Marion Ballard’s roughest moment came on a rainy night last fall. He was homeless, camping under a tarp in the Timberhill area of Corvallis. No sleeping bag. No tent.
He got so wet that, sometime in the early morning hours, he decided to walk down the hill to a bus shelter. Every article of clothing he had was soaked, as well as his other belongings.
“I just sat there waiting for the sun to come up and the daytime drop-in center to open,” he said Monday during an interview at the men's shelter on Southeast Chapman Place. “There was no part of me that wasn’t wet. My clothes were wet all day. That was the low point, my worst night.”
The good news is that Ballard, who has spent the bulk of his life in the Louisville, Kentucky, area, knew about the drop-in center and its food, coffee, space to hang out and other resources.
He had never experienced homelessness before arriving in Corvallis, and the experience changed him in fundamental ways.
“I was sleeping in the woods and signing up with people to do day labor,” he said. “My goal was to build up some money and go traveling again.”
But once he became homeless, he grew to understand homelessness for the first time.
“With homelessness you don’t really see it until you are a part of it,” he said.
And he started volunteering. First at the drop-in center and the South Corvallis Food Bank. He became a frequent overnight guest at the men’s shelter. His work habits helped him get an offer of a spare bedroom in the home of a couple he met through volunteering.
He doesn’t pay any rent, but he helps out by arranging for all of the groceries and doing the landscaping, using skills he learned in his day laborer days.
“People in Corvallis have a lot of enthusiasm for backyard gardens,” he said.
Ballard picked up landscaping clients using the drop-in center’s Homeless Employment Launching Project job referral service. Invasive blackberries, weeds, winterizing … he tackled it all.
“The people with the gardens have to have the tools,” he said. “I have the gloves and work boots. After awhile people get to know you. It’s a good thing, a way for the wider community to interact with the homeless.”
Ballard has parlayed his volunteering and day labor work into a part-time paid position at the men’s shelter, which operates a hygiene center during the day, offering food, hand washing, showers and laundry facilities to help ease the challenges of homelessness during the pandemic. And he still volunteers at the drop-in center.
“This is easily the most meaningful thing I’ve done with my life, and the most important,” he said. “And as long as the need is there, I want to be a part of it.”
Homelessness has often seemed like an intractable problem in Corvallis. Yes, there is a huge tent camp just north of the shelter, and RV and car campers are sprinkled throughout the city. But the Unity Shelter group has helped coordinate key services, the Stone Soup meal operation has received a cash infusion that allowed it to double its capacity, and churches are hosting microshelters.
Ballard comes down on the optimistic side of the question.
“Everybody here is interested and engaged in the issue,” he said, noting the new managed camping proposal that just passed the City Council. “There still is lots of contention, but there also are a lot of people looking across the table at the problem. We’re all engaged.”
Ballard, who has electronics training and has worked as a production assistant and a stagehand as well as in gig economy/day laborer positions, has led a mobile life. Although anchored in Kentucky, he would regularly build up a stash of cash and then travel up and down the East Coast, then return to Kentucky to reload.
“I liked seeing different places and meeting different people,” he said.
Then, some friends suggested he try Washington, so he spent three days on a Greyhound bus and landed in Tacoma. Which was too cold, so he migrated south in search of warmer weather. It was warmer in Corvallis but also wetter.
“I wasn’t prepared for the cold and wet in Corvallis,” he said. “The wetness seems to make the cold just hit your hands. You learn things, too. A giant leaf bag will help keep you warm and dry.”
And there were the 20-degree nights before he moved into the shelter.
“How many times in your life do you think about whether you are going to freeze to death? How do you plan for the future when you are living your life in 24-hour increments? If you have a warm place to sleep and can stay clean, that changes things.”
A phone is big help, too, particularly since homeless individuals often don’t have an address — although mail service is a key offering of the drop-in center.
Ballard has used his electronics skills to survive for 14 months using a cellphone for which he pays no service fees. As long as he can find a place to charge and WiFi hotspots, he can use the internet for calls and GPS to make sure he knows how to get to job sites and appointments.
“These things make a huge difference,” he said. “A phone is so important to be able to get to appointments.”
Ballard has a strong interest in space exploration and follows developments closely. He sees parallels with social service challenges.
"Eventually, we'll get enough people thinking about solutions and somebody will come up with a fantastic idea, the SpaceX of homelessness," he said.
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