Less than a year after losing everything, Corvallis’ Tara Walker is no longer homeless. And she says she owes it to her friends, Community Outreach Inc. and Jim Carrey.
The 31-year-old single mother lives with her sons, Tommy, 6, and Trace, 4, in an apartment complex in Corvallis. Today, Walker works at New Horizons In-Home Care and Tommy and Trace attend Corvallis schools. And with the help of her close friends, Walker says she is stable and in no danger of becoming homeless again.
“I mean, I have silverware now,” Walker laughed in her kitchen while making dinner for her boys. “It feels really good to not be homeless or worrying about making rent or what I’m going to do with my kids or how I’m going to find food. We’re making it and we’re not doing it alone.”
Walker's success story is a good example of a "Housing First" approach that advocates for the homeless say could work well throughout the mid-valley. But they add one big caveat: The approach requires an adequate supply of low-income housing — and Corvallis doesn't have that.
'Nothing was working out'
A few years ago, Tara Walker, a former military wife, was on her own. She was divorced, living in Lebanon and struggling to make $621 each month stretch to cover $595 rent and food and clothes for her boys. Somehow, she made it last more than two years before it unraveled, and she found herself without a home.
And that’s when things got worse.
Bills were mounting, the boys needed clothing and supplies for school and she couldn’t afford a motel. So Walker and her boys couch surfed at a friend’s house for several months — but the stress of being homeless and jobless got to be too great. In July 2014, Walker and her boys ended up at a homeless shelter in Albany.
“Nothing was working out,” Walker said. “You think you know what being homeless is going to be like, but you don’t. You get so frustrated and overloaded and you feel like you just suck. And you think ‘Why are you even trying anymore?’ Or you’re just mad at everyone that comes into contact with you for no reason.”
Walker’s problems worsened as she found it difficult to find stability and safety at the temporary shelter, which was not designed for families. Then, one day, she got a phone call.
“One of the ladies I knew at COI called me and told me to do whatever it takes to get here. She promised me if I got a ride it would be worth it,” Walker said. “That’s all I was going on. I had nothing else. So we got a ride from a friend and we came to Corvallis.”
Walker and her boys showed up at Community Outreach's Family Emergency Shelter on Aug. 1, 2014 with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few bags. The year-round drop-in shelter is located at Community Outreach's main facility at 865 N.W. Reiman Ave.
Walker and her sons stayed in the facility's emergency shelter for a few days so that employees could verify she was sober. After that, the family moved upstairs into the Sunflower Family Shelter, which holds 14 temporary family apartments made possible by Community Outreach and partnerships with dozens of local community organizations. The Sunflower program is tailored for women, children and families and provides specialized case management and peer support.
Even though her situation was improving, some of Walker’s friends who heard she was homeless would no longer talk to her.
“Nothing will show you who your real friends are like seeing who shows up to visit you at the homeless shelter. So I let loose a lot of dead weight,” Walker said. “You go through these phases where you feel like you can’t depend on anybody and then you go through this phase when you’re homeless where you feel like you can’t even depend on yourself.”
She had a room for just her and her boys for the first time in months, but Walker couldn’t shake the feeling that she had let down her family.
“You have this moment when you tell your kids that you don’t have a place to live anymore and you completely destroy their trust in you,” she said. “You’re supposed to be the person that can fix anything and you destroy that.”
And just when Walker and her boys thought it couldn’t get any worse – it didn’t.
While she was at Community Outreach, Walker was required to attend transitional living classes, which focus on resume building, developing computer skills and helping clients find resources while they look for work. It had been a few years since she had a job, but instead of focusing on her resume, Walker said, the head of the program concentrated on improving her mindset.
As part of her work, the program leader had the group watch a commencement speech the actor Jim Carrey gave in 2014 at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa.
Carrey spoke about not avoiding problems, but seeing them as opportunities.
“Afterwards (the program leader) told us to just try opening ourselves up to the possibility that things can come at you that are positive and will change your life,” Walker said. “I made this promise in my head that night that said anything that comes up that might help me, I’m going to do it.”
And that night, Walker sat down with her boys and told them the truth.
“I told my kids, 'This is going to take a long time. But if we stay here and I do everything that I’m asked to do, we’ll be done and we’ll never have to do this again,’” Walker said. “And from that moment on, I was open to things. And everything they asked me to do, I did it.”
As part of the programs at Community Outreach, Walker attended therapy sessions with a case manager, cooked meals with the other families staying there and continued to search for jobs and an apartment.
“I tell everyone that is going through something similar that they need to get to COI,” Walker said. “This place isn’t going to fix your problems, but it’s going to give you a place and the tools you need to fix your problems.”
Days later, Walker applied at New Horizons In-Home Care. A few days later, when a representative called to tell her she got the job, Walker couldn’t help but shed a few tears.
“Good energy started coming my way and I wanted to put it back out there,” Walker said. “If you’re getting good energy, then give good energy. It really did snowball.”
