Michael Olsen of the Outreach Gospel Mission says the breakdown in American families is reflected in the increasing number of teens, single-parent and “street families” showing up on the doorstep of the mission in Harbor these days.
There will always be homeless people, Olsen said. But the dynamics are changing — and he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.
“Let me give you an example,” he said, relating a day five years ago when he went for a jog along the beach of Santa Monica. “I can’t run with my glasses, and I saw all these mounds on the beach. I thought they were sea lions. This sheriff’s officer said, ‘Those are sleeping bags.’ They let them stay there until 6 a.m. It was incredible, the number. It’s just a response to a nationwide problem.”
Olsen has worked at the mission here for three years, and in that time has seen the average face of someone seeking help go from that of a single adult to those of families and teenagers.
“These are not runaways,” he said. “Just this morning, we had a request for assistance for a camping space. That’s a constant. A parent with children can no longer afford an apartment or a house, so they’re camping. And it’s not just Curry County; it’s nationwide.”
Twenty-one students of Brookings-Harbor High School are among those, although most find a place to sleep with friends. Olsen said some of them have left — or were kicked out — of homes where parents are often abusing drugs or are in jail.
The economy isn’t helping, according to Oregon Department of Education study from the 2012-2013 school year. The recovery is slow, and many parents who lost their jobs and homes are still struggling to find work. It’s compounded by a lack of affordable housing.
In Curry County, it’s exacerbated by an unofficial unemployment rate in the low 20 percent. That about 45 employees have been laid off from C&K Market in Brookings, Chetco Pharmacy and Shop-Rite in recent months doesn’t help. The repercussions of that are likely yet to be felt.
For those 21 who are able to find a couch on which to sleep or do attend school, Olsen believes there are 11 or so teens who live on the streets.
Families aren’t something Olsen’s used to dealing with, however.
“I’m not a counselor — I don’t pretend to be,” he said. “I’m all about shelter, a meal and clothes.”
Sometimes, after talking with a person, he can determine where they want to go — Portland or Medford, for example — and help them get there. Sometimes, he has to call state police or highway patrol — depending which state from which the person originated — if they are underage.
The Outreach Gospel Mission can only take in men older than 18, so if a father and his daughter show up on the doorstep, he can only help them find shelter elsewhere. A women’s shelter run by the mission can only accommodate five.
But increasingly, he’s seeing teens.
Sometimes, Olsen said, the parents have kicked the kid out of the house. Other times, the kid has left — be it in anger, or trying to escape a homelife of abuse, drugs or crime.
“I had a kid tell me that, for a month, the best meal he had was a grilled cheese sandwich,” he said. “I said, ‘What? On the road?’ And he said, no, at home. He went home and his mother pointed to the kitchen and told him to help himself.”
He’s heard the stories, and common themes include a home in foreclosure, a job lost, a parent in jail and rampant drug use.
“When one member of the family is using, it instantly invites problems,” Olsen said. “A large percentage of who we are is who we’re raised with. Either the kid gets involved, or he doesn’t want to be involved and escapes. It’s everywhere.”
The Union Gospel Mission for whom Olsen worked in Salem is now feeding 700 people a day, and sheltering 90 women and 230 men every night.
“I can’t answer for this community,” he added. “In my first six months here, I didn’t see one. And since the latter part of 2011 through 2013, there’s been a noticeable upswing.”
That increase amounts to one or two teens a month.
And now he’s seeing more come in with their families — or “families” they’ve adopted off the streets.
“That’s the new dynamic in homelessness,” he said. “I saw it in Salem, I saw it in New York, and we’re seeing it here.”
The increase in family members — even small children and pets — requires Olsen and others to become reporters and inform the authorities when they believe abuse might be going on. In 18 years, he’s only done it three times — but he gets a little closer to the phone when he sees someone pull up to the mission with two crying kids in the car.
“I’ve seen DHS (Department of Human Services) running through the woods, chasing people,” he said. “And if you separate those family members for very long …”
The family factor, whether biological or found “gets a lot more violins” — sympathy — from the public, Olsen said.
But it doesn’t solve the problem, which he maintains is a broken family. The kids with a two-parent household, whose parents have decent jobs, who are involved in school and sports, don’t tend to be among the homeless.
He shakes his head when asked if he thinks the situation will get better.
“I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to forecast what it’ll be like a year from now, much less 10 years from now.”