Gospel Outreach Mission Director Michael Oslen calls the facility a “rescue shelter.” The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
When Drew Strong was 11, he tried his first drink of alcohol.
By age 13, he was using marijuana; by 15 it was crystal methamphetamine. At 17, he was using cocaine.
“It was non-stop,” said the 24-year-old Brookings man. “That’s all I did, get drunk all the time. I never turn down a beer.”
He’s trying. He kicked the meth and coke habits upon his arrival three months ago from Boise, Idaho. And he drinks energy drinks to keep the alcohol siren at bay.
Sometimes it works; sometimes he succumbs to its allure.
His only support comes from his grandparents and the folks at the non-denominational Outreach Gospel Mission in Harbor.
Director Michael Olsen calls the OGM a rescue shelter.
Strong calls it home.
Some call it a salvation.
Olsen oversees the 12 men who currently live there, ensuring they get three meals a day, a bed in which to sleep and guidance to other needed facilities.
Women and youth also utilize the services at the shelter, although OGM doesn’t yet have the facilities to house women. He’s currently working with the county to open such a facility across the highway.
“You know the song,” he said, humming a verse. “Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm.’ ”
The mission doesn’t have counselors, and therefore cannot help much with rehabilitation. In those cases, people are often referred to facilities in larger cities that can offer such help.
“It’s important to understand all who are homeless do not have addiction problems,” Olsen said. “One man told me he’s happy watching the sun rise in the morning and the sun set in the evening. Some have made the decision to live a ‘life of freedom’ without any social, family or economic responsibilities.”
Others missed the safety net, having waited too long before getting evicted from an apartment, or, like in the case of Helen, who prefered her last name not be used, has had the electricity company threaten to cut off her utilities.
Having held a secure job in Washington until recently, she’s never had to ask for help.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I feel like I’m lost.”
She came to OGM Thursday seeking assistance – anything – toward her $500 electric bill. She had $82 to her name.
“Unemployment (insurance),” she said, “pays the rent and puts gas in the car so you can look for a job.”
She’s one of the lucky ones. She starts work Monday in Brookings.
The mission relies on donations and the proceeds from its adjacent thrift store and the Shabby-to-Chic boutique in Brookings.
Volunteers distributed 1,691 meals in the month of May alone.
According to the state’s Ending Homelessness Advisory Council, last year there were an estimated 22,116 homeless people in Oregon today, compared to 17,122 in 2009.
•9,548 were single adults
•6,686 were children
•3,748 were families with children.
The top two reasons? Unemployment and the inability to pay rent.
“The needs of families have increased,” Olsen said. “Costs have increased. But paychecks aren’t.”
Strong’s background is textbook. He reads at a sixth-grade level. He comes from a broken family. Throw alcohol and drugs into the mix, and anything could happen.
He came to Brookings to see his father, who is incarcerated in prison. His mother lives in Reedsport, but he hasn’t had contact with her in years.
The more dire economic situation in California also drives some people to this area.
Just this year, Olsen estimates 40 percent of those in need hailed from California.
Some just need a meal under their belt, others might need money to pay rent, and still others are reaching out for a life-line in hopes of getting off the streets for good.
“Education and money are the biggest discriminators,” Olsen said, adding that without good credit it can be difficult to get a place to live. If someone has a criminal record, a job might be impossible to attain.
Building social skills is the first step, and is paramount to success, said Olsen.
“Some people come here without that ability,” he said. “They can’t look you in the eye and shake hands at the same time.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are two men at the mission who are about to earn their General Equivalency Diploma.
“They’re ecstatic,” he said. “For the first time in their lives, they can check off the box that asks if they have a high school education. One of these guys is 55 years old.
“Their humbleness comes out,” he said of those who stay. “You can tell when a person wants to turn things around.”
He hopes Strong is one of them.
“I have hope for him,” Olsen said with a smile.
“I don’t want to live like that anymore,” Strong said of his past drug use. “It just gets in the way. I want to accomplish things.”
About 70 percent of those who enter OGM truly want to turn their lives around. The rest, Olsen said, are just passing through.
The rest hang out on street corners, often pan-handling and bothering people and presenting a challenge to law enforcement and businesses.
“This is becoming a growing population in Del Norte and Curry counties,” Olsen said of the homeless and transient. “With his (Strong’s) grandparents being involved with his life, he has a chance.”
Two to three families – every day – come to the mission for some kind of help, Olsen said.
“We’re the only act in town,” he said. “People need help. They come here for the direction to get help.”
The group at greatest risk is veterans, who have a 1 in 10 chance of being homeless in the course of a year. The odds of becoming homeless for someone released from prison or jail are 1 in 13, and for youth emancipated from foster care is 1 in 11.
That’s how Strong ended up in the doorway of OGM. And by following the rules, working at the adjacent thrift store and trying to stay away from alcohol, he’s staying afloat.
“I looked like a crack head; I had things all over my face, I’m missing a tooth,” he said of the stereotypical way methamphetamine addicts appear. “Now I’ve got meat on my bones.”
While he has a bit of difficulty accepting the morning gospel talks, he takes it in stride.
That is, Olsen said, part of the deal.
“It’ not like we say, ‘Believe the gospel or die,” he said. “It’s more like Sunday school type stuff. The responsibility in this ministry is to keep the introduction of the Bible there.
“Do we chain them down to the floor?” he said with a laugh. “No. Ninety-eight percent of the time people are receptive.”
There is, Olsen said, only so much he can do.
“It’s God that has to present the spirituality,” he said. “It’s not me, it’s not the Pope.”
Strong struggles a bit with that.
“It’s up to myself to stop this stuff,” he said. “It used to be, ‘I’ve got money; let’s get drunk.’ Now it’s ‘I’ve got money; I need shampoo.’ I’ve never done this before.”
Olsen smiles and takes another phone call while poking at his keyboard and holding a finger up: “One sec,” to someone standing in his doorway.
He doesn’t describe his job as either extremely rewarding or extremely frustrating. He listens to music – “from Mozart to a dash of Pink Floyd,” he said – as an outlet.
“It’s a challenge, but I’m not drowning,” he said. “Life has told me it’s not always going to be this way. God replenishes. God is not going to give me anything I can’t handle.”