Denise Becker toiled away under the warm spring sun, pulling up weeds Tuesday afternoon at a Corvallis home.
It was a welcome change for Becker, not because of the weather (being homeless, she spends every day outside), but because it was the first job she’s had in weeks.
Becker is a part of Corvallis’ Homeless Employment Launching Project, or HELP, which seeks to give the homeless and formerly homeless an opportunity to work and build a positive work history. The program, which is run out of the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center, is a zero-profit leasing agency that connects participants with small businesses and homeowners in need of odds-and-ends jobs.
About 40 participants work an average of 12 to 15 hours each week and earn anywhere from $10 to $15 an hour, depending on the job. ($2 from each hour goes to the program cost.)
But Becker said the program offers something even more valuable than money.
“I don’t have a background for working, so this is giving me work experience in something. And it’s also giving me hope,” she said.
And that’s something Becker hasn’t had in a long time.
“I’m on parole and it’s really hard for me to get a steady job,” she said. “It’s hard for me to interview with people and I feel like they’re not going to hire me because I’m on parole and that’s all they’re going to see.”
‘I feel like they know’
Becker moved to Benton County from Stockton, California, to stay with family a few years ago, but she and a family member soon had a falling out. With nowhere else to go, Becker became homeless. In January 2013, she was convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle and sentenced to three years of probation.
She doesn’t try to hide what she did, but Becker said she is constantly ashamed that people won’t see her as anything more than a criminal.
“I have a really low self-esteem about being on parole,” she said. “I feel like people know it when they look at me. Even though I know no one can tell, I feel like they know.”
Becker sank into depression soon after becoming homeless, and she had nearly given up until she came to the Drop-In Center and met Kevin Weaver, HELP program coordinator.
“He’s more than just a person who will get you a job; he’s helped give me hope,” she said. “I was really down and depressed and living in a tent on the Willamette. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved here and I was really depressed because of that. It boosted me up when I was really down.”
Weaver, who has helped the program since its inception in 2011, said people like Becker are why the program is necessary.
“To hear her say that, that’s everything,” Weaver said. “That’s the reason I’m doing this. But what I want more than for Denise to have a job, is for her to be able to move on from all of this. I want to get her to where she’s not worrying about where she’ll sleep, but worrying about banks and bosses.”
‘A job for everyone’
HELP workers earned $24,000 in 2013, $36,000 in 2014 and $38,000 in 2015, but Weaver said work has slowed lately and he is struggling to find more businesses in Corvallis willing to hire HELP workers.
“I firmly believe there is a job for everyone, even in this small town,” he said. “Everybody can do one job better than anyone else. We just need to make those connections and we need help from businesses to make that happen.”
HELP worker Andrew Mattravers also did some gardening and weeding work this week. Mattravers, a former Oregon State University student and former firefighter, became homeless a few years ago when he wasn’t able to work after getting into a debilitating car accident. He didn’t have insurance and the accident also cost him most of his money.
“With the gap in employment it’s hard for me to find work right now. If I get a face-to-face, they just see a long gap in employment and I usually don’t get a call back,” he said. “Now I’m building that back up. I’m living in transitional housing and I’m working to pay for that and to go back to school to finish my degree.”
HELP workers largely perform manual labor ranging from yard cleanup, helping people move and housework. The program does not accept contract work or jobs that require a journeyman’s level of ability and HELP is not a licensed contractor with the Oregon Construction Contractors Board (CCB).
“I’ve refused for us to get a CCB license because we would be able to underbid anyone and we don’t want to do that,” said Weaver, whose salary is paid for through a grant. “We’re not here to take people’s jobs away. We’re here to get more people to work and build them up.”
Weaver said he is often asked by area businesses why the program provides a wage for the workers, considering that some of the workers may choose to spend the money on their addictions rather than work toward finding a home.
“We’re here to give them more opportunities to put money in the bank and build something,” he said. “We could ask the same questions about the wealthy businessman down the street who spends all his money on alcohol. I think what is most important is that we give them the opportunity to make the right choice.”
Weaver said the program does background checks and screening of workers and employees are required to be sober to be in the program. But he acknowledges that it is possible for HELP workers to feed their addictions with the money they’ve earned once they are no longer working.
“They can choose to buy shoelaces or food or beer,” he said. “The one condition we have for our workers to earn the money is to earn it. Once they’ve earned it, it’s up to them.”
Roberta Smith welcomed HELP workers to her home this week to do some gardening
“I’ve had HELP workers at my home many times. They helped spread bark dust a few years ago and they helped me plant some things. It’s been really great to get that,” she said. “It seems to me in America it’s not very easy to just get out and pick up a job. So anything that allows folks to pick up a job quickly is a good thing.”
Those looking to learn more about the HELP program are asked to call Weaver at 541-740-8131 or at the Drop-In Center’s website at corvallis.drop-in.org.