July 15, 2016
By Emily Olson
Eugene, Ore.—South Eugene residents endorsed a plan to convert an empty church into a residence for homeless teens last Wednesday. The endorsement came in an official motion, which was passed during the first meeting of the South Eugene Neighborhood Council’s Vulnerable Populations Working Committee.
The church conversion project is headed by St. Vincent de Paul, Lane County’s largest nonprofit organization specializing in human services. SVdP took out a four-month option to purchase the church, which is located at 3350 South Willamette and was formerly home to the Cascade Presbyterian congregation.
Over 30 residents and community members were in attendance at the Vulnerable Populations Committee meeting at the Hilyard Community Center. They gathered to strategize the committee’s goal to shelter 40 local homeless by December.
Terry McDonald, who has served as Executive Director of SVdP for over 30 years, spoke extensively on the church conversion project, which aims to provide private, studio-style spaces for 14 to 20 youth. The target population is teens aged 16 to 18 who are unemancipated, meaning they live under control of their parents or a legal guardian.
“This is a population that’s not really served at all,” McDonald said of unemancipated homeless minors. “There’s no housing that I’m aware of for this population in all of Oregon.”
A 2016 survey of homelessness indicates roughly 2,150 Lane County students were homeless during the 2014-2015 school year. Based on conversations with school district counselors, McDonald estimates that 770 of those homeless students attended high school in Eugene. The main goal of the project is to help these students make it to graduation.
“If kids had a place to use as a home base, they could focus on more important things— like homework,” one student wrote in a letter that was read aloud by SVdP Public Relations Director Paul Neville to the room of South Eugene neighbors.
SVdP aims to have the residence prepped for move-in by September 2017. McDonald said the student-residents will be selected based on recommendation by the districts’ McKinney-Vento counselors, who are federally-funded school district staff that work with homeless youth. Students will come from the Eugene 4J, Bethel and Springfield school districts, he said.
The organization has a history of working with this demographic, employing homeless teenagers at their secondhand retail locations. McDonald told the Vulnerable Populations Committee that SVdP has a “success rate above 90 percent” for keeping the employed students on-track.
SVdP will consider partnering with service providers like Looking Glass, Hosea Services or the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation, which have expertise in housing homeless youth.
To ensure the program’s success, SVdP aims to include residents in initial planning conversations.
“We’ll go anywhere and talk to anyone until concerns are relieved,” Neville said.
However, the organization finds hope for neighborhood support in how the project was born: A group of South Eugene neighbors eyed the church – which sat vacant for six months – as an opportunity. They approached SVdP and asked if the organization would lead a shelter project. McDonald suggested they work with teens.
“Generally, neighborhood groups would want a full proposal and then review it, rather than say, ‘we want you to create a program,’” McDonald said. “This is really unusual for developing a project, especially on homelessness.”
Some residents of the greater Eugene area have also shown their approval. Eugene’s presumptive mayor, Lucy Vinis, attended Wednesday’s meeting. She encouraged the Vulnerable Populations Committee’s work with SVdP, saying that “our future as a community depends greatly on the success of youth.”
The Register-Guard also got behind the project, publishing an editorial titled “An Intriguing Idea” that said aiding homeless youth “benefits everyone.”
“We all have vulnerable populations, and when it comes to homelessness, it’s not any one neighborhood, it’s all neighborhoods,” said Heather Sielicki, Chair of the Southeast Neighbors Committee. Sielicki has been a Eugene resident since 2010, and she led Wednesday’s meeting.
Sielicki said many of her South Eugene neighbors are “activists” for curbing homelessness, and none of her neighbors have yet voiced opposition to the project. However, she said former mayoral candidate and businessman Scott Landfield expressed interest in purchasing the property as a new site for his Tsunami Books store if the sale falls through.
SVdP has until October to purchase the church, currently listed at $575,000. The organization applied for funding from the Eugene-Springfield HOME Consortium, which, if approved, would cover the purchase.
The cost of renovating the church is estimated to be over $1 million, McDonald said. It will include small kitchens, on-site laundry facilities, as well as a few large gathering spaces, like the current sanctuary.
SVdP plans to pay for the residence’s on-site services, such as tutoring, mentoring and full-time supervision, through partnerships with local nonprofits and fundraising. Public funds are not available for this population, McDonald said, adding that a community sponsorship program might be one viable option.
“That’s one place we’ll need your help,” he told the residents.##
At the August meeting, the Vulnerable Populations Working Group will discuss additional properties and locations around which we could build community support.
- When: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 7 PM – 9 PM
- Where: Hilyard Community Center, 2580 Hilyard St, Eugene, Oregon 97405