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  JEWISH AND KOSHER OREGON

 JEWISH AND KOSHER UNITED STATES

 
 
 
  OREGON  
  Let's hope Egan's memory can inspire us to help
By Pearl Wolfe
Posted: Dec 31, 2008
                               

I commend The Register-Guard for its Dec. 21 editorial about Thomas Egan, a 60-year-old man who froze to death on the streets of Lane County. At first no one knew who he was; he was one of us. Then there is the puzzle of how this could this happen. How can we tolerate homelessness? How can people die out there, alone in the snow?
LET'S HOPE EGAN'S MEMORY CAN INSPIRE US TO HELP - BY PEARL WOLFE, OREGON

I was facilitating a meeting one recent afternoon with 25 advocates for the homeless. We were making plans for our annual One Night Homeless Count that will take place Jan. 28. We have been conducting this count through the Lane County Human Services Commission for a dozen years or so. We count people who use emergency shelters and transitional housing, and those that are turned away because no space is available.

In recent years we have added what is termed "a street count" to capture the people who are homeless and who don't make use of our shelters and other services. We now count people who use our drop-in centers, food pantries and dining sites.

Our school homeless liaisons help us count the students who are homeless and all the members of their families. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management count the people who are camping because they can't afford a deposit and the first and last months' rent. Many of these people are working, yet they can't afford to live inside.

One of our homeless activists, David Robertson, who works on the streets and connects with long-term homeless people (officially called the "chronically homeless") asked, "Why do we have to do this count?"

We do the count because it's required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which gives us more than $2 million a year to help local agencies that provide homeless services. The state of Oregon also requires it for federal and state funding.

But the real reason we count homeless people is because it gives us a way to speak on their behalf. We count the homeless so we can describe the men, women and children who are struggling to survive. We do it so we can inform the community about who they are what they need. Martin Luther King Jr. summed it up eloquently: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

This matters. Thomas Egan matters.
Last Jan. 31, we counted 2,111 homeless people in Lane County. That number doesn't paint the whole picture, simply a point in time. We know that in the course of a year, more than 11,000 Lane County residents were homeless when they sought services from one of our 28 programs.

At last year's Project Homeless Connect, 1,158 people who were homeless or at risk of being homeless received help from our one-day, one-stop shop at the Lane County fairgrounds. More than 600 volunteers, along with 281 services providers, offered health care, dental and vision care, mental health services, housing assistance, food, clothing and more. We had to close the volunteer registration because the response was so overwhelming.

People want to do something about homelessness in Lane County. Our nonprofit providers do their best with scarce resources. They work hard so that stories like Thomas Egan's are shocking and not a normal occurrence. But we can't, at this point, save everyone.

A local grass-roots organization, CALC-SAFER, headed by veteran community activist Marion Malcolm, led the most recent response. It was as simple as her waking up one freezing and snowy morning last week, and realizing that it was just too cold for homeless people to survive.

She quickly garnered the help of three Springfield churches: First Baptist, Ebert Memorial and St. Alice's. They offered their buildings for six nights as an extreme weather emergency shelter. FOOD for Lane County delivered food to the doors of these churches for the people who came in from the bitter cold. The Human Services Commission, the county's anti-poverty program, quickly allocated $8,000 in motel vouchers and funds for sleeping bags, blankets and other basics. Veterans Reintegration Services brought cots and blankets. Malcolm, along with Janet Beckman, a homeless school liaison, and Dan Rupe, from Veterans Reintegration Services, were among the volunteers who spent the night at these churches.

With Malcolm's leadership, the community quickly patched together a makeshift shelter. Well over 100 people sought refuge in these churches, an asylum from the cold.

At our One Night Homeless Count Meeting, we talked about the need for a formal protocol - a real plan to be adopted by local jurisdictions that could go into action when temperatures dip to freezing or below.

I went home that night to my warm house and my family on one of the darkest days of the year, and felt a deep sadness for this man who died last week. I cried for him. I did not know him, but I cry for him. May his memory continue to move people to respond to the plight of homelessness. Let us, as a community, reach into our hearts and show that we care deeply about the most vulnerable people among us.
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1Pearl Wolfe is supervisor of the Lane County Human Services Commission and co-chairwoman for Project Homeless Connect. She is former director of Looking Glass Youth & Family Services' New Roads Program for Homeless Youth.

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