.
The Lincoln City Police Department responds to call for welfare checks, also referred to as EDP calls, referencing “emotionally disturbed person,” on a daily basis, according to Winn. They do not differentiate whether those calls are for someone housed or unhoused, but between January 1 and September 1 of 2021, they’ve responded to 125 calls, which is an increase from previous years. Calls related directly to “transients” in that same time period numbered 149, which is a decrease from previous years.
Winn said there is a portion of the transient population the department has regular contact with. He said about 80 percent have mental or substance abuse issues. He said it’s a big concern for not just Lincoln City, but for the entire county, and the situation has exasperated in the last few years.
“The most difficult thing in Lincoln City is the lack of mental health resources,” he said.
Winn said the entire department had use of force and de-escalation training a few months ago, and they have two officers who have 40 hours of crisis intervention training.
“We are very aware of the need for de-escalation training,” Winn said. “It’s one of our priorities.”
Winn noted the issue is multifaceted and the police are just one piece of handling it.
Helping Hands message
“The people who are on our streets are people. They all have a heart just like we do. But somewhere along the road, they were broken. And most of the time, it’s not by choice. They progressively got into that situation. Most of the people living on the streets are good people who just had bad luck and bad situations,” Evans said. “I lived on the streets for 27 years, and I never met one person who said, ‘I think I want to be homeless today. I think I want to be addicted today.’ You know when they close their eyes, they wish they were better people. Our job is to pull the community together to offer them hope and opportunity to become better people.”
“We really work on bringing that message that these are our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, our uncles and our children who are living on the streets. Eventually we’ll be able to spread the message of hope. That’s what we’ve got to work our way up to. Everybody deserves the opportunity to change their life. There’s not enough stories written about the good in the people that live on the streets, we only read stories about the problems that they cause.”
In 2019, the Oregon Community Foundation commissioned an assessment on causes of homelessness and found that while people who are homeless have a higher incident of mental illness than the general population, the report noted that “correlation does not equal causation,” and that a lack of affordable housing was more likely the primary cause for disproportionately high population of homeless in the state.
Editor’s note: As the issue of homeless in our community is multifaceted, The News Guard seeks to inform readers to understand the issue, the resources available and what residents can do to best support the many organizations that provide services, as well as how it is being approached by elected officials. Look for more on the topic in future editions.