A few weeks after that, Walker was making enough money to apply for low-income housing. With assistance from Community Outreach and Community Services Consortium, Walker found an apartment in Corvallis a few blocks from where her kids go to school.
One of Walker’s friends had held onto a box of the family’s things while they were homeless. Walker said one of the happiest moments of her life was getting to take things out of that box and put them into their new home.
“These were things that were really important to us and everything else, we had to walk away from. Now all of those things are in my home and it’s really exciting,” Walker said while beaming. “I mentioned the silverware. But we have a drawer to put it in and a kitchen for that drawer. And we have a home, finally, we have a home.”
Finding a bigger family
While Community Outreach, the jobs program and Carrey’s speech helped Walker to be open to positive changes, she credits the women she met in temporary housing at Community Outreach with inspiring her to never be homeless again.
“I believe heavily in giving credit to COI and the staff at COI,” she said. “But not just the staff, so many people living here right now who are taking time out of their days to help each other. Some of the best people I’ve ever met, I met here. And when I left, it didn’t end."
One of those close friends is C.C. Strait, who also was a homeless mother and came to Community Outreach. Strait now lives in Corvallis and regularly visits Walker to help babysit, share experiences and spend time with her friend. Strait credits Community Outreach and Walker for helping her get out of homelessness for good.
“Tara was one of the first people I met and she was one of the first people in a long time that I felt like I could talk to,” Strait said. “Seeing Tara taking care of her boys and getting it done, I definitely admired it. Being around other homeless people and families going through the same things helped a lot. Changing your perceptions and seeing it work changes everything.”
Walker’s close friend Tye Tyra also is going through the programs at Community Outreach. The two met at the facility and visit each other often.
Tyra said meeting people like Walker and Strait gives her hope that she will find her way out of homelessness one day.
“Family is what you make of it and we make a great family,” Tyra said. “Knowing that they’re here for me and that I’m here for them means a lot.”
Walker said it works both ways. Tyra occasionally babysits and Walker frequently takes her kids to Community Outreach to visit friends still in the programs.
“We all help each other when we need it,” Walker said. “I would not be making it if I didn’t have these people with me. It takes a lot of us, but we’re worth it.”
Several homeless shelters and advocacy groups in Corvallis say that their success rate of bringing someone out of homelessness was around 10 to 20 percent.
Kari Whitacre, the executive director at Community Outreach, said the success rate for homeless families in her program is around 70 percent. For single men and women, it's around 40 percent.
“It’s because we help people help themselves; that’s our mission,” Whitacre said. “Each person gets invested in one goal at a time and they work with a case manager. And we’ve watched so many individuals come through and have success one tiny goal at a time.”
For Walker, Strait and several other people who came to Community Outreach and ended up finding stability, the biggest difference is that the help they received stays with them as case managers continue to check in on former residents.
“When you leave, that doesn’t end,” Walker said. "We’re not alone anymore.”
Whitacre and other Benton County homeless advocates believe that the strategies being used in the county to reduce homelessness are improving.
But they added that major hurdles prevent the county from achieving a higher success rate. One key hurdle: the lack of affordable housing in the county.
“Every time there is a barrier to getting someone into housing, it’s simply because the housing isn’t available,” Whitacre said. “Ultimately, we have tons of different housing in our community, but is it low enough on rent? Can we find the subsidy to match? We can’t turn to some places because they can’t stay in business to do so.”
One model that several advocates are looking to is called Housing First, which was implemented in Utah in 2005 as part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. According to the Utah Housing and Community Development Division, the model has worked well: Chronic homelessness has declined 72 percent in 10 years and “chronic homelessness among veterans has reached an effective zero.” Utah officials said the declines are primarily due to the “provision of permanent supportive housing for targeted individuals” and using the Housing First model.
The model calls for finding and building apartments for the chronically homeless and offering the housing with no strings attached.
Representatives with the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition believed so much in the model that they changed the group’s name last year to Corvallis Housing First.
“The idea that Utah started is that you don’t exclude" anyone, said Gina Vee, executive director with Corvallis Housing First. “You don’t turn them down for alcohol or drug abuse or mental illness. You put them in houses anyway. And it can be so much less expensive than everything else.”
But Benton County lacks the necessary housing, Vee said.
“I do think there is a housing emergency in Oregon. I don’t think we’ve come close to meeting the need for middle- or low-income housing here,” Vee said, adding that she would be one of the first to know if the housing situation was improving. And, she said, the chronically homeless "would move to low-income housing in a second. None of them are doing this because they want to.”
Aleita Hass-Holcombe, who helps supervise the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center, agreed that there is one clear solution.
“I think the great leap has to be the community finally owning that they need more extremely low-income housing — not what’s been labeled low-income housing,” she said. “You can’t have all of these requirements for people to meet to get them started on the right path.”
But Hass-Holcombe said it is going to take a combined effort from the entire county working together to put an end to homelessness.
“It takes will, not just from politicians but from everyone,” she said. “I just get tired of folks not owning their part in it and thinking that the volunteer organizations should and will take on this burden alone. … At what point is a city truly responsible for caring for all of its citizens?”