If Tiffany Ellis, 50, had a home, she’d work on her art. “I like to decorate mannequin heads with sequins and little triangles and zeroes and squares, all different colors,” she says, “just do something cool and fun.”
Cynthia McMurry, 57, and Charles Saunders, 76, would like a place where they could have flower and vegetable gardens and from which they could go fishing and maybe even gold mining. “We’ve got plans to do things,” Cynthia says, “but we’ve got to get a place to be.”
Rusty (Rather) DesChamp, 59, would love to get a trailer or a modular home out in the country around Cottage Grove, where he used to live, with a cat and a dog and a television, “the essentials,” he says. “I’ve got to get a dog.”
Tiffany, who lives in a Hut in the Community Supported Shelters Roosevelt Safe Spot has been trying to get into housing for two and a half years. Cynthia and Charles, also residents of the Roosevelt camp, have been looking for three years. All three have regular income from Social Security or SSI Disability. Rusty, who lives in the CSS Vets Safe Spot, can just begin to look for housing now, finally establishing an income after winning an almost 2-year long appeal to collect disability.
CSS helps people survive homelessness and begin to take the necessary steps to climb out and to move up into more traditional housing. But for many people experiencing homelessness, the ladder toward more stable living is missing critical rungs, making that ascent seem nearly impossible at times.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Charles says. “We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do.” They have signed on to every housing list available and filled out more rental applications than they can count, “a lot more than 50,” Charles says. They have good credit, some savings, and people willing to write letters of recommendation. They use the bus as their primary means of transportation and keep their eyes peeled for “For Rent” signs. They follow up with phone calls during their shifts on gate duty at the Roosevelt camp.
But Charles spent 25 years in prison for a felony he claims was a set-up by a vengeful, corrupt prosecuting attorney in Idaho, and Cynthia is Samoan, with a golden tone to her skin. They both have physical disabilities. For all their efforts, no one has offered them an apartment.
“People look at you crossways when they find out you served time in prison. They’re afraid,” Charles says. “People have a hard time with the color of my skin and my disability,” Cynthia says. Because of their disabilities—Cynthia had a brain injury as a child that did lasting damage and a more recent stroke that renders her left hand unusable, and Charles has been in a wheelchair for twenty-eight years because of deteriorating disk and bone disease and spina bifida—they need to live on a lower floor with accessibility.
In a housing market like Lane County’s, where strong demand and a significant shortage of affordable housing create steep barriers, those personal factors make each step toward a home an even taller order.
Tiffany has two felonies on her record, the most recent in 2016 when she thought she was in danger and “freaked out” when authorities tried to force her to leave a hospital where she had sought refuge. She got three-years’ probation, which she has served successfully and will complete at the end of October this year.
She was at the Mission before first moving to the Roosevelt camp in December 2017. When she had reached the ten-month limit there without finding housing, she moved into a Conestoga Hut at Messiah Lutheran Church in Santa Clara. But after a couple of months there, she says, she got lonely and a new spot opened up at Roosevelt, so she moved back earlier this year.
“I’ve been looking for housing the whole time since I was at the Mission. I was seeing my counselor there and filling out any paperwork or forms she had.” Since then, with help from CSS, she has been working with St. Vincent de Paul and is planning to see if she can get help from Catholic Community Services. “I’m more than happy to fill out any form possible that will help me achieve something higher than what I’m doing right now,” she says
But when her hopes have been raised, her past felonies have knocked her down. “At one place they said, ‘You’re a felon and we don’t really want felons.’” Another time, she got a letter saying she wasn’t the kind of person they wanted in their facility. “And they said I lied about it, but I didn’t lie about it. I just put down the two worst things.” She says she didn’t realize the expectation was that she would list her entire history.
“They always talk about the felonies, so I thought I could speak to them and say, ‘Yes, I had two felonies and here’s what happened with them.’” But she didn’t get that chance.
Tiffany finds some hope in women friends from the camp who have successfully found housing. But two examples she mentions both had help from family members providing a boost into more traditional and stable housing situations. Once in that sort of housing, people have a better shot at establishing the history necessary to open up other housing opportunities.
“I don’t know that many people,” Tiffany says.
Part of Rusty’s problem is that he doesn’t have much rental history, not because of any irresponsibility, but because he’s mostly lived in travel trailers or motor homes parked on property either owned by relatives or where he worked to cover his rent—or both. So that’s made it challenging to fill out some of the forms that housing agencies are looking for.
He also has a criminal history. Some folks were doing something he didn’t like and he fired shots. “I wasn’t trying to get the guys, just scare them,” he says. But he got three counts of unlawful use of a firearm and served 16 months in prison. He got out almost two years ago and lived at Sponsors before moving to the Vets Camp a few months ago.
He was on disability when he went into prison. He’s had a broken neck and a lower back injury and has a mechanical knee. He had a triple heart bypass about five years ago, leaving him with no endurance or stamina. But his disability income lapsed while he was in prison, and when he reapplied after he got out, he was denied—in the fastest time ever, he says. He was told he was able to work—despite documentation from both mental health and primary care doctors. He believes that the fact that he’d just gotten out of prison had to have had an effect on the rapid, negative decision.
