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December 9, 2013
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Close to Home: Rules and the Gospel define life at Roseburg Rescue Mission

It isn’t easy to ask for a bed.

When you finally bring yourself to it, at the Roseburg Rescue Mission, you’ll get more than you’re looking for.

You’ll get a narrow bunk, a pad, blankets, a shower. Three hot meals a day. A locked room to store your bag. A controlled environment. Sanity.

But with those comes the routine: Bedtime is 8 p.m., precisely. Lights out is 10 p.m. Lights on is 6 a.m., and breakfast follows at 6:30 a.m. The warehouse where many residents work opens at 9 a.m. Lunch is noon. Another shift in the warehouse starts right after lunch. Daily check-in is 6 p.m. Chapel and curfew are 6:30 p.m. Dinner, then showers, then bedtime again.

Every day, same routine.

Without such a hard-and-fast schedule, the mission would cease to function, according to its director, Lynn Antis.

“There’d be chaos,” he said.

THE MISSION’S PROGRAM

It’s after 6 a.m. in mid-November and it’s crisp outside. The men make their beds and walk heavily across the street. Breakfast in the crowded dining room is oatmeal. Ladling it out of a dented vessel is the mission’s breakfast and lunch cook, Dan, weary and friendly.

Dan entered the Navy after high school and served for four years. The Coquille native worked the next two decades in the San Diego shipyards before a pink slip forced a relocation to Sutherlin, where he worked at the Bayliner plant. When that closed, he took a job at a Washington resort, which shut within a year.

Jobless and afflicted with health problems, he did what prostrate vets have done for more than a century — he moved to Roseburg to be closer to the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Facing homelessness, he moved straight into the mission rather than live on the street.

Dan is one of a dozen or so members of the New Life Program, the mission’s Bible-centered residential rehabilitative curriculum, known simply as “the program” in mission parlance. Dan lives in a shared suite behind the dining room and attends Bible study and life and work skills classes after he’s done in the kitchen. He said it keeps him busy, which is good. When he isn’t busy he’s usually asleep.

He’s proud of the food he serves here. He tries to not judge the men who file past him.

“Some of them have mental problems, but a lot of these people are just people,” he said.

In line for oatmeal is Paul. He’s a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday. He had to go to work later that day.

Paul moved to Sutherlin from California four years ago to meet his biological father. It hasn’t exactly worked out.

This year, the wholesale retail store where he works cut his hours, and he found himself unable to pay his rent.

Paul still works for the same company. He’s one of two mission residents who have regular jobs.

“Some of these guys don’t want to work,” he said.

He’s also one of a handful of nonwhite people staying at the Mission.

“It isn’t a very diverse place,” he said. “But it’s better than sleeping under a bridge.”

RULES TO FOLLOW

The mission will take every man, so long as he’s sober and abides by the routine.

A resident’s first four nights here are free. After that, he pays $4 an evening. Some men choose the mission because they prefer to have rules and order in their lives. Others merely tolerate them.

The men also have the option of working for their meal and bunk. They can put in a short shift somewhere around the haphazardly laid-out mission grounds — custodial work, kitchen detail, warehouse duty sorting the tons of donated clothes, electronics and furniture. Most opt to work. Just six of the 49 men who slept at the mission one night in November had paid for their bed.

When not working, many pass time in the mission’s stark dayroom, where there are several long-running cribbage games going and the TV news blares sob stories about the needy this Christmas. The men aren’t allowed to loiter or form into groups near the mission or on its surrounding side streets. This leads some to orbit it like sluggish electrons around a nucleus.

The men here have to do something during the day, but drinking and drug use are forbidden. Management used to have a Breathalyzer on site and a zero-tolerance policy. Several residents said the approach to substance abuse has eased a little since Lynn Antis took over five years ago.

“The rule is no obvious signs of use,” said Antis, who was an assistant director at the Eugene Mission before coming here.

The mission’s rules advising moderation in action are rooted in Christian teaching, and the Roseburg Rescue Mission is unapologetically a Christian institution. The dayroom doors are locked to prevent entering and exiting during daily chapel service, and much of the reading material in the dorm is religious in nature.

It might scare off some people, but Antis said being a Christian organization means the mission can more effectively treat the issues that underlie poverty. He also claims being a Christian institution helps keep the organization financially afloat.

In 2012, the mission raised $266,000 in program revenue and $368,000 in donations — all private — for a total of $654,000, or more than $42,000 over expenses. The largest chunks of program revenue came from the mission’s furniture store ($82,000), thrift store ($56,000) and bulk sale of donated items the mission didn’t sell in its stores ($28,000). These items are typically sold overseas, where the clothes are either shredded to make rags or sold in Third World markets.

MISSION RISES FROM THE BLAST

In a way, the homeless problem in downtown began on the night of Aug. 6, 1959, when a building fire ignited a dynamite truck at the corner of Oak and Pine streets. What national media soon called the Roseburg Blast leveled everything in an eight-block radius.

Long before the Blast, the mission would have stood at the heart of the city, right near the bustling train depot. Visitors to busy little Roseburg circa 1890 also reached downtown via the Lane Avenue Bridge and Lane Avenue, which intersects the modern mission.

The Roseburg Rescue Mission occupies several buildings that were once fancy hotels catering to train passengers. Black-and-white photos show whitewashed building faces and wide, clean streets where the Mission is now. During a recent remodel of the mission’s cafeteria, a sign intended for guests from an earlier era was visible through a cracking facade: “RING BELL FOR CLERK.”

