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Work Unlimited takes over key service for vulnerable residents

A long-running service that helps people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities live independently has been rescued from the brink of elimination.

The Permanent Supportive Housing Program, founded in 1993 as Mid-Valley Housing Plus, was picked up by Community Outreach Inc. in 2008 when the founders hit a series of financial setbacks.

This spring, facing funding challenges to its own core mission of providing food, shelter and medical care to the homeless, Community Outreach decided to cut the program loose. When no one else offered to take the reins, COI began transitioning supportive housing clients to various agencies and prepared to shut the doors at the end of June.

Now the program has a new lease on life thanks to a last-minute intervention by Work Unlimited, a Corvallis-based nonprofit that provides employment and housing services for developmentally disabled people throughout the mid-valley.

“We took it over on July 1,” said Kim Moore, director of vocational and supported living services for Work Unlimited. “I don’t think we have missed a beat.”

Renamed Work Unlimited Supported Living, the program will continue to deliver a wide range of services to about 25 regular clients and a smaller group that only needs occasional help. The assistance takes many forms, including aid in applying for government benefits, representation in financial matters and transportation to and from the doctor’s office, pharmacy and grocery store.

Longtime case manager Samantha Ortiz is staying on as well, which means the program’s fragile client base won’t have to get used to a new person in their lives.

One big change: Work Unlimited Supported Living won’t provide medication management, a key service for clients who may have dozens of pills to take each day. That service has been absorbed by Benton County Mental Health, which will sort meds into pill minders for weekly pickup.

Moore said the supported living program should be a good fit with Work Unlimited’s other service offerings and expressed confidence the organization would be able to find stable grant funding to keep it going into the future.

“Our biggest reason for taking that program on is we didn’t want to see a vulnerable group of people fall through the cracks,” she said.

“The more supported they are in living in the community, the better able they are to go to work — which is what we do.”

Community Outreach Executive Director Kari Whitacre said she was relieved that the program would go on. While many of the clients had already been transitioned to other agencies, she said some of those who remain could benefit from employment opportunities through Work Unlimited.

She also said the transitional period had produced an unexpected benefit by focusing attention on the widespread need for case management services. As a result, Community Outreach is partnering with Benton County, the city of Corvallis, Samaritan Health Services and local social service agencies to hire a three-quarter-time case manager to help vulnerable populations with housing issues.

“The focus is on making sure folks who are housed stay housed and to help folks who are homeless get into housing,” Whitacre said.

On Friday afternoon, Samantha Ortiz was working in her office in the basement of the Benton Plaza, organizing files that had been transferred back from Community Outreach.

She also was entertaining visitors. Most of her clients live in the Benton Plaza, a rent-subsidized apartment building at 408 S.W. Monroe Ave., and several had popped in to see her. They didn’t necessarily need support services — they just wanted to chat.

Andrew Martin and Scarlet Sweet, a young couple who moved into the building last fall, said they were relieved the supported housing program would continue to operate with Ortiz at the helm. They rely on her for everything from paperwork help to getting a ride to the food bank.

“We couldn’t survive without Sam,” Martin said. “A lot of the residents here couldn’t survive without Sam.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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