COOS BAY — Jennifer Palmer, executive director of the South Coast Gospel Mission, has a hard job. But she has some ideas about how you might be able to make her job a little easier.
The largest homeless shelter on the Oregon coast, the shelter can house 68 men, women and children. It's been in its current location at 1999 North 7th St., tucked away behind Coos Bay Toyota, since 2005.
Palmer is the daughter of Bill Parham, who ran the mission from 1999 to 2012. She came to Coos Bay to work for the organization in 2011. Although her career had been in the real estate and mortgage field, she'd always participated in church missions and volunteer groups.
"My dad wanted to retire, and he started calling for a year and a half," Palmer said Friday. "I kept saying no, I lived in San Diego."
But in the end, she decided to take on the challenge. "Voilà; this is my purpose at the moment. So that's why I'm here," she said.
Palmer is assisted by one paid staffer, volunteers from the community and residents who help out with cooking and other chores.
But since she came to the mission, Palmer has seen the number of people using its services quadruple -- from 12 people nightly to over 50, and from 800 meals a month to 3,000.
These days, a lot of those seeking to check in at the mission are from out of state. Palmer's not shy about attributing that to Oregon's legalization of marijuana. The mild coastal climate and the low cost of living also increase Coos Bay's appeal, she said. And the South Coast Gospel Mission is the largest shelter on the whole Oregon Coast, except for a small men's shelter in Brookings.
Many of her residents are senior citizens, who may have physical problems in addition to dementia or Alzheimer's disease. An increasing number of her residents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Many also have mental health disabilities. "I used to see maybe one person occasionally who had schizophrenia; that is a common condition now that we have to try and serve on a weekly basis. And all kinds of other mental illnesses. There is a serious lack of resources in this town. But it's a small town, so it's to be expected."
So what's bringing this influx of people to this particular small town?
First, Palmer said there's been a shift in social ideas among younger people. "This small little community, there has been a change," Palmer said. "I think somehow, in the last 15 or 20 years maybe, the government pushes welfare, and more and more charities have popped up. Which is great, but there was so much, so frequently, the mindset switched from 'I just need it for one month, two months, and I'll be back on my feet, I'll have a job,' to 'You owe it to me.' We have had people in here who refused to seriously job search, and they're capable. I think 50 percent of the people who come to us are very capable of finding a job, even those who receive the minimum Supplemental Security Income."
Then there's the shortage of rental housing in this area. "Another 20 or 30 percent who are elderly and those with severe mental disabilities, they're not going to be able to work, but there's just no housing," Palmer said. Misfortunes such as the death or departure of a spouse often throw elderly people on a housing market where there's no place they can afford on a few hundred dollars a month.
There's not much Palmer can do about the housing shortage, but the mission does all it can to help its residents shed feelings of helplessness or entitlement and become more employable.
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"This mission is actually what I would consider a working mission," she said. "While we are here to provide residents with certain things at no charge, we also require them to work."
Volunteers come in daily to counsel residents on how to use local resources or deal with anxiety and other emotional problems that prevent them from finding work. Other volunteers offer job preparation classes onsite in addition to the services that South Coast Business Employment Corporation offers at its office and Southwestern Oregon Community College offers on its campus.
"Those that are on minimum Supplemental Security Income are getting their health issues taken care of, and then they're out job searching if they are able. Anybody with no income or very low income who couldn't live on what they're getting, we require them to go out and find employment. Worksource Oregon, temp agencies — probably two-thirds of my guys are actually employed at the moment, which is awesome.
"We require everyone to do chores. It's teaching them how to be responsible, how to be accountable. Some people have never even been taught how to mop the floor. So they're learning, and they're developing good habits, because they're going to have to know how to do this even when they move into their own place."
The mission emphasizes accountability, and volunteers and staff keep meticulous records of everyone who asks to stay. People who are looking for work and stay out of trouble can stay as long as six months. People can even come and go. But when they come back, they have to account for where they've been. As Palmer puts it, "If we're not seeing any progress, we have to get to a point where we see they are unwilling, absolutely unwilling, to change behaviors, unwilling to find a job, unwilling to stop their addiction if that's the case, and we say, 'I'm sorry, we can't help you,' and we recommend other programs. After that point, they're not going to be able to come back for years, because I don't want to be the enabler."
There are breathalyzers and drug tests and prohibitions on violent offenders and sex offenders. As a result, it's a safe place to stay, Palmer said.
But couples and families sometimes find it uncongenial because men and women live in separate dorms — the practice at all shelters, Palmer said. Children sleep in the dorm with the parent of the same sex; private rooms accommodate single parents and their children of the opposite sex. "It's amazing to me that people would not come to a shelter because the man and the woman cannot sleep together," Palmer said.
Residents are also required to attend chapel, led by volunteers from the community.
Though not everyone appreciates the kind of love they get there, the South Coast Gospel Mission takes its Christian responsibility to care for poor people very seriously, Palmer said. And there are a few things the rest of the community could do to help.
First, she'd like to see charities attach more strings to assistance. Before people receive a gas voucher, hotel room, tent or any other kind of assistance, Palmer said, they should be required to enroll in some kind of training, whether it's job training or assistance with emotional issues. She'd also like to put homeless people to work temporarily at jobs requiring little training, such as cleaning up the community.
She'd also welcome more volunteers at the mission itself. People who can cook are always welcome. And there's plenty of opportunity for those who'd like to teach skills to others, whether it's emotional skills or job readiness.
"We're trying to provide the healing that's needed," Palmer said. "We're trying to provide the opportunity for them to change, the opportunity for them to learn and grow, to become responsible. Obviously it does not work on everybody, because they have to have the willing heart.
"But we're here, and we could sure use some support."