In Wednesday’s dying daylight hours, volunteers gathered in Pendleton to find the homeless.
Janet McFarlane met Liz Cahill and Diane Groff at Dave’s Chevron to go over the ground rules of the point-in-time federal homeless count.
A homeless census that was taking place across the country, the point-in-time count is organized in Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam, and Wheeler counties by the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon.
CAPECO case worker Sean Ruud said the numbers compiled by volunteers would help determine funding for services like low-income and affordable housing, transportation, food and grant funding for other agencies and organizations concerned with the homeless.
After CAPECO suspected it was undercounting the homeless, the nonprofit bolstered its volunteer force and began collaborating with other organizations that regularly deal with local homeless populations like schools and churches.
The renewed effort bore results: the Umatilla County homeless count jumped from 55 in 2017 to 511 in 2018.
Out of that population, 57 percent were residing in Pendleton.
At Dave’s Chevron, McFarlane was trying to improve her own counting methods.
She told Cahill and Groff that she spent so much time looking for homeless from her car last year that she got carsick.
This year she wanted to spend more time on foot and focused on areas where the homeless tended to congregate: Stillman Park, the Pendleton River Parkway, recycling centers at grocery stores, and gas station convenience stores.
McFarlane’s group was assigned to the flats between Interstate 84 and the Umatilla River. Other volunteer groups covered broad swaths of the Pendleton area, including south of Interstate 84, north of the Umatilla River, the McKay Reservoir area, and the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Any homeless people who checked into the Pendleton Warming Station or the Salvation Army would also be asked to take part in the count.
McFarlane handed her fellow volunteers the forms they were supposed to fill out. Participants were only required to provide their first initial and the first three letters of their last name, but she said they could provide a pseudonym if they wanted.
Questions ranged from standard age and health questions to queries about their past with drugs, domestic violence, and how long they had been homeless.
If a person refused to answer a question, McFarlane said it was OK to move on.
The trio traveled to Stillman Park first, where they met Dave Kelly, Wesley Walker, and a woman who asked to be referred to as “Plain Jane.”
After some initial caginess, their personal biographies started to flow out beyond the simple yes or no answers.
Stories about drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, deteriorating relationships, missed opportunities, and broken bodies.
They also talked about a town that seemed hostile to their existence.
Kelly said the homeless that meet under the Stillman Park shelter work hard to keep the area clean and will try to be friendly to passers-by only to be met with disdain.
“The homeless take better care of this city than the city does,” he said.
Walker also voiced some skepticism that the point-in-time count would lead to better services for the homeless.
“We try this over and over and over again and nothing happens,” he said.
Even with that said, all three people at Stillman Park complied with the survey and the volunteers left on warm terms with them.
Before leaving, they told McFarlane that many of the local homeless were probably heading toward the warming station as the evening temperatures dipped below freezing.
With the warming station already handling counting duties, the volunteers headed to the Pendleton Public Library, where they hoped to find homeless people taking advantage of the heated interior.
It was there that they found Kevin Smith, who closed his James Patterson novel as the volunteers approached.
Smith told Cahill that he had been forced to move away from Salem when rent costs outstripped his Social Security check.
But he found himself in a similar situation in Pendleton, where the cost of first month’s rent and a deposit could exceed $1,000.
Although he’s been forced into homelessness, Smith said he spent many days on foot searching for housing, unaware that Pendleton and Kayak offered public transportation.
A sense of isolation set in and now he’s looking to relocate again.
“I thought nobody cared, and that’s scary,” he said.
After leaving the library, the three volunteers began reflecting on their early experiences.
Cahill said she was surprised to learn that one of the men she interviewed was only 2 years older than her but looked much older.
Cahill and her wife Groff said they had read about the point-in-time count in the East Oregonian and decided to volunteer.
Active at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Cahill and Goff had heard about the need for help and had considered volunteering at the warming station before taking the plunge with the homeless count.
Once they finished at the library, the volunteers bounced around between locations.
McFarlane said a couple riding bikes on the riverwalk tried to lead them to where they thought a homeless man was living, but he wasn’t there.
They encountered another man behind the East Oregonian’s 211 S.E. Byers Ave. office who had already been counted at the warming station, but he couldn’t sleep there because they were already at capacity.
Told about the skepticism and weariness expressed by the homeless, Rudd said in an interview that CAPECO was willing to help but couldn’t hold the hand of everyone seeking their services.
Although it was only the second point-in-time count she has participated in, McFarlane said she’s had more than 20 years of experience dealing with the homeless through her previous job at Lifeways and other work.
McFarlane said so many homeless were willing to share their life stories because they were used to people looking away or avoiding them.
“They get frustrated and tired and they just give up,” she said.
In an “ideal world,” McFarlane said there would be a central location where homeless residents could collect mail and get connected with services on a regular basis.
In McFarlane’s view, the work she and other volunteers do is not a handout, but an opportunity to educate them about what services are out there.