Lee Honore Means - Education, jobs are the way out

Editor’s Note: In January, Yamhill County’s 2014 one-day homeless count documented 1,217 people, 45 percent of whom were younger than 18, including 602 families.

When I first joined Yamhill Community Action Partnership six-plus years ago, I was told numerous times in several communities, “We don’t have homeless people here!” But I knew differently.

I sat at the front desk and heard the stories coming through YCAP’s doors daily. Many touched my heart.

Two women, an 80-year-old mother and her 60-year-old daughter, came in late one October day asking for help. They had been living in a tent until it became too cold. To stay warm, they moved into their car to sleep. But the car was cramped and had to be moved nightly, and it was difficult to find bathrooms.

Their story was typical of many people who are self-sufficient until a major health issue thwarts their ability to continue working. They had lived in an apartment on the mother’s Social Security and the daughter’s income from a job until the daughter had a major heart attack and no medical insurance. With only $700 in Social Security benefits and the daughter no longer able to work, they were unable to pay the rent. Two older women who had worked hard all their lives were out on the street with nowhere to go.

Poverty, homelessness intertwined

As a past volunteer GED mentor in a county jail, I met a young man who did not know the multiplication tables, which is necessary for all math past the third grade. When asked why, he shared how his family was homeless, moving six times that year. He was in so many different schools that he could never catch up, and he finally dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

This story is typical of what happens to homeless children, and represents one of the causes of generational poverty.

Education and jobs are the way out of poverty for those able to work. But unless society ensures that children go to school and learn, we will never win the war on poverty.

ECONorthwest, in conjunction with business leaders, developed a report, “A Path to Prosperity — Four Strategies to Reduce Oregon’s Poverty Rate to 10% by 2020.” The four strategies include:

1. Recognize poverty’s diverse demography and geography, and customize programs to meet the range of needs.

2. Steer education and workforce initiatives to provide skills needed for family-wage jobs.

3. Build an economy offering more paths out of poverty.

4. Provide adequate support for those in need, and make work pay.

Serving the local homeless

In Yamhill County, we have approximately 250 to 270 emergency and transitional shelter beds. Yet we continue to document more than 1,000 people homeless in the annual one-day Homeless Count.

Our homeless community members can be divided into three broad categories:

1. People who will always need supportive housing. These people are either mentally ill, developmentally disabled, medically disabled or seniors who, while they worked hard all their lives, receive minimum Social Security payments. Some are receiving only $650 or $750 a month, which doesn’t cover the cost of a low-income apartment and leaves nothing on which to live.

2. People who become homeless for reasons such as domestic violence, job loss, a major medical problem or diminished work hours. These people need some help getting back on their feet but, usually within six months to several years, will be self-sufficient again.

3. People who are homeless due to drug and alcohol addictions, criminal backgrounds, lack of job skills or education, generational poverty or anger issues. This group includes a surprising number of war veterans who are self-medicating post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

People in this category are the most difficult to help. They also cause high expenses to communities because of calls to paramedics, trips to the emergency room, or police, court and jail encounters. They are the most visible, least understood ones causing the most community concern. That concern often creates the belief that “those people” are “using the system,” which, in turn, causes resistance to investing in solutions to the problem.

YCAP provides some assistance to people in the first two categories. One grant provides rental assistance for up to eight severally mentally ill people. If this funding were doubled, it still would not meet the need in our county.

Transitional shelter success

YCAP’s three transitional shelters have space for 11 families who may stay for up to six months. It is communal living in old homes, with one entire family sharing each bedroom, and three or four families sharing the bathroom, kitchen and living room.

It is not, by any means, a comfortable way to live. In spite of that, there is a waiting list of 29 families, down from the more than 50 families waiting in 2009.

Lisa is one of the many success stories coming out of the shelters. To survive domestic violence, she loaded her three children in the car in Texas and came to Oregon, where they could stay with a family member. When there were problems with that situation, she turned to YCAP.

During a six-month stay in the shelter, with help from a case manager, Lisa obtained a job and returned to school part time. Rental assistance allowed her to move into an apartment and continue working toward self-sufficiency. Today, Lisa has graduated from Oregon State University, is working and totally self-sufficient.

Deal with homelessness now

People who hit a difficult situation and find themselves homeless typically are back on their feet in six months to three years with a little help from social services like the ones provided by YCAP. Unfortunately, there is not enough funding to support even the homeless people in the first two categories, let alone the most difficult, last category.

The social consequences of homelessness, if not dealt with now, will plague the county for many years.

Yamhill County has a long way to go to end homelessness, particularly with the funding cuts over the past three years. Social service agencies can’t do it alone. It will take the combined efforts of government, nonprofits, schools and businesses to develop pathways to reduce the poverty rate to 10 percent by 2020.

Guest writer Lee Honoré Means of McMinnville has since June 2007 worked as executive director of YCAP, a social-service nonprofit serving seniors, disabled and low-income people. With a master’s degree from the University of Oregon, she has a background in business, public agencies and nonprofit organizations. She enjoys the outdoors, nature and hiking with her dog.

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