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Albany Helping Hands is marking its 20th year as an independent nonprofit and is inviting the public to join a monthlong campaign to improve its homeless shelter for its current clients.

It's also working on a return to its roots: The former Oak Hill Community Church at 103 Main St. SE in Albany, where Helping Hands began, is back in the nonprofit's ownership and is to be made into a family shelter. 

The expansion isn't enough, given growing pressure on organizations that provide emergency help, acknowledged Wayne Oakes, assistant executive director. The shelter, usually with beds to spare during the warm summer months, has been much more full than usual.

"Police are clamping down really heavily on trespassing, things like that. We find we’ve got more and more people throughout the year," Oakes said. "I think, really, there’s a lot of factors involved (such as) the shortage of homes."

But the nondenominational, faith-based nonprofit is doing what it can, Oakes said, and is glad to accept donations from anyone who wants to help. It's spending September concentrating especially on raising $20,000 to replace 106 mattresses at the emergency shelter location, 619 Ninth Ave. SE.

That campaign is at $8,235.91 so far, about 41.2 percent of its goal, said Jim Wilhight, a volunteer who also works as a development and media consultant for Helping Hands. "The fundraiser is off to a great start."

Donations can be made online at albanyhelpinghands.com; via mail to P.O. Box 2252, Albany, OR 97321; by calling 541-926-4036 during business hours; or in person at the shelter front office at 619 SE Ninth Ave., Albany.

Helping Hands calculates its clients in "bed nights," a census of how many people seek overnight shelter. By that calculation, heads have rested upon pillows at Helping Hands for 37,024 bed nights: an average of 101 people every night of the year.

That, officials say, results in a lot of wear and tear on beds and mattresses.

The cost is about $200 per mattress, but "that's the very low end of mattresses," Wilhight said."We want something that will hold up; resist bedbugs."

Helping Hands has a full capacity of 110, but a few mattresses have been replaced in recent years, which is why the shelter is seeking 106, Wilhight said.

Through the years

The mission of Helping Hands is the same as it was when Pastor Les Bailey began the work in 1984: to provide emergency shelter, meals and support services to people in the Albany area who go without them.

Currently, that means 24-hour, seven-days-a-week shelter for up to 110 people a day, with more than 80,000 hot meals served every year to both shelter clients and visitors.

It also means providing support services to an average of 400 residents each year to help them move toward independent living: job training, housing searches, General Education Development classes, mental health referrals, substance abuse and/or anger management counseling, even consumer items such as clothing and furniture.

The location and delivery method of the services has changed and grown in the past two decades, however.

Pastor Les Bailey began what became Helping Hands in 1984, starting an emergency shelter at the Main Street location, the site of the former Oak Hill Community Church of God. 

The shelter separated from its church home in 1998, becoming the 501(c)(3) nonprofit known as Albany Helping Hands. 

It operated for a few years at 1989 Santiam Highway SE, then began a $325,000 fundraising campaign in late 2002 to buy its current property on Ninth Avenue, which had been occupied by AK Carpet & More.

At that time, Helping Hands was housing about 40 people per night. The idea was to create a place that would sleep at least 80. The new location opened in 2005.

Need quickly outstripped availability even at the new building, however. As a temporary measure, the shelter received the OK to put mattresses in its dining room. That brought emergency capacity to 100-plus, but also prompted health and fire code complaints.

The Albany City Council agreed in 2006 and 2007 to loans to help with a shelter expansion, which involved converting a storage area to a dormitory. Another project involved doubling the kitchen space at the shelter in 2009. 

As time went on, the organization branched out into new ways of providing training and employment for guests. It's now an authorized U-Haul rental dealer and also runs a thrift store, a garden farm and market, a wood lot, a chicken farm, a vehicle resale program and an estate cleanup business. During the holidays, it sells Christmas trees.

Demand for services and shelter continues to grow. In the coming years, Helping Hands is continuing to explore building more transitional housing on land it's purchasing adjacent to the Ninth Avenue site.

And Oakes, the assistant executive director, said he thinks the shelter is about a year away from completing the family shelter at its original location. Everything is still in the planning stages with city officials, so it's too soon to say what it will look like, but he's hoping for room for a minimum of five families at the location. 

"It’s going to be nice that the building he (Bailey) started out with is going to be one of the buildings to do a new program," Oakes said.

Ongoing struggle

Local community support organizations praise Helping Hands for its efforts in the past two decades. However, they acknowledge, homelessness remains an ongoing and growing problem, especially considering current housing prices.

