January 31, 2007

The last of the last resorts

Scott Hammers
Spokesman staff

Rebecca Nicholson’s eyes scan back and forth behind her oversized sunglasses as she pilots her big orange Nissan Xterra through the alley behind the Historic Redmond Church. She’s recognized a man who’s headed east on Cascade Avenue, and the gravel sprays against the car’s undercarriage as she cranks the wheel and guns the motor to double back and intercept him.

It’s Thursday, January 25, and Nicholson is on the streets helping carry out a count of Deschutes County’s homeless. The founder and director of Redmond’s Full Circle Outreach, she’s long accustomed to this kind of work. For the last four years, she’s been running homeless outreach programs out of her home, but it’s only recently she’s gotten herself organized to set up a staffed outreach center. Located across the street from the police station on Deschutes Avenue, Full Circle Outreach has been provided clothes, food, or other forms of help to close to 400 local homeless and low income people since opening its doors last September.

The truck pulls even with the man walking along Cascade. Nicholson jerks her vehicle to the curb and leaps out, motor still running. He’s a little stand-offish at first, leaning back on his heels and cocking his head to examine his inquisitor. Over the next few minutes, he loosens up, grinning and bouncing side to side as the two chat. Nicholson leads him around to the back of her truck and hands him a box of food and sends him on his way.

Returning to her truck, Nicholson explains that the man was not who she thought he was. He’d been by the center before, and had recently moved off the street and into a house with some friends. Over the next few hours of driving around Redmond, it’s a scene that will repeat itself many times, with Nicholson spotting someone through the windshield and rattling off various details of their lives. The poor, the homeless, and the troubled are everywhere – if you know who they are.

At Sam Johnson Park, five young people are gathered near the picnic area as Nicholson pulls up. Three girls head out across the grass before she can get out of the car, but the two young men recognize her and stay put. It’s “Robert” and “Nick” – they only gave their first names – both of whom have been by the center before.
Eighteen years old, Robert and his family moved to Redmond from Florida four years ago. Two years ago, heavily into meth and with multiple arrests for possession and distribution, he left home. He’s been homeless ever since. Occasionally, Robert has been able to find someone willing to give him a place to stay indoors, but for the last few months he’s been sleeping outside around the park.

“I always try to couch hop before…” Robert gestures towards his pile of blankets lying in the grass, trailing off. “It’s sort of my last resort. But lately there aren’t any last resorts.”
Robert has had a number of run-ins with the Redmond police, but they’ve been largely peaceful since he kicked his drug habit. He can usually count on three days at a given campsite before the police show up and tell him to move along, and generally, they don’t mind if he only moves a hundred yards or so. Several weeks ago, he let himself into an unlocked laundry room at an area apartment building to get out of the cold – the police kicked him out, but he wasn’t arrested.

Back at her truck, Nicholson is raving about how well Robert seems to be doing. She noticed he rolled up his sleeve while the two were talking. This, she says, is a good indication he hasn’t been shooting meth – were he still shooting, he’d keep his sleeves down to hide his needle tracks. Robert is in the early stages of trying to enlist in the military, though he’s had some trouble convincing recruiters he’s committed to turning his life around – but, given his age, his criminal record, and his lack of a permanent address, he’s had a similarly hard time convincing others

“We’re really blessed in Redmond to have a really good police department,” Nicholson said. Not only do the officers take a light touch with the homeless, they’re shown an interest in working closely with Nicholson and others in the social service world. The Family Action Network advocates from the school district, the county mental health department, the Central Oregon Battering and Rape Alliance and others have also warmed up to working with Nicholson’s group in recent months.

“We can do things some of the others can’t. We really seek the people. We’re really flexible. Because we’re not a state institution, we can go to their houses, we check in with them, and we have this huge relationship piece that isn’t usually made,” she said.
At a vacant lot in south Redmond, Nicholson is walking up and down a line of shipping containers and truck trailers.

“Hello? Hello?” she calls out, knocking on the metal sidewalls. Three or four baguettes are tucked under her elbow like a football. “It’s Rebecca from Full Circle. We’re just here to bring you bread.”

