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Dream Center visitors tell us what it's like to be homeless

Finding a way home

Thomas Morris has been homeless since 1977. He hit the road after his divorce and has since been in every state but Vermont.

On a warm day in August, Morris sat in a church basement on Southeast Lane Avenue that’s home to the Dream Center. A couple dozen people, many homeless and all down on their luck, visit there Mondays through Thursdays when the center is open.

It’s a chance to receive breakfast and lunch, indoor rest and clothing in a general atmosphere of unconditional love.

MORRIS AND MCKNIGHT

“This place is a godsend,” Morris said.

An arm’s length away from Morris was a half-eaten bowl of oatmeal. He hadn’t eaten in a couple of days and said it bothered his stomach. But when strawberries were handed out, he greatly enjoyed those.

An Army veteran who served in Germany between 1970 and 1976, Morris lives on an $801-a-month VA pension. It’s not enough to pay for an apartment. He said he attempted to obtain a housing voucher from the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but gave up on it because the process was taking too long.

Morris carries all his worldly belongings with him in a backpack — layers of warm clothing but never a coat, a sleeping bag, a tent.

About six months ago, Morris jumped on a Greyhound bus in Eugene and rode to Roseburg.

When The News-Review spoke to him, Morris said he was living under a bridge.

He’d been staying there for about three months. Before that, he was camping on a hill near an Interstate 5 ramp.

“Sleeping out in the open, it was windy as hell. Sleeping under the bridge, it’s like the Taj Mahal,” he said.

The homeless life can be really tough, he said.

The night before, he spoke with The News-Review, he said he’d slept outdoors near Fred Meyer. According to Morris, that’s because the day before some police officers had come to the bridge and threatened to arrest people staying there.

“You got to sleep somewhere, you got to sleep or you’re going to be a walking zombie,” he said.

But staying at the county’s only emergency shelter for men, the Roseburg Rescue Mission, is no longer an option for Morris. He had been kicked out of the mission, and is not allowed to return, he said. According to Morris, that’s because he wouldn’t take a drug test. He said the only drugs he uses — marijuana and alcohol — are legal drugs.

“I smoke pot. We don’t do nothing else but smoke pot and drink a beer or two. We ain’t methed out. That makes people stupid. I don’t need to be stupid,” he said.

He doesn’t like the mission, anyway, he said because he was forced to attend religious services when he stayed there.

When Edward McKnight, another homeless man, overheard Morris speaking about the mission, he walked over to join in the discussion.

The two are friends, and McKnight said he found staying at the mission difficult, especially when he obtained a night job. He wanted to sleep during the day but the mission doesn’t allow that. He’s been kicked out of the mission several times, and still eats meals there but he won’t stay overnight.

He’d rather sleep under a bridge with Morris.

“I love it, too. Relaxing, too, warm, everything. A little more mosquitoes than I care for but otherwise it’s fine,” he said.

His routine is to get up in the morning, walk down to the mission, eat breakfast and then go to the mission’s day room to shave, shower and charge his phone. He likes to visit the Dream Center on the days it is open.

Morris became homeless four years ago. He had been in jail on a conviction for stealing a fifth of whiskey. He had been driving a semitrailer before that. After he got out of jail, he divorced his wife and moved to Chicago to take care of his mother, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After three years of caring for her, he was without money or a job and, for the first time in his life, was homeless, he said.

He planned to move to Minnesota, but moved to Oregon after meeting someone from Roseburg at a Chicago shelter. He traveled first to Portland, which he said he hated, and then moved to Roseburg in October 2017.

In his first year and a half here, he worked as a dishwasher at the Wagon Wheel restaurant, in agricultural work and stocking at Marshalls. But he wasn’t able to hang on to any of those jobs.

He would like to obtain an Oregon license to drive trucks like he did before his life took a turn for the worse, he said. But when he spoke to The News-Review, he hadn’t had a regular job for five months, though he had been paid to help a woman clean out her storage unit the day before.

“It’s not a legitimate reason why I just haven’t put the effort to do it. I’m working on that now,” he said.

DARRYL SHORTY

Unlike Morris and McKnight, Darryl Shorty does have a roof over his head at night. It’s a garage roof, though, belonging to an elderly homeowner. If he didn’t have that roof, he’d go back to camping outdoors, he said.

He gets food from food banks and sometimes visits the Dream Center.

“If I’m hungry, I crack open a can of something, pears or whatever. If I’m here I get a grilled sandwich. It’s not a bad grilled sandwich,” he said.