Statistics through Oregon Housing and Community Services show median rents in Oregon climbing from about $1,200 in 2012 to more than $1,600 in just four years. Linn County's figures went from about $1,000 to about $1,200 in that time, and Benton County went from roughly $1,500 to about $1,700.

During that same period, the midpoint for renters' wages was $11.72 for Linn County and $10.98 for Benton, but the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment was $16.88 to $17.88. About three-quarters of low-income renters in both counties were paying more than 50 percent of their income to rent.

"It used to be that people would say to us, when we did the point-in-time count, that they were not able to find housing because they had either addictions or they had mental illness," said Pegge McGuire, deputy director of programs for the Community Services Consortium (CSC), which serves Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. "But now we’re finding more and more people saying, 'I just can’t afford the rent,' or, 'I literally can't find a place to go.'"

McGuire said CSC surveys people seeking help paying their energy bills, which is one of the services the organization offers. It received multiple comments from people whose rent had skyrocketed in recent years, leaving them unable to keep up with bills.

"Many, many people wrote in $200, $300," she said. "It's just amazing to me." 

People do still suffer from substance abuse issues, however, as well as mental illnesses. Those are factors that continue to affect the homeless counts regardless of home prices. 

Helping Hands doesn't allow drugs or alcohol and will turn shelter-seekers away if they are visibly drunk or high.

"We'll try to work with that person if we can," Oakes said. "We try to get them into treatment if we can."

However, he went on, it's not possible to let people stay who pick fights, cause disturbances or otherwise indicate they are potentially a danger to themselves or others. That's why it can be hard to find shelter for people with mental illnesses.

One other growing demographic also struggles to find available housing: young adults up to age 24.

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Jackson Street Youth Services in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties will provide emergency shelter to unaccompanied youths up to age 18, but no older. Helping Hands will take them once they're 21, but no younger, as some of their guests are registered sex offenders.

However, no shelter currently offers room for the in-between ages, and that need appears to be growing.

"We do run a 24-hour crisis line, and probably about 35 to 40 percent of calls we receive are for young adults in need of emergency shelter that night," said Kendra Phillips-Neal, program director for Jackson Street Youth Services. "We can help 16 to 17. It's the 18- to 24-year-olds. We have trouble finding appropriate and safe places for them to be."

Jackson Street received 57 calls in 2017 from young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 in the three-county area looking for immediate shelter, Phillips-Neal said. That has more than doubled this year. "That’s so far," she said.

Calculating the scope

It's not easy to get a handle on the scope of homelessness in the mid-valley. Volunteers spend the last 10 days of January every two years doing a homeless count nationwide, trying to capture figures that reflect people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and on the street. It's called the point-in-time count, and is generally considered wildly inaccurate, but it's about as good as counties can get. 

In 2017, the homeless point-in-time count in Linn County was 180 people out of a population of roughly 124,000. That figure was 287 people in Benton County, out of a population of 92,575.

The Oregon Department of Education releases a report each November on the number of students who live in a homeless situation at some point during the year. In that case, "homeless" is defined as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence, and includes students staying with friends or family as well as those sleeping in campsites, emergency shelters or substandard housing.

For the 2016-2017 school year, the estimated number of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grades was 272 for Greater Albany Public Schools, the seat of Linn County, and 323 for Corvallis, the seat of Benton County. 

That's part of the reason Helping Hands is looking to open a family shelter at its new-old location on Main Street. Need continues to grow, Oakes said.

"You don't realize how easy it is: You lose your job, you lose your home ..." he said. "It can happen to anybody for absolutely no fault of your own."

Self-sufficiency

To Sharon Konopa, mayor of the city of Albany and a longtime advocate for programs aimed at eradicating homelessness, shelters like Helping Hands aren't the final answer — they're just one tool in the fight. 

She's particularly concerned by last week's ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the city of Boise can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

That puts the burden for housing people squarely on city government, which Konopa opposes. 

"To me, I can’t see how that’s going to play," she said. "So we have to keep building more and more shelters — why should anybody try to work toward being self-sufficient?"

Konopa said she's grateful for all Helping Hands has done in the past two decades to help with self-sufficiency. Temporary shelter is critical as a means to an end, she agreed, but not the end itself.

"They have been essential in being able to serve the homeless," she said. "Our goal is to get a roof over their head, and Helping Hands is that first step in helping somebody to become self-sufficient. That's the ultimate goal."

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