When Heather Kashuba went to the Estacada Area Food Bank on a chilly January evening, she had recently spent a night sleeping outside on a porch.
Kashuba, a longtime Estacada resident, had been couch surfing for three years after leaving an unhealthy relationship.
"It was cold, it was in the middle of January, which was pretty scary. And I just thought to myself, 'What am I going to do, what am I going to do?'" she said.
When she went to the food bank, director Debra Bufton tried to connect her with anything she might need — a tent, phone, coat and hand warmers, among other items.
"And then she says, 'I'm going to try one more thing ... I don't know if this is going to work or not, but we're going to give it all we can,'" Kashuba recalled.
Bufton made a call to Clackamas Women's Services, who were able to connect Kashuba with a hotel room in Gladstone where she was able to stay for several months.
"They were that quick to get me into safe housing, where I didn't feel obligated to do anything jeopardizing to my inner self for a place to rest my head," she said. "Working for a place to live and sometimes being in compromising situations, that's just not a good feeling."
Kashuba is currently battling cervical cancer, and Clackamas Women's Services also connected her with counseling and medical services.
"So far, I haven't been really too physically affected by it, but I've got a couple of situations coming up where they're major surgeries," she said.
Kashuba, who's now renting a room locally, previously worked at Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette but is unable to work full time now because of health conditions and medical appointments. She does housekeeping for several families in town and was able to receive financial support for housing through Clackamas Women's Services.
"I don't plan on things being provided for me, and I'm not looking for handouts," she said. "I'm optimistic. I'm working as hard as I can to pick up side work because I can't go into full time work."
In the meantime, she's maintaining a positive mindset.
"Now everything's pretty good," she said. "I go to counseling and I'm moving forward, even with this new bout of cancer. I don't want sympathy. I just want to get through and see what's going to happen, and make the best of every day."
Supporting community members
Bufton said that homelessness in rural communities like Estacada often isn't as visible as it is in larger communities. When customers at the food bank need shelter, sometimes they ask about options directly and other times staff learns of the need while talking to them.
A significant difficulty unhoused community members face is limited resources — both in Estacada and other cities.
"There's not an equity of resources across the board, but it has improved," Bufton said. "There are these categories that kind of help open additional doors for resources."
For example, if someone has left a domestic violence situation, food bank staff can connect them to Clackamas Women's Services. If they're living with a mental illness, they may be able to connect with resources through NAMI. There are also resources for people who have been the victim of a crime.
"It's a matter of taking each individual situation. Sometimes you have to ask hard personal questions and dig into people's stories," Bufton said.
If folks don't belong to one of those groups, there are fewer housing resources. At St Aloysius Church, the St. Vincent de Paul program has funds for hotel vouchers and can connect community members with a room at the Red Fox. Estacada First Baptist Church coordinates a "Park Safe" program, where participants can stay in their vehicles at the church's parking lot.
Food bank staff also encourage those who need shelter to call the Coordinated Housing Access phone line to connect with resources from the county.
Bufton is hopeful that the additional funds freed up for Clackamas County's rural communities as a result of Metro's Affordable Housing Services bond and the Supportive Housing Services will create more resources.
"My dream is to have a menu of options to help people where they're at," Bufton said. "There's no one story of homelessness."
Breaking the isolation of domestic violence
Based in Oregon City, Clackamas Women's Services also has an office in Sandy and coordinates outreach in rural areas. The organization offers a 24 hour crisis line, housing services, counseling, support groups and community education services.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Clackamas Women's Services often performed home visits to connect clients to services like counseling.
"With all of our services, we can meet people at a location they choose," said Melissa Erlbaum, executive director of Clackamas Women's Services. "Post-COVID, we really hope to get back out into the community."
Housing is also a significant resource the organization focuses on. Options include rapid rehousing, housing choice vouchers and permanent supportive housing. Since the start of the pandemic, the agency has housed 297 families. From January to June of 2020, emergency shelter was provided to 60% more people compared to January to June of 2019.
Because of the need for social distancing presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Clackamas Women's Service has been connecting more clients with hotel vouchers rather than using the house that is normally used for shelter.
"We can house more people, but we do lose that sense of community," Erlbaum said, noting that in the future they hope to utilize both hotels and the shelter home.
For Clackamas Women's Services long term housing assistance programs, the client has a direct lease and the organization then connects them with financial support.
"The resources are portable to wherever folks choose to live," Erlbaum said. "Most people want to stay in the communities they live in and love."
Kashuba said it was important for her to remain in Estacada to stay close to her daughter and granddaughter. She is also working on re-establishing her relationship with her mother.
Erlbaum added that "the need always outweighs the amount of resources" for community members who are in need of shelter.
"There's a resource gap," she said. "How do we help people stay in the community of their choosing and not have to move to an urban area to avoid homelessness?"
Homeless in her hometown
Kashuba's family moved to Estacada when she was in fourth grade. She's lived here off and on since.
"To be walking around and carrying bags and stuff like that is pretty humiliating, especially in a town you grew up in," she said.
Multiple factors led her to homelessness, she added.
"It was actually mostly just abusive men. Some of it was drugs and alcohol. It's pretty scary," she said.
Kashuba added that every person who is unsheltered has their own story.
"It's a different perspective of being homeless (for me). I wasn't forced to live under the bridge or anything," she said.
One of the difficult aspects of being without shelter was the strain it put on other relationships in her life.
"You have your family, and people you always rely on, but sometimes you burn those bridges," she explained. "Or they'll just be like, 'Well, it's too much of a headache. You always go back to the same abuser.'"
Kashuba added that it's important to recognize the humanity of people who don't have shelter.
"People don't recognize or acknowledge people for who they are or what their situation is," she said. "At the Estacada Food Bank, Debra definitely did (acknowledge me). I was in tears. She made me feel like I was still somebody."
Once she's further back on her feet, Kashuba hopes to visit the province of Kashubia in Poland.
"It's my homeland," she said. "I want to go there. I could be royalty. I really want to go check it out."
Homelessness in rural Clackamas County
The Estacada News and Sandy Post are wrapping up a series on homelessness this week. Catch up with the series online.
Story one: Shelter from the storm
Story two: Preserving human dignity
Story three: Policing the homeless
Story four: Searching for affordable living
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