Bittin Duggan

Bittin Duggan, center, smiles at Mike Evans while holding hands with Little Bit, right, at the Nancy Devereux Center in Coos Bay on Wednesday, Feb. 3. For her advocacy for homeless and mentally ill people, Duggan recently received the Lilah Bidwell Human Dignity Award from the Human Rights Advocates of Coos County.

COOS BAY — When Bittin Duggan went to lunch at the Nancy Devereux Center last week, she couldn't immediately sit down and dig into her fried chicken.

Other diners at the center, which provides meals and other services to homeless and mentally ill people, kept stopping by to update her on their situations and enjoy an encouraging word or two.

After they learned that a reporter was interviewing Duggan about the Lilah Bidwell Human Dignity Award that the Human Rights Advocates of Coos County recently bestowed on her, they lingered to praise her. 

"The biggest heart I've ever experienced," said Mike Marchetti, who's been helped by Duggan and has helped her in return with auto repairs.

"She became one of my best friends in the whole world," said a woman who identified herself as Little Bit. "She didn't know me from Adam, but she brought me pizza when I was sleeping out."

"She was very instrumental in my getting clean and sober," said Mike Evans. A house fire had left him and his wife destitute, and he'd slid off the wagon after 10 years of sobriety. Duggan listened to him and even bought him beer with his money. 

"Then within a week, he came to me and said, 'I want to go into the hospital and detox,'" Duggan said. 

Trying to describe Duggan's influence on him, Evans said, "I was a badass my whole life. She's so kind.

"It was a power thing without the power."

When Duggan sought volunteers to help clean up homeless camps at Bastendorff Beach and assist the people there, Evans pitched in. Now, he's taken up some of the advocacy work Duggan does. 

There's plenty to help out with. Duggan is known for bringing a local restaurant's leftover pizza to homeless people. She also gives people rides, accompanies them to medical appointments, connects people with resources and provides a nonjudgmental ear. 

Duggan, who's employed as a caregiver and has a family, knows what it's like to have trouble thinking clearly. A head injury 26 years ago left her in a coma for five days. She still feels the effects. "It's hard to process stuff," she said. People who've suffered traumatic brain injuries, she said, "fool ourselves that we're better off than we are."

"So much of homelessness and mental illness goes back to brain trauma," she said, whether it's a head injury, alcohol, or mental illness.

"There's an affinity among people who have had brain injuries."

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Maybe that helps make her a good listener. "People want something more from themselves," she said. "I'm a safe person. I'm not judging."

After working as an art teacher at Lighthouse School, Duggan focused on bringing art opportunities to mentally ill people. Then she had an epiphany: "These people don't need a workshop; they need food," she said.

When she started bringing pizza to people sleeping outdoors, she found many other ways to be of service. "To people who are homeless, I'm a touchstone," she said. "People come up to me and tell me where they're at. I'm someone stable they can connect with and be reminded of their path.

"People want to heal. And when they see me, there's a possibility they can, and when they're ready, they make the choice to start on their healing process.

"I take everybody seriously. I believe what they're telling me. I want for the person to say what they want. If they want to go to the doctor, I can be a grounding person so the doctor will take them seriously."

In the past eight or nine months, Duggan said, she's been "owning that this is part of my spiritual practice."

"All I'm doing is reflecting God's love," she said. "They can't see it, but for whatever reason, they can see it through me.

"I see the face of God in all who I work with. We are all worthy of love and respect."

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News editor Gail Elber can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 243, or via email at gail.elber@theworldlink.com.