This is one of the more uncomfortable places for her to visit, she explains. The homeless tend to congregate with those most like them – the younger kids take places like Sam Johnson Park, while this vacant lot is populated by older men. Many of them drink heavily, she said, and they can be defensive and territorial when outsiders encroach on their turf.

“I call it the ‘contamination of the street,’” Nicholson said. “Some of these people, they’ve been homeless for so long they can’t relate to people like you and I can. They can be really defensive, because they’ve had to defend themselves their whole lives.”
Today, the camp is deserted. The residents have left behind plenty of signs of their presence, from the cigarette butts to the sacks of trash to the piles of blankets and cold-weather clothes. Nicholson demonstrates the use of a “homeless stove” set up in a detachable truck sleeper cab. Tracing her finger upward along a smoke stained piece of plywood, she shows how a small fire could provide a small amount of heat without asphyxiating the occupants of the cab.

Working with the stereotypical homeless -- the older men with substance abuse problems and mental health problems and deeply ingrained patterns of behavior -- is hard on Nicholson. She admits she’s a lot less likely to be able to help them turn their lives around than with younger people or families with children, but she doesn’t want to narrow her efforts to focus on the better risks. Reciting from memory, she rattles off a passage from Matthew 25: … “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“If we don’t do it, who will? Somebody’s got to do it,” she said.

South of town, we visit an RV park in search of one particular homeless family that Nicholson wants to include in her count. Some of the RVs are fairly nice while others are dusty and dented and showing their age, but everyone living here full-time counts as “homeless” for the purposes of the survey because the sites don’t provide hookups for water and sewer.
Cruising slowly through the park, she spots a man she recognizes from her center. She’s not sure if he’s been counted today, but she notices he looks like he’s in a bad mood and decides to head back to town. A man in a 50-foot silver-and-maroon RV towing a Ford Excursion bigger than many of the trailers in the park is trying to negotiate the driveway, and Nicholson sits behind the wheel, waiting and quietly watching as he inches past.

Back at Full Circle headquarters, the corridors are stacked with mounds of supplies donated for the day’s effort. Boxes of bread, cases of soda, stacks of Bibles and plastic bags stuffed with gloves, toys, candy and comic books are spilling out everywhere. The family Nicholson couldn’t find at the RV park is there as well.

Mary Kay and her four children have been living in a 22-foot RV for the last three months, ever since the family was evicted from a duplex in Arizona. The family moved into the RV and headed for Tumalo, where Mary Kay’s sister lives. The sister lives in mobile home park, so Mary Kay and her kids couldn’t park their RV outside her home for long. With help from the FAN coordinator at her daughter’s school, Mary Kay eventually located a spot at the RV park south of Redmond. With no water or sewer in their RV, they have to use the on-site bathrooms and showers, and their dining options are limited to what they can cook on paper plates in a microwave oven.

Getting solid work has been difficult for Mary Kay. She was at the T-Mobile call center for a while, but quit when she couldn’t manage to pick up more than two or three days a week there. She’s now working as a housekeeper at a local motel, though she’s still not getting enough hours to start saving money to move her family into a real home. Even if she were to get a full-time job today, she figures it would still be two or three months before they would be able to move.

Nicholson distributes gloves and scarves to Mary Kay’s daughters and fetches a comic book from a back room for her son. They exchange hugs and leave, promising to drop in for a visit next week. The volunteers who came out the day’s count are starting to drift away as well, leaving Nicholson to survey the mess left behind. It’s been a long day, but she’s still got several hours to go, several more people to interview, and a homelessness and poverty problem that seems far too big to tackle.

“You have to try to not look at the big picture sometimes,” she said. “We get people in here one on one to interview them (and) they really just kinda spill it. We don’t have to ask much. A lot of people just need someone to talk to.”

Full Circle Outreach recently opened a thrift store to generate income to support its operations. The thrift store is located at 512 SW Sixth Street; Full Circle Outreach can be reached at 548-5940.

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