After the exodus of key staff at Albany Helping Hands, the city's homeless shelter, local police are concerned for the safety of those inside and surrounding community.
For those experiencing homelessness, it feels like a step backward, they said. And in the eyes of the community, their faith in the shelter has been shaken.
Last year, seven staff and board members left Helping Hands. In October, Mid-Valley Media learned the Oregon Department of Justice was investigating the shelter amid allegations of mishandling money.
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New staff have joined, and the shelter has a new executive director. They say they're doing the best they can, but the some of the problems are bigger than they are, they said, citing a drug epidemic and bad actors who want to create problems.
Whatever the root causes, Helping Hands has been a source of safety concerns for those inside and outside the shelter, Albany Police Chief Marcia Harnden said.
Constant 911 calls
In 2022, police were called to the shelter’s address 202 times. Already this year, they've received 27 calls in the last 25 days, Harnden said. These numbers don't include calls coming from the surrounding neighborhood, she said.
Harnden believes the volume of safety concerns is a product of the change in staff.
“It’s not a safe environment,” Harnden said. “With the exodus of the last staff, we are dealing with fairly significant issues.”
Many of the calls have to do with fighting and drug overdoses, she said.
Overall, there has been an increase in “nuisances,” which she defined as a continual safety concern and can represent a drain on police resources.
The ODs have been a particularly big problem, Harnden said. There was a fentanyl overdose in the shelter, she said. Open drug use is not a good environment for those staying in the shelter and hoping to get clean, she added.
In speaking to unhoused people, Harden has found they don’t feel safe going to the shelter.
“For the people trying to exit homelessness, they need support; people trying to get the help they need are falling to the wayside,” she said.
Harden hopes that the department can successfully partner with the shelter soon. She also hopes it doesn’t take something bad happening to spur change.
“It's important in helping people out of houselessness that it be done with safety” in mind, Harnden said.
Lack of partnership?
The Albany Police Department had a great partnership with the previous executive director, Emma Deane, Harnden said. But since hiring a new executive director and staff, the relationship is not the same.
“We are trying to partner, but Helping Hands does not seem to want that,” Harnden said.
After meeting with the new staff, Harnden said it appeared they didn’t know “what steps were needed.” The new executive director had never worked with homelessness before, she added.
That's true, said Bob Anderson, who's currently filling in for executive director Don Sparks while he's on medical leave. Previously a decadelong member of the board, Anderson served as the interim executive while the nonprofit searched for its new leader in the wake of Deane's departure.
Despite Sparks' background, which is in education and other administrative roles, the organization was confident in his abilities, Anderson said. He also has the guidance of other seasoned staff.
It was news to Anderson that Albany police was having difficulties partnering with Helping Hands, he said.
Shelter staff have met with other entities in the community, such as the police department and mental health services. From their perspective, they're being cooperative, having exchanged emails and personally met with members of the Police Department, he said.
When asked why there has been an increase in nuisance calls at the property, Anderson said that they, like many other places, are dealing with a drug epidemic.
“We are only a small entity to fit a large need,” Anderson said.
While he hasn’t been at “the helm” of it, Anderson said the reasons there may be so many fights and drug overdoses has to do with people disgruntled over not being able to receive services. He was not aware of any drugs getting inside the shelter, he added.
Albany Helping Hands is in the process of expanding to accommodate low-barrier beds, which provide shelter for people battling addictions.
For now, some people seeking services have been denied after getting into fights or for not following guidelines, Anderson said, calling them “riot instigators” and “druggies.”
Anderson likened the people congregating outside the shelter as creating a “battle zone” with a “few mustering up an army” against Helping Hands.
Shelter residents speak up
Soggy blankets and a deflated tent line the corner of Albany Helping Hands. Tarps collecting rainwater drape the sidewalk and belongings scatter the walkway — propane tanks, cigarette butts and splitting trash bags.
Weary figures, bundled and hunched, gather by tables, taking shelter from the cold, looking up at the occasional passerby of the shelter.
“They treat us like we are outsiders here,” said Joshua McFarland, who is unhoused and was outside the Helping Hands Shelter at the time of the interview.
He said he recently distributed Narcan, an opioid-overdose antidote, to someone outside of the property.
Things felt better when former executive director Deane was there, McFarland said.