Before the Blast, the Roseburg depot, like all train stations, saw its fair share of rail-riding hobos, as well as the paying public. But post-Blast, commercial train travel in Roseburg dried up entirely. Rail lines shifted to supporting industry and manufacturing. But still riding the rails and haunting the Blast radius were the vagrants.

In 1972, the mission’s side of downtown grew more cut off when the Lane Avenue Bridge, built in 1884, was taken down.

The Blast and its resulting fires killed 14 people and laid waste to southeast Roseburg. Video footage shows twisted steel building frames and National Guardsmen directing traffic.

On a tour last month, Antis pointed out some debris from The Blast in a mission parking lot.

“The Blast kind of ruined this part of town,” he said.

BUNKS IN A ROW

In 1964, an alcoholic divorcee named Norman Williams started renting a shoe repair shop at the corner of Southeast Sheridan and Lane streets, a block across from the Roseburg railyard. As Antis tells it, Williams was a profane, hard-bitten World War II combat veteran, the outcast of his straightlaced Christian family. He found God at a low point in his life at a religious revival at the Douglas County Fairgrounds and was baptized in the South Umpqua River.

Clean and sober, Williams started preaching to the many homeless men who passed his shop during the day, offering them food and shelter. He reconciled with his siblings, who helped him run the mission until a board of directors was recruited in 1976 and a nonprofit entity was incorporated a year later.

The mission has expanded slowly ever since, with additions of a warehouse, dining room, chapel and day room, and, in 2011, a retail store. It now has five full-time employees and occupies 1.5 city blocks, and several other properties around town, including its women’s shelter, The Samaritan Inn.

The transient dormitory — or “general population,” to use the prison term adopted by many of the mission’s residents — consists of 79 beds in rows of bunks. The donated sheets and blankets of every color and pattern on the design spectrum form a cheerful pastiche after all the lodgers have left for the day.

Some familiar with the homeless problem in Douglas County might find it surprising that many of these beds are empty most nights. In fact, the mission had an overflow crowd only two nights all of last year — both in November, the two coldest nights of the year.

Since its beginnings, the goal here has been to lift the homeless out of poverty through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s a deal-breaker to some. But to many, it’s not a hard sell.

Men at a chapel service last month mouthed along to Bible verses and sang along with the hymns.

The mission operates under the guiding belief that the homeless have more problems in their lives than finding shelter for the night. Addiction, unemployment, mental illness, or some combination of the three, were usually there first.

Antis disagrees with activists who seek to provide housing to the homeless as a first step out of poverty.

“We’re not ‘housing first,’” Antis said of the social welfare idea favored by homeless advocacy groups like Occupy Roseburg.

Staff members estimated about a quarter of the mission’s residents never come back after their first stay.

Some eventually return to “normal life.” Some decide after one or two nights that it isn’t for them. They might head back to Interstate 5 to try their luck in a different city, just as the hobos used to ride the rails years ago. They might fall in with a camp along the river, where partying is the norm. But camps on the river usually have a leader you have to get along with, according to Regi Gregson, 51, the mission’s graveyard shift supervisor.

Regi is one of the leaders here. The men talk about him like he’s a boss. He never was a follower, he says.

SPARTAN AND QUIET

It’s a mid-November night and 28 degrees and pouring rain outside the windowless dormitory. It isn’t easy to ask for a bed and, thankfully, at the Roseburg Rescue Mission you don’t have to. Regi starts with questions as soon as you walk in.

Do you need a place to sleep tonight?

Have you stayed here before?

Are you hungry?

The relentless daily schedule rolls along and soon the men are in their racks under multiple blankets, under shaking overhead fans. They’re reading old National Geographic magazines and grocery store paperbacks. Some have snuck in their glowing cellphones — “contraband,” to use another jailhouse term mission residents favor.

The mission isn’t opulent, but at least it’s quiet at night. Wet coughing and light snoring are all that break the still.

There you are in your bunk and your donated pajama bottoms that don’t reach your ankles. There you definitely are — staring at the ceiling, you and every bad decision you ever made, every opportunity you ever passed up and every one of your ex-girlfriends.

There’s two more hours of this before it’s lights out. Regi Gregson lived like this for a year before he “gave in.”

“I just wasn’t ready to open up to God,” he said. “It was such a relief.”

Regi was a wild man growing up. In high school, in the Spokane area, he and his friends would drive by the local mission and throw quarters out the window “at the bums.”

Now he laughs at his stupidity.

He was a night drinker, at first. He would down an entire 18-pack after work and do it all again the next day, until that no longer worked. He suffered layoffs and divorces, and moved away from his kids when the oldest was in middle school.

Ten years ago he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bar fight. Ever since, he’s been unable to keep any job involving operating heavy machinery, his chosen profession. He chose the mission over homelessness and now he’s in the program, nearly ready to move out.

Regi has three sons — 28, 26 and 24. The eldest, he’s proud to say, is a moral man and a hard worker with a young family. He’s the manager where he works and counts the middle son among his employees.

As the man of the house after his father left, that son had to grow up fast, Regi said.

“He lived a pretty hard life I would say.”

But the youngest son, Regi hears secondhand, has started taking after his dad.

“I feel responsible,” he said, and carefully considered his next sentence. “It’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility.”

When he reflects on what he wants life to be like after the mission, he goes back to the rivers and streams he fished with his boys. Before his life got away from him. Before it revolved around the routine.

He wants his next home to be near his family. He wants to fish with his kids again.

“It’s a hard thing to grasp, but this is not normal life,” he said. “The mission isn’t meant for anyone to make their home here.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com


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The News-Review Updated Jul 10, 2014 06:17PM Published Feb 19, 2014 11:33AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.