While we debate the best approach to serving the homeless in Corvallis, a seemingly successful shelter model can be found right down the road. Albany Helping Hands takes a balanced approach to serving their homeless community. They provide meals and showers to all, but reserve more extensive services for those willing to make a greater commitment to personal improvement. Those homeless individuals who are ready to put their lives back on track are required to earn the services provided at Helping Hands. The work is part of the treatment.
Becoming an overnight guest at Helping Hands requires sobriety and an ongoing commitment to self-improvement. An intake interview may include drug and alcohol testing. Once registered, guests must work a minimum of 20 hours per week at the shelter to remain. The longer they remain, the more hours of labor they are expected to put in. There is plenty of work to do. In addition to the main shelter, Helping Hands runs a thrift shop, a garden market, and a woodlot.
In exchange for their time and elbow grease, guests are provided with valuable tools designed to help them achieve self-sufficiency. These include referrals to social services and county offices, minor medical assistance from a nurse, and counseling from an on-site chaplain. In-house drug and alcohol programs help residents stay clean. Anger management classes help them stay focused. Guests can receive mail and phone calls, storage space for medications and important papers, and a letter of residence for proof of address. There is also a savings program for those receiving income.
More long-term assistance is provided through classes and training. Guests learn about computers, GED prep, Bible study, job search skills, and resume writing. The staff hopes eventually to add classes covering health, nutrition, and hygiene.
There are also career pathway training programs. These volunteer positions count toward the guests’ weekly required work hours and give them specific marketable skills. While the primary goal of the kitchen is to feed the homeless hot meals, it is also serves as an excellent training facility. The Food Service Program offers employment in the fields of kitchen assistant, cafeteria attendant, and porter/utility worker. Each includes industry certification requirements and community-based internships.
Former resident Randy Lindren took full advantage of the Food Service Program.
“I came in as a homeless person. I did dishes three times a day. Eventually, I managed the kitchen. Now I do whatever they need,” he said.
Lindren’s success story serves as inspiration to current guests. The fact that he still chooses to work at the shelter demonstrates his commitment to helping others. He clearly thinks the shelter is moving in a positive direction by insisting on sobriety for their long-term residents.
“They didn’t used to do drug tests and breathalyzers. That definitely made the place more stable, in my opinion,” said Lindren. “There are less people causing problems.”
The Albany Helping Hands Thrift Store is run by residents and volunteers. A three-stage training program is available for residents to develop skills in retail sales and customer service. Each stage requires 200 hours of hands-on experience. Participants also receive 200 hours of class time, an oral evaluation, written class materials, and an on-the-job training period. The candidates receive a certificate of completion and a letter of recommendation.
A separate facility east of I-5 houses a woodlot and market. Residents who do their volunteer work here go through three stages of training as well. The Keep Warm Woodlot sells cords of several types of wood to the public. Their work involves learning to safely handle equipment such as chain saws, wood splitters, trucks, and other vehicles. They also learn retail sales and basic knowledge of wood-burning techniques and hazards. The Garden Market teaches residents about all aspects of farming. These include the use of heavy farm equipment, retail sales, and record keeping. The guests farm a nine-acre donated lot per year. All sales go to Helping Hands. Excess produce is donated to other local programs.
Back at the main shelter, staff member Buddy is another success story.
“I am a better human being today than I was three years ago,” he said. “I got humbled. I ended up here. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Buddy believes in the work. He believes in doing the most good for the most people. But he really believes in helping those that help themselves.
“We do what we can for as many as we can for as long as we can. If they’re willing to meet us halfway, we’ll bend over backward to help,” he said.
The Helping Hands model balances charity with tough love. It is wet and dry. It provides emergency shelter and accountability-based, wrap-around coverage. It provides the handout and the hand up. Just as importantly, it has a strong staff committed to improving the world one person at a time. As long as Albany Helping Hands keeps people like Lindren and Buddy on staff, they’re bound to keep making a difference.
By Dave Deluca