EDITOR'S NOTE: Brian Donaldson said he ended up homeless after both of his parents died. However, both of his parents are in fact alive, a detail which has since been brought to The World's attention. The World regrets the error.
LAKESIDE — Since the raw numbers from the Point in Time count were released last week, it highlighted not just the problem in one of the county’s rural towns, but a very different culture.
The raw numbers from the January count revealed 35 homeless individuals in the Lakeside area and Presbyterian Elder Jim Ives believes that figure has been consistent over the years.
“Lakeside is stable,” he said. “Coos Bay has a lot of opportunities for homeless, but the ones in Lakeside have no way to get down there. That 25 miles is not easy to travel without a car or a bus.”
And right now, there are no services connecting the towns for the homeless, of which Ives said are mostly from Lakeside.
“We don’t have people coming from other places,” he said. “Lakeside isn’t a place to come to. We don’t have anything here.”
Which makes being homeless in Lakeside a very different experience than anywhere else in Coos County.
For Brian Donaldson, 36, he has been homeless for 15 months and spent most of it in the Lakeside area. He provided a window into his life for The World, showing that a day for him begins at 7 a.m. when he walks down to the creek to fill up water jugs to carry back to camp.
Of course, that hike is only an option during the winter months when the water is high. In the summer, the water is low and not safe to drink which means he has to walk five miles into Lakeside where he gets water from the Presbyterian Church.
After that, he heads to the library to look for work, then to Dollar General to get what supplies he can, then it is back down the highway toward camp. All-in-all, it takes three to four hours and a total of five to ten miles. Just in the last eight months, he’s gone through six pairs of shoes.
“When I first ended up here, it was the dark that terrified me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be out here with no flashlight. I’m a suburban boy and got lost at first, but the people here watch out for each other.”
A tight-knit community
According to Ives, Lakeside respects and helps its homeless, even when it lacks the proper services.
For Donaldson, it’s why he wants to find a local job so he can stay in the area.
“There’s sweet, wonderful people willing to help and because of that I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I have a place where I’m set up and established and it took me a long time to get to a comfortable spot.”
For Donaldson, he found himself on the streets after his parents got sick and he first moved in to help them pay their medical bills.
“My mom had cancer and had a stroke,” he said. “I was living in San Diego at the time, they were tired of living in Bakersfield. I sold my house to move in and help them.”
When his dad was also diagnosed with cancer, they moved to Coos County to be near family. Donaldson’s brother was in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, which brought him to Oregon’s Bay Area.
“Before my dad passed, I thought he would want to get to know his grandson because that was the honorable thing to do,” Donaldson said. “Eventually I had to stay at home full time once he got worse. It was about family. That choice led me to become homeless because I had no money saved.”
But since his parents passed, Donaldson lacks both resources and friends to help. He said his family is upset that he hadn’t saved more money. However, he is actively trying to find a job.
“When I worked, I did customer service jobs and when I worked here I was at the Bandon Dunes short term,” he said.
Though some are helping line up temporary jobs in Lakeside, he struggles finding a place to shower, clean his clothes, and still survive day-to-day. Because getting to town is difficult, he carries everything from food, water and supplies back to camp where he is living with his girlfriend.
“If anyone is short on food or needs food stamps, we’re willing to help one another,” he said. “There’s a dozen of us out here looking out for each other on a regular basis, who are full time homeless.”
Though there is kindness in Lakeside, Donaldson first discovered the tight-knit homeless community in the area. Of course, it took almost three months before he realized there were a handful trying to help.
“At first, I had my guard up thinking if they knew where I lived, they would come in and steal what I had,” he said. “But once winter turned and elements got bad, one man showed us a spot, gave us survival things that I never thought we needed like fishing line and tarps. And he gave advice. It’s nice here in the summer, but when winter hits and you’re not prepared and your camp isn’t set up, you’re in trouble.”
Now since being homeless, Donaldson and his girlfriend have returned the kindness. Just in the last month, they helped three couples who found themselves in a tough situation by sheltering and feeding them.
“We made sure they knew where they were going and had what they needed,” Donaldson said. “When I became homeless, I didn’t talk to people coming down the street. I had my hoodie up. But my girlfriend reached out even when we had nothing.”
“We’re doing God’s work homeless-style,” was a joke of hers.
Donaldson had also found some suffering from mental illness and done what he could to help. One day, he found a man kneeling in blackberry bushes in the middle of the night praying out loud and took him back to camp to shelter him until morning.
Scott Cooper, who sits on the Board of Directors for the Nancy Devereux Center, explained that there are two types of homeless: veteran homeless and “weekend warriors,” or those who go on binges in the woods and litter.
“The chronically, or veteran, homeless are the ones trying to do the responsible thing while the others are making a life choice for a short time and then walking back to society,” Cooper said. “The homeless are nervous about that. Those weekend warriors tend to cause problems out here, so the veteran homeless watch each other’s backs, know who to trust and work as a community.”
As Donaldson showed The World camps near Lakeside, he pointed out neatly organized stacks of wood and a mattress. One area was clean, but with beautiful stone retaining walls for a garden. He said it was used by one woman who is no longer homeless now, but she had grown tomatoes and other vegetables while she used the spot.
“We clean up after ourselves and each other,” Donaldson said. “We keep an eye out for the others who make a mess and keep on them.”
At the Coos County Sheriff’s Department, Criminal Patrol Sergeant Adam Slater said that though there are a lot of seasonal homes in Lakeside, there isn’t an increase in crime or reports of squatters.
“To be honest, we actually have less drug-related calls and squatting and transient camp calls in Lakeside than just the Cape Arago Highway, Barview area by far,” he said. “We have a large homeless population throughout the county and everyone is trying to come together and deal with it the best we can. Lakeside is tight-knit, so anything going on we find out quickly and stay up to date more than say on Cape Arago where we don’t get more information.
“Lakeside takes care of its community.”
Filling a need
For Ives, he knew more services were needed to help the homeless in Lakeside. To make that happen, he put a note on the church’s Facebook page asking what the community wanted to see.
The feedback requested for a warming center, which was opened Dec. 1 of 2018.
“At first I thought we were too small to do that, but after looking I saw that well, we don’t have Sunday school classes anymore,” Ives said. “We have two classes off our main fellowship room and those could be used for bedrooms.”
The warming center has been open now 25 nights since Dec. 1, serving 205 dinners, 101 guests overnight, with one night seeing the highest volume at 10 homeless individuals. According to Ives, the youngest seen at the shelter was 33, while the oldest was 67. In addition, the center has eight volunteers working per night, booking 878 hours in volunteer work.
Since it opened, Donaldson said it has provided relief.
“There’s a place to go now,” he said. “There’s a warm, safe place to be and get a meal.”
Donaldson is asking for help in finding stable work again to get back on his feet. To help him, contact Ives at 541-361-0277.
“People should know that not everyone who is homeless is a bad person,” Donaldson said. “Keep your guard up, but if you are in a position to help someone don’t be afraid to because it might be you one day. I never thought it would be me.”