As we go about our business here in the Mid-Willamette Valley, we see people huddled in doorways, living under overpasses, shuffling along Wallace Road. These people are the most obvious of those experiencing homelessness. But, there are many more who you would not think of being in the same predicament of being without a home. There are many opportunities to get to know these people and understand a little more of whom they are.

Several times a year, my church works with Family Promise (previously Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network) to house families with children that have nowhere to stay. The families are our Church’s guests for the week. Church members prepare food, activities and wrap the families in friendliness and hospitality. During the day, the families spend time at the West Salem day center where a case manager helps them contact resources that help them with job training and location (if they are not already employed), locate stable housing, and regain their independence.

A Place of Kindness and Support
The Center for Hope and Safety (formerly the Mid-Valley Women’s Crisis Service) is another center that helps women and youth find safety from domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking. Human trafficking here in Salem? Yes, it does happen here. The Center provides a service of immediate safety and shelter for those in need. They work with survivors of all races, colors, creeds, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity. Their crisis number is (503) 399-7722 or call toll free in Oregon 1 (866) 399-7722.

Last week’s Marion County Community Homeless Connect put on by Salem Leadership Foundation, Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency and Mid-Valley United Way connected those who are homeless with resources that will help them get to a more stable place. Over 500 guests were served by more than 270 volunteers. Who were the volunteers? Just regular folks like you and me and 27 student volunteers from Corban University who wanted to lend a hand.

The best place and the place of meeting where “Us” and “Them” became “We” was the Friendship Café (the best “pop-up” café in Salem!) where over 900 meals were served. The guests were seated and served, (no buffet line here!), a homemade breakfast of sausage and egg frittata, apple spice coffee cake, and peaches. Everyone was friendly and polite, offering many kudos to the chefs who prepared these delicious meals. Conversations were started and we learned who each other are.

It Can Happen to Anyone
Think that these are not people you know? Guess again. A few years ago, one of the clients called out my name, “Selma!” This gentleman had previously done some flooring work in my house. He had gotten addicted, lost his job, lost his truck, lost his home, lost his family. He was so upset by what had happened, that he could not continue talking with me. He just pulled his hat over his eyes, and cried.

The first time I worked at Community Homeless Connect, I worked on the Medical Teams International Dental Van. I expected the patients to be of a certain stereotype. Wrong. The patients looked and dressed like you and me. Acted like you and me. You may think you know who is experiencing homelessness, but you don’t.

Once when I was working on the Dental Van, the van was parked at Rite-Aid in downtown Salem. I was seeing students from the Downtown Learning Center. I treated the students, and chatted with them as I worked. These students were really mature, and to a one, knew exactly what they were going to do next, where they were going. Whoever the school district had to work with these students was doing an excellent job! Later I found out that these students were “couch surfers,” meaning that they did not have a home, but were just crashing at a friend’s house. Good luck, students! You will all go far. You are ready for the world, and will certainly be an asset wherever you wind up!

Neighbors Helping Neighbors
The cornerstone of downtown assistance is the Union Gospel Mission, a facility originally founded by local business leaders to help men who are homeless. Women and children are housed in a separate facility, Simonka Place, in Keizer. When you see that people spilling outside the front door, it is because it is full and there is no more room inside for more guests. Here the guests have facilities and services that hope to start them on a journey to being treated with respect and dignity, restoring the hope that everyone counts.

When I enter UGM, I am greeted warmly and with much friendliness. This Easter Sunday, as I volunteered to serve Easter breakfast again, I was once again struck by the commonality of all of us as people. If you want to help out, UGM has a fun run at Riverfront Park on June 2, 2018 called “Walk for Hope.” Anyone can join in and support this great mission.

Working Together as a Community
Much still needs to be done to help people who are homeless. Private and public entities can come together to get something substantial done. Lately, we’ve heard of McKay High School student, Raul Marquez, who was pivotal in bringing together the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, Mid-Valley Community Action Agency, and the Legislature in securing funds for a shelter for homeless teens. Another public-private partnership composed of the Housing Authority, City of Salem and Salem Health Foundation is giving an option for some who are chronically homeless to have medical respite beds, an alternative to being discharged back to the streets.

Another area for private-public collaboration is employment for those who were homeless. Look at the Delancey Street Foundation work in San Francisco. People who were addicted, previously incarcerated, homeless or with little education are transforming their lives. They are taking charge of themselves and becoming productive, fully participating members of the community. They then turn around and help others who were in similar situations. Albuquerque, New Mexico (There’s a Better Way) and Austin, Texas (R.I.S.E. ATX) have developed public-private programs to employ citizens who are homeless. These programs give structure, a sense of purpose, accomplishment and dignity to their participants, then they can help themselves.

Though we have a ways to go regarding homelessness, when we come together as a community, we can get to a better place.