To get there you travel Blair Boulevard and take a left at West First Avenue.
The road leads to Eugene Mission, a nonprofit started in 1950 in downtown Eugene and at its current 7.5-acre location since 1967.
You pass the veterans’ area and the Conestoga huts, work and storage areas, the Women’s Center and a Family and Children’s Center. You see the administrative offices, the Men’s Center and, finally, a fenced off area beneath an overpass.
To the untrained eye it has the imposing feel of the end of the road.
Don’t say that to Jessica or Sam, two residents of the of the Women’s Center.
“I disagree with that,” Sam says. “I try really hard to look at people with God’s eyes. [Eugene Mission] opened their doors to the homeless. They helped me feel loved. They helped me be more stable.”
Sam and Jessica, both older women at the shelter, asked that Eugene Weekly not use their full names to protect their privacy as they rebuild their lives.
“I was so adamant about not coming to the Mission,” Jessica recalls of a two-week hospital stay for anxiety and other health-related issues. She walked through the doors of the Mission almost two years ago. “I’m just so appreciative the Mission is here.”
Tabitha Eck, director of Strategic Operations and Resources at the shelter, works closely with the Women’s Center. She calls the homeless women at the shelter the “most fragile of our communities.”
Jessica and Sam are just two examples. Jessica and her dog, Snoopy, escaped a physically and verbally abusive housing situation with nowhere else to go. She had drained her savings in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a restraining order, was on anti-depressants that were only making her anxiety worse and was two months behind on rent.
Sam has been in and out of sobriety, at one point almost 10 years sober. She lost that and was arrested earlier this year in the St. Helens area on an old warrant.
An attorney in St. Helens and a Columbia County judge took mercy on her. Charges were dropped and Sam returned to Eugene and for the second time to Eugene Mission in August.
“I felt home,” she says.
The Eugene Mission was formerly known as a faith-based emergency shelter. Men and women who stepped through the doors were required to attend chapel services.
That has not been the case for years, though Sam, in an effort to sustain her sobriety, has leaned hard on the chapel and her faith in a higher power.
Instead, the shelter aims to welcome everyone as they come, no matter how broken, and the volume of people entering the Mission is increasing, says Shannon Smyth, Supportive Services manager at the shelter.
The Women’s Center at Eugene Mission has a capacity of 70 beds with an additional 30 emergency beds to handle overflow from other agencies, Smyth says. The Men’s Center, he adds, has a capacity of 250 beds, up from 220.
Smyth notes that Eugene Mission typically sees a reduction of men, women and families using its services in the warmer summer months. There was, however, only a tiny drop in guests this past summer. Since Sept. 1, the shelter has been at capacity. Even the overflow beds are being used.
It is, Smyth says, “highly unusual” for the shelter to be this full almost year-round.
The uptick, Eck notes, includes a rise of the elderly at the shelter, men and women in wheelchairs or with dementia or tethered to oxygen tanks. “The silver tsunami,” is how Eck describes it.
According to the most recent data in the Annual Homeless Assessment (AHAR) to Congress in 2016, almost 67,000 elderly individuals in the U.S. (people age 62 or older), are in shelters. The report further states that homeless elderly individuals have increased 48.2 percent (21,549 people) between 2007 and 2016.
The Eugene Mission serves everyone with a limited staff and with a $3.2 million donation-based budget that, as one Mission staffer puts it, is the “culmination of 1,000 small checks.”
It is sometimes overwhelming.
“You have to remember to eat lunch,” Eck says.
“It’s hard, it’s scary and it’s sad,” notes Johnna Wheeler, Women and Children’s Services manager. “But it’s beautiful.”
And well worth it, says Maria Cortez, the shelter’s guest services program development analyst. “The meaningful connections you make here,” she says of her work. “They’re at a better place when they leave.”
The transitional aspect of the Eugene Mission, in fact, may soon come to Sam and Jessica. Sam is searching for housing through Section 8. Jessica is working with ShelterCare. Both are hopeful.
“It’s God’s plan,” Sam says. “It’s day to day.”
And they are thankful for Eugene Mission.
“It helps you build yourself,” Jessica says.
The Eugene Mission is at 1542 W. First Avenue. For more information about its services, or to make donations or volunteer, call 541-344-3251 or go to EugeneMission.org.