While many of us don’t have experience in being without a place to sleep at night, several members of our community unfortunately do. With the issue of how to help the local homeless population ongoing, Heather Echeveste, executive director who oversees the Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative, aims to provide a way out of homelessness whatever way it needs to be done.
The agency operates out of shared space at Origins Faith Community in Ontario, which is right next to the Winter Shelter Pilot Project. The project opened in its current location on Dec. 28 with 16 units, including the shelter office.
“We are able to shelter 15 individuals or families in one unit,” said Echeveste, noting the project presently houses 19 individuals total. “One of those is a parent with two children, and then two of those are couples.”
According to Echeveste, the organization provides assistance services which include COVID relief as a sub-grantee of the Oregon Health Authority, including rent or utilities assistance to assist with the financial impact of the pandemic.
Through the initiative’s New Hope Day Shelter, people in need can get one daily hot meal between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. each weekday, as well as a shower.
“We can let one person in the building at a time … so we schedule those,” said Echeveste. “People can come in and take a shower, we have laundry vouchers so they can go and wash their clothes, we have computers so they can do job and housing searches … Lots going on at all times.”
The initiative is contracted through the non-profit organization Community in Action, to provide oversight for the pilot project.
“There’s someone in the [shelter] office around the clock, Monday through Sunday. With that, we just ensure that people are safe, that they’re following the shelter rules that have been established by Community in Action. We make sure that they have anything they need, including scheduling showers, that they have water for drinking … If children need to attend school virtually, they can use computers downstairs or we can provide them with internet through our WiFi. We also hand out food to them if they need it.”
The church also has a small kitchen which can be used to heat food up, limited to one user at a time. Guests of the pilot project may purchase their own groceries to cook in the kitchen, with storage containers provided to store food in their units.
At all points of staff interaction, individuals are screened for COVID-19 and are required to use hand sanitizer and wear masks in common areas.
The tiny homes live up to their name, while at the same time providing a lot in their little packaging. The homes can fit several cots a piece, and each is equipped with a microwave oven and a compact refrigerator to store meals.
Echeveste said she found the inspiration to become a social worker from her mother.
“Growing up, I knew I would be a social worker because we did face poverty. My mom stood in the food line,” said Echeveste, adding that she figured out she wanted to pursue this career at age 12. “I’ve worked for years and years now. I’ve worked in low-income housing, and so my entire career has been with low income and/or homeless individuals and families. I have a great passion for people facing these difficulties.”
Echeveste noted that good and not-so-good times are a fact of life today, citing historic events including the Great Depression as sources of how to learn from such times.
“You just never know what’s coming tomorrow, and it could be as little as the restaurant you worked at [closing] down, because of COVID. So they maybe went from living a comfortable lifestyle to living in their car. There are so many of those.”
The initiative is one of several throughout Malheur County who work with Community in Action to connect those looking for homes to those who provide the needed supportive housing. The aim is to help individuals with affordability so they may stay in their homes long-term.
“In Malheur County right now, housing stock is an issue and there are a lot of people working on that issue, but that takes a lot of time,” noted Echeveste. “In the meantime, at the last point-in-time count, there was over 300 homeless people in Malheur County. And those are just the ones we’ve identified.”
Matching individuals and families with housing which is compatible with their needs is another layer of that challenge. Echeveste cited disabled access to apartments as one example where attention is needed.
“If you put someone in an apartment and they’re in a wheelchair, and the apartment is upstairs, they might accept that apartment because they don’t want to be homeless. However, that’s obviously not going to work for them long-term.”
She noted that while their staff rents space at Origins Faith Community and receives support from the church, the initiative itself is not a faith-based program and is not connected to the church otherwise.
For Echeveste, perseverance is a shared responsibility. That’s because she believes those in need sometimes need to be shown that there is hope in order for them to keep reaching for it.
“There are lots of people that care in this community; There’s a lot of work taking place behind the scenes. No one wants anyone to be homeless, and when it takes so long, sometimes, to find the right type of housing for a person, they can feel … like, ‘Why am I doing this, why am I even waiting around, why am I continuing to supply paperwork, why am I continuing to fill out these applications?’” she observed. “Although it does take some time, there are people who care. Just don’t give up. Don’t give up on us, we will work and walk with you through every step of it. But at the same time, how much can one person take?”
She also noted that other barriers, such as a lack of experience in available work fields, can further complicate efforts to get people employed again.
“On top of that, the added stress of the pandemic itself” is sometimes more complicated to tackle, said Echeveste. “A lot of things are closed down, most organizations are closed to the public. You can’t just walk in and talk with someone and get that face-to-face understanding of how much people do care. That makes a huge difference. It is hard to ask someone to persevere when they can’t see or feel the work that’s being done on their behalf.”
For those behind the scenes, reaching out to those in need is key for Echeveste. She publishes newsletters for the community which aim to keep the public informed of what’s available.
“I know that they don’t know everything that’s actually taking place here, and we are persevering through all the obstacles that are put in place due to COVID, which are necessary. We want to keep everyone safe, we want to stop the spread, we want to encourage vaccines for people that care to have them, we want to make sure our elderly and disabled are safe and hopefully are not affected by this.”
Echeveste expressed that the morale in her organization remains “extremely high” despite being a fairly new and small one. The biggest barrier to conveying that morale to those in need, she said, is the present social distance.
“Some of the people that are working with us and volunteering with us don’t have a lot of experience in this, and they are very excited about the things we’re accomplishing,” she said. “I think if you asked … someone staying at the shelter, their answer would be very different. They don’t get to come inside and sit in the meetings anymore, they don’t get to visit with their caseworkers and case managers at these different organizations and see and feel the personal connection and the care that they really do have. I partner with a lot of them, so I know that it’s there. When you have to stand 6 feet away from someone outside and it’s freezing outside, there’s not a lot of that that’s being put across.”
At the same time, she said the loss of that feeling is nobody’s fault.
“It’s just the way of our world right now,” she said. “It’s just a really tough time for everyone. I feel the difference in how my job happens every single day, because of the things we can’t do. … A lot of that caring that I would give them doesn’t take place, because we’re standing outside and it’s cold outside. They might have 10 meetings that they have to get to … and they don’t have a phone, and so they have to figure out how to make those meetings by phone without one.”
In that case, Echeveste still aims to help, including by offering help applying for a free phone.
“Obviously, I’m persevering through it, I’m working. Unfortunately, I’m working more now because of the need. The need continues to grow and therefore people in my position, we have more work … and many, many, many others have none.”
Echeveste summarized the situation as a double-edged sword. At the same time, she expressed that those in need need to remember that each of their stories is significant in its own way.
“We all have a story, and we all come from somewhere.”