Those interviewed, both inside and outside the shelter grounds, said things do look and feel different since the exodus of seven members, including the executive director, back in August.
“They were the light of the place, and now that they are gone the place is dark,” said former Helping Hands resident Thomas Hanrahan.
Hanrahan came to Helping Hands following a terrible tragedy, he said. His voice was deep and steady as he reclined in a chair that looked too small for his tall frame. Strands of silver hair poked out from under a baseball cap.
He had witnessed someone die at his construction job, which had devastating consequences to his mental and physical health in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple heart attacks.
Hanrahan stayed at the shelter until he was back on his feet. It's only been a few weeks since he transitioned out, he said. He feels like one of the fortunate few.
“I haven’t seen many people transition out of here,” he said, especially under the new management.
Hanrahan agreed with Albany police — the shelter did feel safer before key members left and as new staff came in.
“Emma was here morning, noon and night,” he said. "And the core people that are still here are beautiful."
Hanrahan said his experiences with Deane and other key staff inspired him to want to lead a life of service.
However, he has had fewer positive interactions with new staff and the board, he said.
“This place should be a place of healing. But it’s not,” he said.
For those staffers who have stayed on, they echo a similar concern.
“Residents feel abandoned. They don’t get the level of support needed to transition,” a Helping Hands employee said. Mid-Valley Media is withholding the employee's name and pronoun because the staffer fears retaliation.
It’s a stark contrast with how things were run previously, they said.
The old staff would be out picking up trash sometimes in the pouring rain and interacting with people outside of the shelter, getting them resources, they said. Now, it's a less hands-on approach, they said.
The board of directors does not have many interactions with shelter residents — which currently number around 100 — and some new staff don’t have the necessary experience, said the employee.
“If you quizzed (the board) and asked them to name five residents, they wouldn’t know,” they said.
A sullied reputation?
The shelter is surrounded by an aura of skepticism, for some. Mayor Alex Johnson II said he had received between 15 and 20 calls from community members who had donated to Helping Hands and no longer wanted to do so.
After news of the Department of Justice Investigation, “their confidence was shaken,” he said.
But that's only one source of lost revenue, Johnson said. When the City Council was deciding to which agencies to allocate state housing dollars, Helping Hands was an applicant but was not chosen, he said.
“Funding has gotten a lot shorter," Anderson acknowledged, "but it’s still coming in."
When asked if he agreed the shelter’s reputation has taken a hit, Anderson said Helping Hands still enjoys strong support within Albany, but perhaps outside of the community, the people who had read the newspaper articles had a different perspective on the shelter.
Anderson said that at least three or four people had transitioned out of the shelter within the week and that staffers do want to have interactions.
He countered that people on board make an effort to visit the shelter, and many visit at least five or six times a month.
“We hope for unity between all our community organizations,” he said.
Former Program Manager Allison Bumgarner believed Helping Hands was going to be her career's last post. Never could she have conceived of leaving. The people there felt like family.
But she had to leave — out of “moral obligation,” though she declined to pinpoint any one grievance.
“I was beyond heartbroken, and I’m still grieving,” she said.
Bumgarner said that she left everything as organized as she could when she and other colleagues put in their two weeks' notices. They filled binders full of contacts and partnerships with which to keep in touch, she said.
During her tenure, staff operated on tenets of fairness and compassion, Bumgarner said, and built strong relationships with the people who were experiencing homelessness along Ninth Street. Employees often went out on foot to connect with others.
“We wanted everyone to feel loved and seen,” she said. Sometimes, it was the first time anyone had made them feel loved or showed them any compassion, she said. And sometimes it took patience.
It also required “tough love” at times, Bumgarner said. They had to tell people they couldn’t use drugs on the property and ask them to leave. But Deane was very respected among the unhoused community and led by example with compassion, she said.
“We didn’t care about the success of the business; we cared about the success of people,” she said.
Despite what may feel like a step backward for some, still, some staff choose to stay.
“These are our people. I have seen miracles happen here. Beautiful things," said the worker whose name is being withheld. "We want to carry what Emma and the team have done, to carry on the legacy. It can’t just disappear.”
For Bumgarner, not all hope is lost.
“I do have hope for Helping Hands, but there needs to be real, good change," she said.
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