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KLAMATH FALLS — It was a dry, dusty, windy and smoky August afternoon in Klamath Falls. The temperature was in the 80s, but it would have been hotter if not for the blanket of smoke hovering over the region.

At the Subway sandwich shop on Main Street, the restroom keys were attached to ruler-sized pieces of steel. A young man was seen scrounging through a dumpster for glass and cans behind the state Department of Human Services building on Klamath Avenue.

In front of the DHS building, two elderly men were sitting on a bench under from a shade tree. One of the men was asleep. He was wearing old work boots. The boots were without laces and he also was sockless. Between the two men was a pizza box and a very, very black banana.

A couple that had been seen in the Subway were “hugging” on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church near the Ross Ragland Theater, which was featuring a live production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

At the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission shelter operation on Walnut Avenue, no street activity was visible, although voices could be heard from clients in the large, fenced outdoor area at the shelter.

Like communities throughout the state — and the nation — Klamath Falls faces challenges stemming from homelessness and the social services that split off from the homeless issue like the spokes of a wheel.

In Corvallis such issues have been continually contentious. The men’s cold weather shelter has bounced around between sites. Attempts to co-locate the shelter with other social services, such as the Stone Soup meal service and the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, have sparked strong community response. And the public funding piece of the shelter puzzle has been controversial.

Other spokes of the mid-valley housing-social services continuum, including Helping Hands in Albany, Community Outreach Inc., Jackson Street Youth Services and the operations of Corvallis Housing First, operate effectively — and largely without public rancor. But the fire still burns hot on the idea of mixing the shelter with Stone Soup and the drop-in center.

It’s a different story in Klamath Falls. Nonprofits are working with Sky Lakes Medical Center on a “social services campus” about a mile from downtown on property owned by Sky Lakes. The hospital, which features services in outlying areas in the same manner in which Samaritan Health Services operates, already has a nonemergency community health facility on the site.

Also in place in the South Sixth Street campus is the Klamath Works workforce training operation. The new $2.7 million Klamath Falls Gospel Mission shelter and recovery center is in the construction homestretch, with a ribbon-cutting set for Nov. 9.

In addition, Sky Lakes is already excavating and preparing the infrastructure for an eight-bed “sobering center” that it hopes will serve as a saner — and more cost-effective — alternative to admitting intoxicated homeless persons into a hospital emergency room.

Corvallis officials, particularly Benton County Commissioner Anne Schuster, say the Klamath Falls approach is one that should be considered here.

“Klamath has acknowledged the impact on their downtown and the economy,” Schuster said. “They are working together to serve the homeless and help them rise up from poor circumstances.”

Schuster also recognizes that the Klamath Falls answer didn’t come without solving some challenging questions along the way.

”I know Klamath went through some bumpy times, but they persevered,” she said.

Getting started

“This is my dream,” said Alan Eberlein. “Instead of giving someone a bus token so they can go across town to multiple services … just put those services across the street and it would be much more efficient. If you spread it out all over town it doesn’t work."

Eberlein, a 1960 Oregon State University graduate, Klamath Falls businessman and community activist, was speaking from the board room of the Klamath Works facility. Outside, crews were working on the street infrastructure and ground scraping for the sobering center.

A few yards farther away construction crews were tackling the three buildings of the new Klamath Falls Gospel Mission shelter.

It has taken four years to get to this point. In 2014 the gospel mission announced plans to move a third of a mile from its Walnut Avenue location to a building that was once occupied by a Baptist Church on High Street.

“It was the wrong place,” Eberlein said. “Too close to the Ragland Theater. It was a bad image, with people pushing grocery carts with personal items in them next to people lined up in front of the theater.”

They started with a meeting at the nearby Presbyterian Church.

“The community agreed that they didn’t want it,” Eberlein said. “Six of us met out on the curb. We thought we could do something. We kept trying to get our arms around the whole thing. We wanted to put the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission away from downtown. It was a magnet.”

The group of six became a group of 10. More meetings were held, and things started happening. Sky Lakes bought the 18 acres of property. Klamath Works, which had begun to attack the jobless component of the social service spectrum in 2014, opened at the Sixth Street campus in October 2016. Construction got underway on the new gospel mission shelter.

“When you look at where we started a little over four years …” Eberlein said. “We’ve come this far with a bunch of volunteers who didn’t know what we were doing but said ‘hey, let’s figure something out.’"

