Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Connecting in Polk County

By Sarah Rohrs

Event Flyer
Official Report                             Audio Report

Nearly homeless or already living in the streets, they all share something in common -  big needs for food, shelter, clothing, and health care for themselves, their children and their pets. 

And they hold out for something a little more intangible – compassion, understanding and also some hope for housing, jobs and other services that will make a difference in their lives.

Dozens of local poor and needy joined with volunteers at the end of January for the Polk Community Connect held at the Valley Live Center in Dallas. For one day the church was transformed into a veritable social service agency. 

With the doors about to open for the day-long Jan. 27 event, volunteers from one local church darted around the sanctuary folding, stacking and placing shirts, sweaters, pants, socks and shoes of all kinds.
The Sanctuary Transformed into a Clothing Store

Others set up booths to give out information and referrals for child care, veteran services, housing and job programs and other services.

In other rooms, volunteers got ready to repair bikes, cut hair and hand out backpacks, camping items and blankets.

The annual Polk County Connect helps give social service providers and social leaders a chance to better learn the needs of the homeless and poor, organizers said. 

They have a chance to connect with them and offer services to, possibly, get them off the street or just give them a little hope and lift in spirits.

Dental Care Waiting Room

The event also facilitates an area homeless survey that gives officials some kind of indication of how many homeless people are living in their communities. 

The Polk County day-long homeless survey differed significantly from Salem’s in that the homeless and poor can come to one spot and find services all under one roof. 

Meanwhile, Salem, volunteers went out in mobile teams to count people.

Waiting for families to stop by her table, Debra Montgomery with the  Community Action Head Start of Marion and Polk Counties said the event is “priceless” opportunity for social service agency representatives to connect to needy people all in one place. 

“We’re getting to know what they need and getting them the help they need,” Montgomery said.

The Salt Creek Baptist Church collects clothing for months, and has orchestrated the clothing give-away numerous times. Throughout the day, busy women replenished dwindling stacks of clothes and kept the piles neat.

Clothing is on Most Clients' List of Needs
 “We’ve done this for a few years so we’ve got a good system,” said Gayle Jurgensen of the church who added she enjoys taking part. “This is an incredible group of volunteers who make this possible. It’s a neat thing to do.” 

Nearly 50 men, women and children in strollers or holding a parent’s hand waited outside for the doors to open at 9:30 a.m. 
Two portable dental clinics awaited clients in the parking lot, and people milled around getting cups of coffee and water and signing up for animal care, dental care and other services.

Later in the day, one woman came out of the dental van smiling and beaming. Through large pieces of gauze in her mouth, she said she was glad finally to get several bad teeth removed.

Inside, the church kitchen people prepared plates with breakfast burritos with pieces of fruit and bread with other goodies donated by the Salvation Army and local businesses.
The First of Two Hot Meals 

The James2 community Kitchen passed out a few granola bars and oranges and gave out fliers about free meals and Marion Polk Food Share food distribution points in Dallas and Falls City.

In a spacious room transformed into a café, Oregon Health and Science University students greeted guests and showed them to tables. Once seated, the students took their orders and delivered steaming plates of food to them. 

Student Pablo Newell said the volunteer day helps him and others become better aware of what needs exist in the community and also puts a human face on “public health” issues of poverty and other needs.

As people gathered at round tables to eat, East Valley Vineyard Church worship pastor
Singing in the Cafe
Michele Holland stood on a small stage with a guitar and sang songs about love and healing. Other musicians performed throughout the day, too.

“This is just the coolest thing,” Holland said. “I’m so happy to be part of it.”

Each homeless and poor person had a story and a long list of needs they wanted to get met at the event.

Bike Repair Room

Outside, a middle-aged homeless man named Stan sat in a plastic chair for a long wait to get inside for services. He got a card with the number 92 on it so 91 people were in front of him.

“I need pretty much everything they got to provide,” Stan said, adding that he is staying at the Salem Mission Faith Ministries until he can get back on his feet. Stan said he had been staying at Restoration House but had to leave when a disagreement broke out.

“It’s hard (to be homeless), especially when you don’t have a stable place and are under the control of others,” Stan said. 

Stan was one of numerous people – homeless or otherwise – who assembled near the Polk County Bridge to get a ride to the event. “I think this is really great. It’s nice that people go out and do all this for other people,” Stan said. 

Event Van
A homeless Salem man everyone calls Fate also rode in the van to the event. He arrived with a large backpack on his back, well-worn clothes and his dog who sat leashed and quietly at his feet. 

Fate said he is 31 years old and has been homeless for about a year. He said he lost his job. When his safety net fell apart he started living on the streets. 

As he waited to get inside, Fate said he most wanted to get a partially broken tooth fixed at the free dental labs, but was eager to see what else he might need. 

Eventually, Fate said he wants to go back to college and get a degree in theoretical science.

Fate said services for homeless people are okay in Salem, but could be better. He said better coordination is needed among agencies. As an example, he said he got a free tarp but it was too small for most tent sizes and he couldn’t use it.

For Some, the Connect is a Very Personal Statement

Single mothers and others loaded up on whatever else they could take with them. One woman with young children pushed a stroller with every available handle and space hanging and piled with clothes and other items.

A woman from a local Lions Club passed out items she had bought herself at the Dollar Store to give away. They included packets of Q-tips, feminine hygiene products inside discarded eye glass containers, plus dental floss and tooth brushes.

A young homeless man who declined to give much personal information said life on the streets in Salem is difficult. 

Among the biggest challenges he and others like him face, he said, are transportation, clothing, and access to jobs. The rural poor and homeless face even greater challenges with travel and gaining access to services, several said.

Departing Guests May Shop for Needed Items in the Exit Store

Some who showed up at the event were homeless by choice, or due to domestic violence, chronic health issues, or nowhere to go after incarceration. Some are couch surfing, staying at friends and relatives temporarily until they have to move on.

Volunteers spend months staging the event, aiming to show some love, compassion and hope, as well as to offer practical help for the poor to get back on their feet and get ahead. 

Comments on Willamette Wakeup piece on the Polk County Connect

Comment 1
"I am writing this with tears in my eyes.  Your story today was moving and informative.  Two big take-aways: 1) the irony/pain I felt when one guest said she was "lucky"; 2) when the hairdresser said she "used to be afraid" of people who are homeless.  That was pure honesty.  I think the fear comes from the realization that any one of us could be in the circumstance at some point.  It was beautifully written and presented."

Comment 2
"Your homeless report this morning really touched me in a lot of ways. It kindles a lot of personal investigation and spiritual inventory. Many of us don't think much about homelessness because it is uncomfortable, loaded with fears, and seems easier to ignore. You all did a fantastic job of bringing a difficult subject into peoples lives in a way that I believe can change the way we all look at and think about the homeless. At the very least, you have inspired my own internal conversations about homelessness.

Additionally noting this for future production, using all those audio recordings from the voices of the homeless really added depth and reality to the report. It meant so much more to me as a listener than just having a civil servant or social work representative come to our studio to present statistics and mention available programs (not to undervalue the importance of that).  I want everyone in our counties to listen to what the four of you put together."

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, the event connected with at least 300 members of the community. 39 received dental care (market value about $20K), 52 got haircuts, and 21 got signed up for insurance. 100 animals received care and a buncha bikes were repaired.