Fay and Erik de Buhr didn’t really have any intention of starting a nonprofit that would build and manage emergency shelter for the homeless. But their experience doing “interpersonal social work” and experimenting with small living spaces meshed with unexpected synchronicity with community demands to take real action to address homelessness in Eugene-Springfield.
“We really just kept following threads,” Erik says.
A prototype Conestoga Hut, which Erik and Fay and son Abram were living in behind the CSS shop, was set up in Eugene’s Park Blocks for a City Council meeting in late 2012. The purpose was to encourage the council to include such structures in the city’s car camping program so they could be used in Opportunity Village, which was then still in the planning stages.
The council approved inclusion of the Huts in the car camping program but that early exposure of the Hut bore other fruit as well. Two donors contributed money to build the first two Huts under that program at the Church of the Resurrection and another donor challenged Eugene businesses to match his donation of $5000—and that $10,000 would help build 10 of 28 Huts that were placed in 2013.
“We have also received a flood of e-mail from groups and individuals interested in helping build the huts or donate materials,” said a story in a December 2012 Opportunity Village newsletter. The community support inherent in the vision and the work of Community Supported Shelters had begun to activate.
“We started to realize there was some community momentum around this,” Erik says.
It was also in the winter of 2012-13 that Craig Satein first saw a Conestoga Hut outside Eugene’s Holiday Market. He was intrigued by the structure and its potential to be “the most appropriate response to homelessness in the last twenty years within Lane County.” He participated in a few Hut builds and saw, among the eager crowd of volunteers, a fair amount of confusion, which went against the grain of the efficiency he had learned during a long career at the Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County. He volunteered to build the floor components with one other volunteer at his home in Jasper. He could work at his own pace and, by providing a prefabbed component, increase the efficiency when volunteers gathered to assemble a Hut.
Craig brought that practical mindset when he was asked to join the CSS Board of Directors in the early days after CSS had incorporated as a nonprofit in March 2013. At that point, Erik and Fay were just following the threads of the support that came in, guided by the philosophy that Erik had gleaned from a chapter of a book called, The Seven Laws of Money: “Do it! Money will come when you do the right thing.” And that’s what was happening in those early days. Money came in and more Huts were built.
But Craig lobbied for a budget. “It seemed like a wacky idea to me because I was like ‘money comes and we budget that money.’ He was for budgeting money we didn’t have,” Erik says. Though he had always kept careful records of all expenses, Erik referred to the budget Craig was steering them towards as a “fantasy” budget.
But just as Craig’s contribution as a volunteer had helped refine the Hut building process, the work of the board in those days helped move the fledgling CSS toward more a sophisticated accounting system, so the organization could apply for grants and do more informed organizational planning. “We were so new and green and people didn’t really get us,” Fay says. More traditional budgeting and planning “seemed like big risk. Everything seemed like a big risk for that first year and a half,” she says. But she was grateful that Craig and the board nudged them in that direction.
Craig, with his background in the local governmental bureaucracy, also arranged a meeting between Erik and Fay and then Eugene mayor Kitty Piercy.
Kitty had pledged to seriously address homelessness in Eugene after she had made the decision to close the Occupy Eugene camp in 2012. She had seen the prototype Hut when it was at the Park Blocks for the council meeting and spoke when the first two Huts were built at Church of the Resurrection. She remembers Erik speaking at a council meeting about the need for sites where small groups of homeless people could legally camp. She recalls that at the meeting with Erik and Fay in her office, “They said somebody should do it [run what they were then calling Rest Stops], and I said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ And they did.”
Craig said the board was leery of CSS taking on the Rest Stops as well as building and placing Huts. “Several of us had some real serious concerns about liabilities and legalities and all the risk involved, how you manage that,” he says. “Some of us were overwhelmed with it. But Erik and Fay looked at those concerns from a different point of view and did not get disabled by it.”
Kitty is thankful for that. “I don’t know how we ever would have gotten this Rest Stop thing going and doing it so well if we didn’t have people as dedicated to the well-being of other folks as Erik and Fay. It’s not something you’re going to see a lot of financial return on. You don’t even know when you start whether you’re going to get much support or not. You just know that you feel like you have to do something.”
“I don’t think government could have done it,” she says. Government can’t operate on “Money will come if you do the right thing.” And sometimes Erik and Fay have wondered if CSS can.
David Hazen had met Erik and Fay before their CSS days, but got involved when a group from the First Congregational Church volunteered to help build tent platforms for the Rest Stops, which have been renamed as Safe Spots, and was invited to interview some of the clients to get background information for a board game Erik was working on called “Get A Job, You Bum!”
“I went and interviewed a guy who had a great story, and I identified with many parts of his story, and realized there but for the grace of God go I. It was really a good experience for me and the other people in our congregation. After that, I started to become a monthly supporter.”
David says his monthly donation is not a lot, but he thinks it’s important to contribute a regular amount. He donates to several organizations that match his values. Nonprofits especially appreciate people who pledge monthly amounts because they provide a base of financial support from which to make plans.
“I totally feel aligned with the values that CSS employs, where they want to empower the clients,” he says. “They trust the clients to make their own decisions that are in their own best interests and they don’t try to force them into a particular way of doing things.”
David has recently become more involved with CSS clients as a volunteer with the Connection Cadre, a group of folks who build one-on-one relationships with Safe Spot residents. He’s already felt rewarded by this experience: “I get to develop my personal capacity for trust, and listening to learn. I have learned from this fellow. I get more out of it than I give—really. I spend about an hour or two a week with this guy, which is more intense than most of the other clients demand, but I don’t mind at all. I really enjoy the time I spend with him, and I get the feeling that I am contributing.”
