COOS BAY — A homeless shelter in Coos Bay is the only haven for some people with mental illness, physical ailments or a criminal record — any of which can exclude them from other refuges.
But Leslie Lintner, director of T.H.E. House, would like to see the community step up and create transitional housing for vulnerable people. Lintner is strategizing with other agency directors to make a plea for transitional housing assistance to state legislators and other leaders on Aug. 8 at the annual Oregon Coast Economic Summit in North Bend.
Transitional housing would be a place where people could get back on their feet and get help with their physical and mental issues.
Except for a few housing units intended for recovering addicts, people leaving prison and people with severe mental illness, there's no such housing.
Instead, people end up at T.H.E. House, which isn't equipped to meet the needs of people with cognitive, emotional or physical problems.
"They're not stable, they're not on their meds, they have wounds, they're fragile because they just had surgery," Lintner said in June. "We had somebody here who just had a bypass. They had nowhere to go. This was their discharge plan. How can someone recover from a bypass living in a shelter?"
Because of T.H.E. House's 7-days-in, 7-days-out policy, these people often are picked up by police or admitted to Bay Area Hospital's emergency room. "The amount of money that's spent doing this could be channeled into specific programs or housing that would take them off the street and give them a safe place to be," Lintner said.
It's especially frustrating because many of them receive, or could receive, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, she said. But housing suited to their needs — indeed, any housing accessible to low-income people — is in short supply around here. Care facilities often won't take a resident who smokes, and many people with cognitive impairment need some help with living on their own.
"We have the same problems as a big city, but we don't have the resources, as a little town, that large cities have," said Al Eslinger, president of T.H.E. House's board.
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And if you think you know a simple solution, you don't know enough about homelessness. "There's such a stigma attached to being homeless," Lintner said. "I hear all the time from people: 'If they would just do this or just do that, they wouldn't be homeless.'
"Well, it if was just that easy, they wouldn't be homeless."
The path to homelessness often starts with loss, she said — the loss of a parent, a partner, or a child who was providing a vulnerable person with support. "The grief and the trauma leads a lot of these people, who maybe are already having issues of mental health or substance abuse or whatever, to even spiral down further. They kind of just land on the ground because nobody's there to catch them."
Developmentally disabled people sometimes land on the street when a parent or relative dies. Elderly people with dementia or physical illnesses strain T.H.E. House's resources because there aren't staff to help them with dressing, bathing or toileting or to reassure them when they get confused.
People with cognitive or physical disabilities are eligible for benefits and services that would enable them to live in an individual or group home. But they often don't follow through on steps to access such assistance. Worse, they may fall prey to exploitation by con artists. "We have people here who will call these more frail older individuals who get SSI and ask them to give them money, and they get it," Lintner said.
National efforts such as the Mayors' Challenge have inspired some communities to set goals of ending homelessness, or smaller goals, such as ending homelessness among veterans. Generally, they declare success not when every person is under a roof but when every person is under the care of a caseworker. Coos Bay and Coos County have made their own 10-year plans for ending homelessness, but it's been hard for efforts to get traction. T.H.E. House gets support from city and county governments, churches, grants, businesses and individuals, but a bigger solution will take a bigger commitment.
"It's going to take a city to say, 'Here's a building, use this building for transitional housing,'" Lintner said. "Nonprofits like us, we don't necessarily have the capacity to do that. It takes money to create programs, and then it takes people to be willing to work on them.
"If we ever see the will of the community change, I think we could see the whole community come up with some brilliant ideas. It will take the community voice to find that one answer to that question."