Thursday, March 24, 2016

Salem-Keizer Community Connect

We could see the vision and dental vans parked along Marion Street, headed west, and a couple of men standing by the provider entrance off Liberty Street, but found the doors locked.  The man wearing shorts, a stained parka and a backpack put on his sunglasses and offered to show us where to find the entrance.  As we walked along, he spoke about his frustration trying to sort through conflicting advice from his lawyer and representatives of the Veterans and Social Security Administrations.  His name was Craig.

Craig had just turned 62.  He'd worked as a general laborer most of his life, liked to read, and was quite articulate.  He'd been a dental assistant for the U.S. Navy for four years during the Vietnam era, and was receiving a small, needs-based pension from the VA.  He'd been homeless for about four months after the trailer he and his mentally disabled son were living in was repossessed, despite Craig having just paid the owner "a whole bunch of money" in future rent.

Now, he was staying at the Union Gospel Mission so he could pay off a couple of thousand dollars in debt, and start putting money aside to get an apartment.  He hoped his son's girlfriend would continue to allow the son to sleep on the floor, but he seemed doubtful.  He was wearing shorts because he hadn't realized UGM had changed the laundry room rules and his other clothing was temporarily locked away. 

Mike was manning the roll-around desk by the entrance, handing out maps and attaching glow-green bracelet #264 to the wrist of a guest who was from there ushered inside to a table where he would tell a volunteer which services most interested him.  This was Mike's fourth year at the desk.  At 11:10, traffic was beginning to slow down.  "The families start coming around now."

A woman with a No Pictures sticker across her sternum hurried past us into the building.  Another asked where she could get services for her dog, and did she need to be homeless to get services.  A burly man in a wheelchair wanted a cup of coffee from the urn by the door, but it was all gone.

As the rain let up, a dozen or so guests had come back outside to have a smoke and look after their things.  Bert showed us the many supplies he'd chosen, "But this is the best!"  He held aloft a cellophane-covered square of yellow, "A full set of safety rain gear!" 

Inside, guests and volunteers (blue t-shirts), security workers (yellow) and lead workers (green) exchanged greetings and offers of assistance.  But as the initial rush died down, one could feel a quiet sadness, tinged with frustration.  "We need to offer more services", said one volunteer.  "People need showers, laundry facilities.  We need to provide these things."  We'd heard this at the Polk County Connect, as well.

"Look", said another, pointing to the 2-page intake questionnaire she'd been given to help guests identify needed services.  "Mental health counseling isn't on the list of available services, and it should be." 

"[This morning,] I helped a 21 year-old man, clearly in need of medication, very paranoid."  As there were no psychiatric services she could direct him to, she gave him her standard advice.  "The younger you are when you learn your signs and symptoms, the better your life is.  Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.  He said to me, 'thank you for saying that.'"

"The saddest thing I've seen today", she went on, was three generations living in a car, "the grandmother, mother and her three year-old daughter.  I used to work with the mother at the State Hospital."

Turning left out of the intake area took us to the service-providers' tables - services for children and families, addiction and grief counseling, employment, housing, benefits and veterans.

Heading straight out of intake took us to a gym that was lined with clothing from the Salt Creek Baptist Church, a ReCenter, pet services, haircuts, and a bike repair station.

Tom and Kim were waiting for haircuts.  They had spent the last four months camping up on "the ridge" before the police notified everyone they had to leave.

"We were right there when the police came [on March 8], and they were very nice about it, because we feel that we're normal -- I'm not sure what 'normal' means when it comes to homeless, and we're not judgmental, but, it was tough being there."

That initial police contact was just to warn the campers that they had a week to find somewhere else to live, and to connect them with social services.

"We met two ladies [that day]...and they were exceptionally nice to us."  Within three days, they'd been accepted into a transitional housing program run by the Salvation Army.  "Here we are, and [there's] no going back.  I'm thankful to be part of society again -- I have a lot to offer, I really do."       


  1. Good writeup Sarah on to have connects several times a year or "a daily one!"

    1. If Polk and Marion each held one more connect, we could have one a quarter. I wonder what that would cost, and how hard it'd be to do.

    2. So, I found out that the Polk Connect costs around $3,800. A dental van runs around $700 to $900. I believe the City of Salem provides $2K for the SKCC dental vans. Let's ask the Salem Homeless Coalition if they would be willing to advocate for a second SKCC, okay?