The risk of taking on management of the Rest Stops—a commitment that required going beyond basing the services CSS could provide on money as it came in—made for some stressful periods in the first couple of years. In 2013 and 2014, a solid donor base had not yet been established and Erik and Fay and volunteers had to devote a great deal of energy to events and garage sales to raise money. In July of 2014, CSS held a day-long block party and sale to keep two Safe Spots open and to be able to continue to build Huts. It had taken months of preparation. “The organizational finances were very low at this point and we were gambling on that event to sustain us,” Erik says. They raised $7500 and the work went on.
“For the first three years of operation,” he says, “we have been in an act of proving to the community that a program like CSS is worthy of a place within the social services spectrum. In a broader sense, we are still proving ourselves to other communities.”
On the donor front, the news has been good. Donations have gone from $41,554 in 2014 to $78,245 in 2015 to $195,336 last year. Similarly, income from events such as the annual fundraising dinner have gone from $13,130 in 2014 to $46,198 last year, always exceeding projections in the “fantasy” budget. On the opposite side, money from grants has never reached budget projections—another reminder that the core of support for CSS comes from the community that experiences the effects of its programs.
“We’re unique in that we are pretty much funded by the community,” Fay says. “It’s not like a big foundation or we’re applying for HUD money. The value in that is that the community is invested in what we’re doing, the community has invested in this vision. How special is that?”
Sati Suwinski and her family have been donors to CSS. Sati also knew Erik and Fay before Community Supported Shelters but it’s the work that attracted her to donate: “Homelessness is a really important issue and very visible issue here in Eugene. For me, any program that addresses an issue by empowering people to make better choices for themselves and sort of inspires them into being more proactive in their own journey and their own path, I think is really, really important.”
This year, she also started volunteering at the front desk at the CSS office. In that role, she is often the first person someone looking for help may encounter in the organization. “It’s an important part of the experience for me because I do get to hear people’s stories. Often they will share a bit about where they’re at now, maybe where they’ve been in the past, what their journey has been that has brought them to Community Supported Shelters and to homelessness. I am always hoping that we can be of service to people even if they don’t end up living in one of our camps. I think just having an interaction with someone who’s really listening and who’s present can be supportive for people.”
Her partner, Joshua, also volunteers with CSS, helping to update their client/applicant database so it can handle more information and have greater reporting capabilities. Sati and Joshua are going to be married next spring. Their wedding is going to be a fundraiser for CSS. Talk about community support!
Why is CSS able to attract such generous donors and dedicated volunteers?
“The effects of helping create security and stability for people in our community ripple out,” Sati says. “It increases feelings of safety for people. And it’s something that affects everyone. If you go downtown you see people literally sleeping on the streets. So it’s visible, and it ultimately touches a chord of humanity in us. I think we all know that a lot of people are close to becoming homeless and live really close to the bone and are just one medical emergency away from being homeless. It’s an issue that touches the compassion and the human family element in all of us.”
“And [CSS] is set up for people’s success, for more community and people stepping into their own empowerment and leadership and connection. I think that’s really important.”
Community Supported Shelters is still following threads and trying to do the right thing, with faith—informed now with good data and world-wise advisors—that the support from the community will continue to come.
“There’s so much power in the people coming together in community to accomplish a goal,” Fay says, “bringing what we can as a community to help the disadvantaged whether it’s material or financial. To me the most beautiful part of what we have is that interaction.”
She points out that at the annual fundraising dinner this year, almost everyone in the room ended up standing when Erik asked people to stand who had worked on a Hut or helped with a meal or met with clients or worked at the front desk or otherwise done hands-on work to support CSS.
“The few people who weren’t standing were probably thinking, ‘whoa, these people aren’t just giving money, they are participating in creating and operating this shelter program,’” Erik says. A quick check of its donor and volunteer databases showed 125 people who give both time and money to CSS. In 2016, volunteers logged a total of 25,240 hours for CSS.
“We really try to make it about the relationships, about the personal connections,” Fay says. That applies to the relationship between CSS as an organization and its clients, the relationship between volunteers and CSS, the relationship between the community and CSS, and the relationship between the community and the homeless.
“There are all these micro-situations where community members who are in the housed community and the unhoused community get together and they get to see each other in this different light,” Erik says. “That’s one important thing for us, creating opportunities for people to have intimate experiences whether you are housed or unhoused. That’s what keeps a lot of people coming back. And we try to keep that experience fresh and fulfilling for people.”
Community support takes many forms: dollars or hours or testimony in the public arena from leaders like Kitty Piercy or media as in recent Register-Guard editorials. The return on those investments of money and time and spirit to help those perceived as less fortunate brings rewards on a profound personal level as well as benefiting the communities of homelessness and the larger community which surround them.
“The piece that Erik and Fay have worked on so hard is how to help people become part of the world again, part of the community again,” Kitty says. “To be cared about and to care for others is a really big thing. It’s sort of a unique step in the continuum of care for people who are unhoused.”
Support for CSS as well as Opportunity Village and Emerald Village illustrates the generosity and caring in our community, she says.
CSS exemplifies “the desire to do something, no matter how small, to get people in a better place with a better chance for a better future,” Kitty says. “I think the community has recognized that and they think very highly of Erik and Fay and everybody who works for Community Supported Shelters because it’s such a humble but very, very important piece of recognizing humanity in everybody.”