Shawn Drake loves to cook for his family, which was never easy living in a motorhome and always more difficult around the holidays.
This year, with help from Easterseals Oregon, Drake has a full kitchen and space to host his daughter and grandchildren.
Easterseals helped him secure stable housing through its veteran services program. The two-bedroom apartment in northeast Salem had space for him to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving and to cook a ham for Christmas. The organization also helped him secure Social Security benefits that will bolster him beyond the holidays.
“It’s been life-saving,” Drake said. “The last thing I expected was to be homeless.”
Drake had no idea Easterseals helped veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. He was referred to the program after a fire destroyed his auto repair business.
And he isn’t alone.
Sheri Marshall had been living in her car in Colorado before coming to Oregon, desperate to find a job and an affordable place to live. She now has both because of Easterseals.
The organization publicly known more for its services for people living with autism and other disabilities is quietly making a dent in the local homelessness crisis one veteran at a time.
In the most recent grant year, from October 2021 through September 2022, Easterseals Oregon served 299 veterans in Marion, Polk and Multnomah counties and housed 133. Those not housed were carried over to the current year and continue to receive services.
Men and women who have served in the military are more likely to be homeless than the general public. The Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are more than 1,400 homeless veterans in Oregon on any given night, representing more than 10% of all homeless people in the state. Many more veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty and lack of a support network.
National data released in November by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs showed an 11% decline in veteran homelessness since 2020, but the same is not true in Oregon and Marion and Polk counties.
“We have not seen referrals or need decrease,” Catherine Todd, director of housing services for Easterseals Oregon, said. “We have seen it increase.”
Lack of affordable housing is biggest challenge
Easterseals has been providing services to veterans in the Salem area since 2013, often operating under the radar.
Other agencies and community partners on the front lines of the homeless crisis know the organization’s impact on veterans. But the community, not so much.
Easterseals once had headquarters on the Mission Mill campus, now called Willamette Heritage Center. Its programs were scattered across different Salem locations. Today, its programs are under one roof.
Home for the past two years has been a business complex a block off Lancaster Drive NE. Suite 5, Building H is where an eight-person team works tirelessly with vulnerable veterans, pulling off what some would consider miracles.
The program is called Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), funded by the Federal VA and administered by Easterseals Oregon in Marion, Polk and Multnomah counties. Other counties in Oregon have similar programs.
Amber Deyo, healthcare navigator for Easterseals, is one of two veterans on staff. The newest case manager, Craig Gabbert, is the other. They both served in the Army and know their colleagues are just as committed to the mission, ensuring no veteran is left behind.
Services in the SSVF program fall into two categories — rapid re-housing and homeless prevention — and are designed to increase housing stability for veterans and their families who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
The program operates on a housing-first approach, addressing issues impacting a veteran’s ability to maintain housing as or after it is obtained.
The greatest challenge for Easterseals is the region’s lack of affordable housing. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Salem is about $1,100.
Many of its veteran clients have no income, and more stringent rental screening criteria have added to the challenge. Verifiable rental history, from two to five years’ worth, now has the same impact as income, credit and criminal history.
Easterseals strives to cultivate relationships with local landlords and property management companies and offers additional resources to those willing to house veterans.
Clients are typically older, mostly men
Anyone who has served in the active military and received an honorable discharge is eligible for services with Easterseals. They can be enrolled once their service is verified.
The highest percentage of clients are in the 55-61 age range. Three out of four veterans the organization serves in Oregon are men. A small percentage of the participating men and women have children.
Their paths to homelessness or being at risk of homelessness are varied. Some have physical health problems, preventing them from working for an extended period. Some struggle with mental health and substance abuse problems after being discharged.
The staff at Easterseals takes every opportunity to educate the community and dispel myths about the population they serve. Not every homeless person is a drug addict, for example. They say some of their clients never used drugs until they were homeless and, in some cases, only then to cope with being in constant crisis mode or to numb the pain from being cold, wet and miserable.
One thing the veterans have in common when they turn to Easterseals is they are desperate. They may have lost a loved one or a job, or simply be struggling to get back on their feet for whatever reason.
Asking for help is hard for veterans
Marshall served 12 years in the Army in a supply warehouse in Colorado Springs. When she got out, she worked as a civil contractor, doing the same job but making more money, and she didn’t have to wear a uniform.
She has worked in other fields, including home health care and medical transport.
“I’ve never gotten anything that I didn’t work for,” said Marshall, explaining why asking for help as a 63-year-old single woman has been so difficult.
She hit rock bottom after losing the lease on her apartment and then her job, extended fallout from the pandemic. She was living in her car and struggling to find help when her brother suggested she come to Oregon.
Within days of arriving, she learned about Easterseals.
The organization helped her get into the Tanner Project, a transitional shelter for veterans, while she looked for a place to live and a job.
She now has a one-bedroom apartment in northeast Salem that she shares with her cat, Kitty. Honoring Heroes, a local nonprofit that works with Easterseals clients, provided furnishing.
“I love this place,” she said through tears. “I’ve made it my little home.”
She is working at a care facility for individuals with dementia, but things remain tight at home. She often does her laundry by hand in the sink or bathtub because she can’t afford to go to a laundromat.
Help happens fast in some cases
Asking for help was just as hard for Drake.
He served four-plus years in the Air Force, working in a rocket propulsion laboratory. He had an opportunity to work at NASA but instead chose to return to his Oregon roots.
He worked in the timber industry until it was affected by the protection of the spotted owl. That led to a retraining opportunity in a mechanics program at Mt. Hood Community College.
He worked at a dealership before eventually opening his own shop, Drake’s Discount Auto Repair. He loved the work and his customers, many of whom became friends.
Drake worked six, sometimes seven days a week, just to make ends meet. Health problems impacted how much he could do, too. He had his hip replaced and needed the second one done but couldn’t afford time off.
He eventually moved out of his apartment and into an RV he parked at the shop he rented. His best friend died, then his mom. Bills began to pile up, and he let his renter’s insurance lapse.
The shop burned down in January. He lost all his tools and equipment, ironic because he was one of the people who gave his time and effort to start a tool library after the 2020 Santiam Canyon wildfires.
Drake gets emotional talking about where he was before Easterseals came into his life.
“I was scared,” he said. “But it’s amazing how fast everything happened.”
Easterseals helped him get an apartment and referred him to healthcare providers and counselors. It connected him to Honoring Heroes, which helped furnish his apartment, too.
He was thrilled when the nonprofit provided a trundle bed for when one of his grandchildren visits.
Spreading the word about Easterseals
The staff at Easterseals never tire of seeing the transformation in their clients.
They meet veterans when they are at their worst. They see a sense of hopelessness and despair in their eyes.
But the staff knows the barriers to finding secure housing are never impossible to overcome. They have success story after success story to tell, watching life return to their clients’ eyes.
Drake and Marshall say there are veterans worse off than they were who need help and simply don’t know where to turn. By sharing their experiences, they hope others get the assistance they need. They can’t imagine where they would be without Easterseals Oregon.
“I don’t have the words,” Marshall said. “Thank you doesn’t even cover what they’ve done for me. Easterseals absolutely saved my life.”
How to help
To learn more about Supportive Services for Veteran Families, call (971) 304-7140, or visit the Easterseals Oregon Salem office at 3878 Beverly Ave. NE, Building H, Suite 5.
Donations can be designated to the program through a secure site on the Easteseals Oregon website, easterseals.com/oregon/.
Capi Lynn is the Statesman Journal’s news columnist. Send comments, questions and tips to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-399-6710. Follow her work on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.