Shelter tour

The Gazette-Times received a tour of the shelter project from Ron Hicks, the men’s program director of the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission. Hicks also designed the three-building, 20,000-square-foot facility, which features a men’s shelter, a dining hall and a women’s shelter.

Both shelters include separate apartments for recovery clients, who go through a yearlong, Bible-based program. Most of the recovery patients have substance abuse issues, but Hicks notes that about 25 percent have been facing “other life-devastating circumstances.”

More men than women tend to wind up in the recovery program, so there is room for 12 men in the recovery apartments but just six in the women's building.

“The recovery program length varies,” Hicks. “It’s designed for a year, but sometimes it takes a year or longer just to get their brains back in order.

“And it’s real important to separate the recovery guys from the remainder. They are here for a year. We want to make them feel like they have a life. They need their own space.”

The men’s shelter has a capacity of 40 in two dormitories.

“That’s what we have now,” Hicks said. “And we rarely fill it up, even when it is bitterly cold. The move might not change our numbers.”

The new facility also is a significant amenities upgrade from the Walnut Avenue shelter. The building opened in 1933 and served as the home of the Covenant Church for decades. In 1959 the basement was expanded to house a men’s dorm and the dining hall, kitchen and upper floor were opened in 1976.

The new facility is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, with Hicks noting that it would have cost $1 million just to align the Walnut Avenue facility with ADA codes. The kitchen area at the new shelter contains three to four times the space that existed at Walnut, Hicks said, and the mission received a $100,000 grant from the Energy Trust of Oregon to put solar panels on the roof.

Officials also plan to put in a community garden behind the shelter.

There are two major differences between the Klamath Falls and Corvallis shelter operations: Klamath Falls does not admit clients who are intoxicated, and no public money is involved in its operations.

Kent Berry, executive director of the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission, noted that the sobering center is intended to handle those under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Berry said that of the $2.7 million raised to build the new shelter, 53 percent of the funds came from grants, 30 percent from individuals and 15 percent from churches and local businesses. The men’s cold weather shelter in Corvallis, meanwhile, received 75 percent of its budget, $120,000, from the city of Corvallis and Benton County, with each entity awarding $60,000.

“The (Sixth Street) project is the work of long hours of providers in the community to bring collaboration to address the issues of homeless, mental health and addiction,” Berry said. “Truly a ‘one-stop shop’ program.’”

Klamath Works

The job training operation occupies 8,500 feet of space in the same Sixth Street building that includes Sky Lakes’ nonemergency facility. The nonprofit offers training and assistance in a wide variety of areas, including life skills, wellness, cooking and shopping and issues such as driver's licenses and insurance.

“You can’t just get a man or a woman a job,” said Jon Hobbs, the director of evaluation program improvement. “It has to go with a whole bunch of things. There are many more components — housing, kids’ needs, health issues. We need to work with them in all aspects and establish relationships one person at a time.”

Klamath Works has served 400 people since opening and placed 107 people in jobs in its first six months at the new building.

A key initiative, executive director Joy McInnis said, is mattress recycling. Trucks from St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County haul in discarded mattresses and box springs. Klamath Works clients use the mattress stuffing to make dog beds and load the recyclable metal and wood back onto the trucks to Eugene.

“We have seven people at a time working on the mattresses,” McInnis said. “Some of them are from the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission. Most of them are recently released from the criminal justice system.”

McInnis said the operation has a budget of about $900,000 “and we’re expanding.”

Funding comes from the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, grants from the state Department of Environmental Quality and Pacific Power, private donations and revenue from the mattress recycling and the sale of the dog beds.

DHS decision

The Sixth Street project has received one setback. Officials backing the co-location hoped to convince the city’s Department of Human Services office to build on the Sky Lakes property, but the state agency has chosen to expand at a downtown site near Lake Ewauna, said district manager Jeremy Player.

“The location was determined through the state’s comprehensive real estate siting process,” Player said. “Criteria for the new site were determined by DHS, and the leasing process was conducted by the Department of Administrative Services.”

Player emphasized that DHS “collaborates with (the Sixth Street project) and will continue to do so in the future, although the new DHS facility will not be on the campus.”

Basin Transit Service, meanwhile, already provides bus service to within a quarter-mile of the Sixth Street project, said general manager Michael Stinson.

Stinson added that a new stop is being planned for the Head Start office that is less than 200 feet from the new project.

“If all goes well we will implement changes by Nov. 1,” Stinson said.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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