CSS is known for building Conestoga Huts to provide sturdy and secure shelter for folks in need of temporary housing. More than 80 Huts have been built and are currently occupied in and around Eugene and Springfield.
Yet building Huts is only a part of what the organization is about—it also builds Safe Spot communities, where rules and guidelines help create structure and stability, and residents receive support toward eventually attaining the goal of moving into more permanent housing.
After people are approved for admission and move in to one of the three Safe Spot communities, they go through a probationary “getting acquainted” period. Once completed, they begin putting the pieces in place for a more stable life after they leave the program.
Marie Laura Roehrich is the point person for CSS in helping Safe Spot residents navigate their way to affordable housing after they “graduate.” Marie Laura’s job title is action plan advisor, and she sees every day in her work the challenges residents must overcome to create stability for themselves.
“I work with folks to help them see what’s next in their lives after they leave CSS,” she says. “Sometimes it’s helping them with applications for other programs or helping them manage their limited incomes, if they have any. What we do is really all over the map.”
Many Safe Spot residents do have limited incomes, and some have regular jobs. But the cost of housing in Eugene and Springfield being what it is (high, and getting higher!), many cannot put together enough for what’s required by many landlords—first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit. Also, some residents may not have good rental histories, or fail to qualify for Section 8 housing for a variety of reasons.
Marie Laura may help residents manage their medications, get into a sobriety program, track down birth certificates required for certain applications, or get them into mental health counseling if warranted.
“There are certain things that most people take for granted, like having somewhere to keep your belongings, or how to keep track of ID papers,” she says. “But if you’ve been out on the streets for a while, you’re just in survival mode, and you have a hard time getting your life back on track. So we try to help the residents get more organized and focused so they can see what they need to do next.”
Marie Laura helps residents identify their strengths and to clarify how to use and further develop those strengths to meet whatever challenges they face. For some, this is not an easy task. Yet CSS recognizes that everyone has certain skill sets that can be tapped into more fully, like everyone else in society.
Marie Laura’s background in working with low income and disadvantaged folks helps her see the bigger picture of what services might be available for residents at CSS. She has a Masters in Social Work and worked with clients with developmental disabilities at Lane County, in addition to other work and life experiences.
Her client load at CSS is between 30 and 35 residents at the Roosevelt and Northwest Expressway Camps (the CSS Veteran’s Camp has a separate action plan advisor). She meets with residents at the two camps at least once a month. Those meetings are held at the CSS office, where she and the client can have uninterrupted time to focus on the resident’s goals.
One former CSS resident who is successfully transitioning to more permanent housing is Steven Smith. Steven had been staying at the Northwest Expressway Safe Spot and meeting with Marie to figure out what the next housing options might be for him. After a number of meetings and follow-ups with various agencies, then a short stay at a trailer park in Springfield, Steven will soon be moving into Emerald Village, part of Square One Villages of Eugene.
“Marie was there for me all the time,” Steven says. “Every step of the way, she just kept me on track, kept me focusing on my goals. There’s times I’d just lose focus, you know, and she’d call or meet me, and tell me about the next possibility. That really helps!
“I’d sometimes forget appointments or need a reminder, and she was just there,” he says. “Sometimes people just need that something extra, and that’s what she offered me. I’m very grateful.”
Erik de Buhr, co-executive director of CSS, says Marie Laura’s work with clients is an integral part of the mission of CSS. “Marie Laura has a gentle strength to her approach to working with Safe Spot campers,” he says.
“She cares about each person as a unique individual, with unique challenges. She doesn’t skimp at all on her time with clients, and makes an effort to offer her genuine presence to every resident she meets with.”
At the recent annual fund raising dinner, Erik showed a slide of a cartoon drawing of the maze of pathways, most with cul-de-sacs or crazy loop-de-loops, that confront people on the outside looking for a foothold on the rung of low-income housing. Marie’s job is to help clients find their way into that maze, and somehow become successful, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Marie Laura really works to understand the confusing and complex social service system,” says Erik. “It could drive anybody crazy!
“This work is emotionally demanding,” Erik acknowledges. “Marie Laura takes a very conscious approach to her self-care, gives an honest ‘no’ if something is too much to take on, and is really graceful in her overall communication.
“She’s a great role model for others that take on this very difficult challenge of working with people in hardship. She brings a balance to our dedicated and hardworking team.”