It took him almost two years to win his appeal. Now, expecting his first check, he feels he can begin his search for housing in earnest. He’s started working with St. Vincent de Paul and says he has lots of good references. His greatest hope is that he gets enough in back payments from disability, making up for the time he was appealing his denial, that he can buy a trailer or motor home to set down on some land in the country and get his dog. His last dog died after he got out of the hospital with his triple bypass and, he says, “I told myself I had to get a dog or I was going to get in trouble, and then bigger than shit . . . Whether or not that was the reason, that’s when it happened.”
Every person in the CSS program is assigned an action plan advisor who meets regularly with them and helps them move from wherever they are when they enter the program toward their personal goals, including finding conventional housing.
Marie Laura Roehrich works with Tiffany and Charles and Cynthia. She says felonies are difficult to overcome, but there are legal support agencies who will help people expunge felonies at reduced rates. CSS has a general assistance fund available to help clients with expenses involved in cleaning up their records. But there are many stipulations as to who is eligible to have felonies expunged and no one in the CSS program has yet been able to take advantage of that. For example, even after Tiffany completes her three-year probation, she may still be ineligible because of her earlier felony. And Charles’ felony can never be expunged because it involved a sex offense. That also disqualifies him from Homes for Good, Lane County’s low-income housing agency, which will, under certain conditions, accept people with felonies on their records.
Other agencies, such as St. Vincent de Paul and Cornerstone Community Housing, are also open to people with histories that property management companies reject reflexively. But waiting lists are long and opportunities are limited.
Independent landlords could have more flexibility than management companies, if they gave individual applicants a chance to explain their histories and where they are now.
“People come from all kinds of backgrounds and have had to face various challenges,” Marie Laura says. “And even if someone has something on their history, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to repeat it. I think it’s important for people to look beyond the stigmas that society associates with certain choices people have made, to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’ve learned from their experiences.”
“These are real good, good people who’ve just faced a lot of challenges in their lifespans,” she says.
CSS action plan advisors help clients determine what lists they need to get on, to complete all the necessary paperwork, and to get to appointments. They are a part of the compassionate CSS community that also includes the other residents of the Safe Spots and other CSS staffers.
“It’s really helpful for all of them to be in a safe, secure space that creates a stabilized environment,” Marie Laura says. “It makes a difference for them to be in that supportive community so they can put more energy towards this complicated system that just has lots of barriers.”
Tiffany is grateful for the time she’s been in the CSS Roosevelt camp. “I really like this camp. It’s like a family here. I don’t have any family. It’s just nice to have these people that I’ve gotten to know and who make me feel better. I love these people. And then we’ve got the whole other deal over at the [CSS] office. Everybody at the office, they’re just wonderful, wonderful people.”
But she really hopes to move on sometime soon. “That’s what I’m concerned with, because I’m doing this probation and not getting in any trouble and just following whatever I’m supposed to do, minding my Ps and Qs and crossing my Ts and whatever. I’m looking forward to getting off probation, but even then I may not have a place to live.”
She’d just like a chance to explain herself to the person on the other side of her housing application: “I’m fifty years old and I’ve made some mistakes, but I really, really would like to live in your establishment. I understand I have a couple of felonies, one from a long time ago, the other more recent. I want to get my felonies removed, so that’s what I’m working for. But it takes more than just wanting it.”
Rusty is now four years sober and glad to be in the Vets Camp where he finds a camaraderie and respectfulness. “I haven’t ever really look forward to the future. I’ve started looking at that through one of the classes [at Sponsors], Moral Recognition Therapy, and it asks you, ‘What do you want to be doing in five years, ten years, if you had that much time to live, what would you do?’ A lot of it was imagination, but it actually got me to thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m hoping I can save my money up and buy me a modular home or a trailer. A home. So I’ll have my own place. I won’t have to keep moving. That’s what I’ve been doing for years.”
Charles and Cynthia say being in the Roosevelt camp has saved their lives. They met shortly after Charles got out of jail three years ago and they have been determinedly inseparable since then. “This is the only place we can be together,” Charles says. “If we weren’t here, we’d be out on the streets.”
“And we’d probably be dead,” Cynthia adds, “because Eugene downtown is not a place to be homeless at our age.”
Charles and Cynthia manage the kitchen at Roosevelt and enjoy being part of the community, but they feel stuck in some ways. They’d like to have some time to do some of the things that a couple growing old together in conventional housing can do: working in the yard, going out to a movie, taking regular showers, coming and going as they please, having the conveniences that electricity makes possible.
They are working with several agencies now in pursuit of housing and even pursuing the possibility of buying a house with the small savings they have been able to accumulate.
“We just want a place we can call our home,” Charles says. “I hope we get one pretty quick because I’m getting old. I have been busting my butt trying to find a place and I’m going to keep trying until we get one.”
And like Tiffany, he owns up to his past. “We’re honest and I’ll tell whatever you want to know right now about me and about her.”
Felonies, physical disabilities, mental illness, racial differences, spotty rental histories, lack of family connections in the community, a history of homelessness and all its complication, a rental market stacked against you: any one of those will knock a rung out of the ladder that people experiencing homelessness are trying to climb toward housing opportunities. Combine a few of those and there isn’t much ladder left.
And yet these five people, up against so many barriers, still find reason to hope—and to smile.
“Give people a chance,” Charles says. “That’s all we’re asking. Look at them and see who they are now.”