It’s nearing 7 p.m. on a chilly, rainy March night and, just as she has for the previous 150 nights, Susannah Wright is hurrying back and forth on the gymnasium floor of Corvallis’ First United Methodist Church.
Wright, the case manager for the Room at the Inn women’s cold weather shelter at the church, moves from the 15-bed sleeping area out onto the gymnasium floor to set up a donated food platter before stopping to chat with a woman who has just come in from out of the rain. Wright offers a smile, helps the woman sign in and then takes a few minutes to listen.
On Saturday, when the shelter closes for the year, the food platter and beds and quilts and other people will be gone. But the women who depended on the shelter for the last five months won’t be alone; Wright will be there.
As the Room at the Inn’s first case manager, Wright has helped 10 women find transitional or permanent housing this season. In the years before a case manager was hired, the best mark the shelter could muster was three.
“It’s a big jump,” Wright said after taking a minute to help another woman. “There are so many times at this job that you feel like you’re slamming your head against the wall. But that makes it feel like I’ve been successful.”
Sara Power, executive director with Room at the Inn, said in previous seasons she and other volunteers found they had little time outside of shelter hours to provide the assistance women needed to get out of homelessness.
“Most of the time it’s too chaotic at the shelter to work on all of that case management. And over the summer we did not have anybody,” Power said. “Now (Wright) can meet with people outside of shelter hours, help them get organized, help them get focused on their life goals and help them through these things.”
In addition to being available during shelter hours, Wright spends her time providing women in need with counseling and assistance navigating employment, housing opportunities and medical appointments. Wright said her goal is to make sure women know they aren’t alone and that someone is there to listen to care and to help.
“When you’re a woman who is homeless, all of your energy is put into keeping yourself safe,” Wright said. “You never get a chance to put down your guard. So when they have place to be greeted and someone there, they put down that guard, which gives them room to focus on these other things.”
Power said Wright’s hiring at the start of the season came at a much-needed time. This season, more than 65 women have spent at least one night at the shelter for a total of 1,788 bed nights — up from the 58 women who spent at least one night in the shelter last season, totaling 1,141 bed nights. But despite the increase, Power said her sense is that the woman at the shelter have more hope this season.
“In years past, the last two weeks at the shelter people would get panicky because they don’t know where they’re going to go next,” Power said. “This year, because they know they can still see Susannah, that level of panic hasn’t been there.”
“Having someone who cares and somewhere to go is really important,” Power said. “That’s kind of the first step to feeling like you deserve a permanent place to live. You have some security. Just that much security has gotten many of these women sobriety or gotten them to stay on their mental health medications and that’s what’s led them to making these changes.”
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A newcomer to the shelter, Patti Cate, said she didn’t know what to expect staying at the women’s shelter for the first time this year.
“I’ve spent a lot of cold and rainy days and nights outside. And because I’m already disabled it is hard to walk out in the streets when it’s like that,” Cate said. “This place and Susannah have been lifesaving. She’s made things happen for me.”
Cate said Wright has helped provide counseling and medical assistance.
“I don’t think I’d be in a very good place if she wasn’t there,” Cate said. “I’d be much worse off if I didn’t have her.”
Cate, who’s lived in Corvallis for more than 19 years, said Wright and the volunteers at the shelter have made her feel like she’s a part of the community.
“I know it sounds weird but coming here actually feels like home, it’s homey,” Cate said. “There’s a lot of love here. You don’t get that out there.”
D’Ann Reeve agreed.
“A lot of us are just displaced and we had bad husbands or boyfriends or something else like that happen,” Reeve said, adding that the shelter and Wright’s assistance helped get her treatment for pneumonia earlier this year. “They have to have these shelters here and people like that to keep us from getting sick and spreading it to the rest of the city.”
After getting something to eat and dropping off her things at a bed with her name above it, Reeve let out a sigh of relief she said she doesn’t get anywhere else.
“I’m going to wash my face and put some pajamas on,” Reeve said, “you know, just feel normal for a bit.”
The Room at the Inn receives about $30,000 in funding each year through a Community Development Block Grant, a city social services grant, a grant from the church and private donations. In order for Wright to continue working through the rest of the year, the Room at the Inn is hosting a "Spring Tea" fundraiser on April 30. For more information about the fundraiser, see the content box.