The Dream Center, he said, is a blessing.

Shorty’s problems began with a conviction for assault. He said he was protecting his cousin, who he said was being attacked by a person wielding a glass bottle. But the law said Shorty assaulted a minor, and he spent three months in jail before pleading guilty.

Shorty has a landscaping job but doesn’t make enough money to rent a place. His father’s from Canada and his mother was from Alaska. She committed suicide, and his aunt took him in after that, Shorty said. But after his trouble with the law, he left Alaska and has traveled along the Interstate 5 corridor since.

He said he struggles with alcoholism. He’s not sure how much he drinks a day, but he said it’s a hard addiction to get rid of.

“It seems like my mind only goes to getting another beer,” he said.

Shorty’s not sure whether he views himself as homeless.

“I don’t know, I don’t have a home. Home is when you have a family around you,” he said.

CHRISTINA AND ELIZABETH

Christina, who asked that we not use her last name, frequently volunteers at the Dream Center. She’s not homeless, but she has been in the past and knows what it’s like. She also takes part in meals there, which she said helps stretch the dollars since she and her wife, Elizabeth, and kids survive on disability checks.

She was in Stockton, California, when she became homeless. She had left her husband, who was an abusive alcoholic, she said, and left her kids with him at first. Then she got kicked out of the place where she was living. She said the owners gambled away the rent and demanded additional money.

It was summertime, and the high temperatures were around 115 degrees. The homeless shelter was full, she said, so she and other homeless people slept outdoors.

“We literally slept in the park, but there was a dining hall close by that we would walk to. We’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner there. Monday through Friday they’d have the showers open at the women’s shelter and they had showers for the men. ... The people that were taking showers there left with a fresh new outfit,” she said.

“I wish they had a program out here that offered that,” she said.

Then Christina’s ex-husband passed away and she received survivors benefits. She and Elizabeth decided to move to Yoncalla, where Christina’s biological father lived. They arrived in spring 2016 and moved into a trailer. By the following autumn, it was clear the trailer had mold. She said they brought it to the landlord’s attention the day before Thanksgiving, and he responded with an eviction notice, saying they had to be out by Christmas Eve.

They spent the following two and a half years living at a local motel they said was infested with bedbugs and cockroaches. They cooked with a little electric burner and a crockpot.

They were finally able to move out in April, and are now renting a home thanks to a referral from their children’s youth group pastor.

Christina said to escape the cycle of homelessness, people need a place like the Dream Center that helps them out with meals and clothes, but they also need a place to take showers.

Christina said she never became dependent on alcohol or drugs, but she did occasionally use them. She said many homeless people turn to drugs or alcohol because they are homeless, not the other way around.

“I wasn’t an alcoholic, but when I was on the street I did drugs a few times. That’s easier to find on the street than help,” she said.

Christina and Elizabeth have been together for five years. They met in a rehabilitation center, where Christina was an activity assistant and Elizabeth was a patient. Elizabeth had broken her lower back in half.

Christina was laid off from that job, and said she can’t do that type of work anymore because of back pain. She hasn’t worked since, and Elizabeth hasn’t worked since breaking her back.

Elizabeth said she stayed one night at the Samaritan Inn and it wasn’t ideal. She had planned to camp out for a night to give her wife some space, but it was pouring down rain. So she went to the Samaritan Inn, where she alleged all her things, including her medications for diabetes and pain, were tossed in a dryer.

Christina said the first time they went down to the mission for dinner, they accidentally walked into the men’s day room.

“They chased us out talking about no females allowed,” she said.

Christina said they volunteer because they know what it’s like to be homeless and discriminated against.

“Everybody had their own story. But when we were homeless I used to tell my wife I wish people would treat us like the humans that we are. Being out here, seeing how a lot of people treat the homeless, it’s like I want them to know not everybody is evil, that there are people that truly care about them as a person, not their situation,” she said.

Elizabeth said the day she spent on the street in Roseburg many homeless people realized she was new and tried to help her.

“That’s why it really hurts me to see people tearing down the homeless campsites and tents and this and that, because there are good people in there. Not all homeless people are on drugs, and not all of them are in trouble,” she said.

They just don’t have a place to keep their things, she said.

Reporter Carisa Cegavske can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213.

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Senior Reporter

Carisa Cegavske is the senior reporter for The News-Review. She can be reached at ccegavske@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4213. Follow her on Twitter @carisa_cegavske

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