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July 17, 2014
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Guest column: How can we address the needs of the homeless in our midst?

There’s no place like home. In the early 1980s, my family was driving home from the Portland airport after our ninth trip in three years to Guatemalan refugee camps in Southern Mexico. At some point as we were driving back to Roseburg, I was struck by the thought, “This freeway is mine!” In other words, I had come home to a place that belonged to me — Interstate 5 and the familiar landscapes and towns along the way were all where I lived and could call “home.”

At the time I was thinking of the Guatemalan refugees who had been uprooted from their villages as they fled the genocide going on in their country. The ones we met had been hosted by kind people in southern Mexico, but regardless of how they’d been welcomed by strangers, they still deeply missed their homeland.

Now, 30 years later, I’m thinking of all the refugee camps throughout the world, and realizing that even with the temporary welcome they have received by their host countries, along with tents and occasional other amenities given to them by other generous countries like the U.S., they still must miss their homelands as much as the Guatemalans did.

Then I’m jolted again, when it occurs to me that political refugees aren’t the only ones who are missing their homes. Every day, all around our country, more people are joining the ranks of those who’ve lost their homes due to jobs ending and rent or mortgages that can’t be paid.

We also have plenty of homeless people in our midst in Roseburg, but not all of them have become homeless for the same reason. Some of them have deliberately chosen this lifestyle, but even they have their individual stories to tell.

There are those who never had a family home that was a safe place, or that in any way served as a model for establishing their own home. Most of them dropped out of school for a variety of reasons, thus reducing the likelihood of gaining employment sufficient for renting a place to live. Almost all of them have given up hope long ago, having had any dreams they once entertained repeatedly dashed by harsh doses of their reality.

Homeless people have become a problem for merchants in downtown Roseburg who contend that their presence discourages potential customers from shopping there. That’s a reasonable concern, but most of the suggestions proffered have had to do with simply eliminating the homeless population from the downtown area.

I’m wondering if there are any solutions that can eradicate the problems posed by the homeless people in our community, and at the same time address their needs in a kind and effective way. They do not qualify for welfare benefits, because they don’t have an address, and there are only a few members of our community who reach out to them.

Although our local mission does an impressive job of providing housing and food, many homeless people find it hard to comply with their strictures, many of which are of a religious bent.

Also, during the coldest times of the year, some places in Roseburg and the surrounding areas generously open their doors to provide warming centers for the homeless. But for the rest of the year we don’t know quite how to help them in a more long term way.

Last year I stopped at a rest area north of Cottage Grove, where I observed a panhandler sitting on a pile of blankets with her 6-year-old daughter. When they got up to leave, I was impressed by the way the youngster picked up each blanket and neatly folded it. Obviously she’d been coached by her mother.

I called the mother over to my car and expressed my admiration of her daughter’s behavior. Stevie (not her real name) and I had a long conversation.

The next week, I stopped at the same rest stop and had an even longer talk with Stevie, learning more about her and her husband. We exchanged phone numbers, and I wrote down her wish list of things she’d like to have – items such as notebooks, blankets and, of course, food.

And yes, a couple friends read me the riot act for giving Stevie my phone number, reminding me of the risk I was inviting by doing so. But my feeling is that if I’m not willing to at least risk that much, then how committed am I to helping the seriously at-risk people among us?

I’ve lost contact with Stevie, since her cellphone doesn’t work, and I worry about her and her family. I know their van broke down, and that they’re stranded in another place.

My heartfelt concern is: How can we address the needs of the homeless in a way that also respects the concerns of our community?

Judy Lasswell of Roseburg has been an active member of our community for 50 years. She has a master’s degree in counseling and taught welfare clients for 11 years at Umpqua Community College. She also was part of the underground railroad that brought at-risk Central Americans to Oregon, finding housing and employment for them as well as guiding them through the legal system of securing green cards. She can be reached at julass@charter.net.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 17, 2014 10:14AM Published Jul 17, 2014 10:14AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.