“Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn? Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
Bob Dylan wrote that. His words are classically nuanced, with wide-ranging implications. So, too, is the condition of the homeless population in Albany.
At the Albany Helping Hands homeless shelter on Ninth Avenue, a little more than 104 people have found a bed, hot meals and hopefully a sense of direction. On Nov. 4, a panel of professionals will hold a summit on homelessness over at City Hall in Albany. On the other side of the river, the committee that oversees Benton County's 10-year plan to end homelessness will hold an all-day summit meeting on Monday at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library to reassess its priorities and reboot its efforts to improve housing options in the community.
Three Helping Hands residents recently shared doughnuts and conversation, telling their stories and weighing in on issues that challenge the homeless community on a daily basis.
Tim Meacham, Becky Pinner and Jon O’Dell are long-term residents. Each helps run the shelter in one capacity or another. Collectively, they agree that public perception is at odds with their reality.
“We’ll be out here on the benches having a smoke and people will drive by and shout, ‘get a job!’ or ‘lazy bums!'” said Meacham, 40, a life-long Albany resident who came to the shelter after wrestling with addiction. The people shouting from cars, he said, happens two or three times a day.
“When I was a kid I would always think, ‘Why don’t those people just get a job?’” he said. “A lot of people are only one step away from being here with us.”
Meacham has worked at the shelter-run wood lot, which salvages and then processes felled timber, turning it into firewood and then selling it below retail to households in need. This work ethic, which is a requirement for long term residents, is something Meacham wishes more people would be aware of.
“Eighty percent of the day-to-day running of the place is done by people staying here and working here,” he said. “That’s one thing that irritates me is the automatic assumption that we’re all lazy or something. Instead of judging us, people need to take the time to get to know us.”
Pinner, 57, has lived in Albany for 20 years. She’s one of the shelter's drivers, helping residents get to appointments and run errands. When asked how she came to the shelter, she gives a coy answer. “I ran out of gas in Salem trying to get home,” she explains.
Pinner said finding work can be hard, and she alludes to some legal issues that add to her challenges. She agrees that being homeless can create a stigma that can be hard to shake. Meacham added that simply using the shelter as an address can be a liability.
“There are people who have been hired from here that maybe give it a bad name,” he said. “So then when people hear that this is your address, they might have a negative opinion.”
O’Dell, 37, is the shelter's kitchen manager. He worked his way up from breakfast cook, and plans within a few months to move back to Washington to be near his family.
“After I have the surgery done on my leg and my legal obligations with the city are done, I plan to go up there and find work in restaurants,” he said. “Tim’s gonna miss me when I go.”
Meacham laughed and shook his head. With no immediate plans to leave the shelter, he has a philosophical and a spiritual perspective on his situation. He believes his work now is to put in some time for some of the things he’s done.
“I kind of feel like this is my way of repenting for what I’ve done,” he said. “For all the people I hurt and a lot of them I don’t even know. I think this is my place right now.”
Pinner has a similar attitude about her time at the shelter.
“For me it’s a personal experience where I can have time to better myself,” she said.
“It’s very humbling when you first get here,” added Meacham. “I expected a bunch of junkies and alcoholics and people who can’t tie their shoes, but it’s people who are no different than you are.”
Meacham said to really understand what it’s like, people have to come out and get “knee-deep in it.” “I’ve dared people to come in and stay here for a few days to see what it’s really like,” he said.
Pinner told a story that illustrates the difference in perspective between society and the homeless population.
“I had my car towed from Corvallis, and the cop was demonizing homeless people,” she explained. “And I asked him, ‘What do you think of me? Because you know you just towed my home away.’”
Meacham said a lot of times he’ll be talking to somebody who will learn through the conversation that he’s homeless, and the person will remark that he doesn’t look homeless.
“That’s the thing,” he said. “What does homeless look like? People think of the person on the sidewalk with the emergency blanket and a bottle of Mad Dog.”
Pinner takes offense to Meacham’s example.
“Well, I’m just trying to paint the picture,” he said.
“But Mad Dog?” joked O’Dell. “At least say vodka or something other than Mad Dog.”
O’Dell, like Meacham and Pinner, would like people to better understand the nature of life at the shelter.
“It’s basically like real life,” he said. “You have to work for what you get.”
O’Dell said in his role as kitchen manager he tries to give his workers real-world skills, so they can find work. Still, he said it can be hard to help the new people.
“A lot of people are freshly homeless and they don’t know what to do to get off the street,” he said. “It’s important to know that there are ways out of your situation. But there are people that do just give up.”
Meacham added that it’s important for people to not take unemployment as a lack of experience. “Some people just really need opportunity,” he said. “And this place is all about working for what we get.”
Wayne Oakes is assistant executive director of Helping Hands. He was once homeless himself. He sees mental health as the largest issue.
“I'd like to see help for people with mental disabilities,” he said. “One of our guests lost his brother and lost his mom and had a nervous breakdown,” he said. We got him help through Linn County Mental Health, but a lot of our guests just can’t exist out there in the community, and we can only do so much.”
Oakes said he’s seen an increase in need at the shelter.
“Normally people will go out and camp during summer, and then they’ll come to us when the weather gets bad,” he said, “But this year we’ve seen them in here year-round. And it’s worse than it was last year.”
The shelter receives some federal funding, but the majority comes from donations and volunteer work.
“We exist right now because of the community,” Oakes said.