Ontario’s homeless find shelter anywhere they can

Shane Hewitt (in window) a volunteer at the Origins Faith Community day shelter in Ontario, hands a homeless man a cup of hot noodles Friday. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – Everyone who filters in from the streets on a recent Friday at the Origins Faith Community day shelter has a different story.

They arrive singly or in pairs to get some coffee, a cup of instant noodles or a shower.

Take Jeffery Marrese. Once he served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, held down a good job and lived in Hawaii.

Life began to go haywire when his post traumatic stress disorder became acute. He lost his job, but found another as a bank guard. Then he suffered a head injury during a robbery, lost his impulse control, and decided one day to rob a bank. He turned himself in after the robbery and spent the next 23 years in and out of prison.

Once he was paroled, he spent time living in his truck, got into drugs and spent time in the Malheur County Jail.

Now out of jail, he is just one of an estimated 280 to 300 homeless people who search for shelter in Ontario every night.

“Being homeless and being isolated are my biggest fears,” said Marrese.

Jeffery Marrese talks about his experience of living on the street and his desire to forge a new, more hopeful, route in the future. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Then there is “Robert,” a middle-aged man who found himself on the street unexpectedly after his roommates told him to leave his apartment. Robert isn’t a drug addict, doesn’t have a record and works a full-time job in a fast food restaurant.

Still, he can’t make enough money to get into an apartment and stay.

“I’ve been on the street about three and a half months,” he said.

Robert said he has slept on the street, inside port-a-potties, on benches, behind buildings – anywhere to get out of the weather.

“When it gets cold like this, it gets colder through the night. Then it snows and you wake up shaking out of your skin,” he said.

Robert’s three-and-a-half-month journey on the street isn’t new. He’s been homeless before in Idaho. Although he always found work, laboring at minimum-wage, entry-level jobs didn’t get him off the street.

He brings in about $318 a week at his job, but with rent often far above that, he can’t get into an apartment.

“I want to get off the streets. I’ve been looking for an apartment for two weeks,” he said.

Robert made it clear he isn’t homeless.

“Just temporarily misplaced,” he said with a grin.

Robert said he intends to keep his job and will take an apartment even if he can only afford the rent.

 “I’m trying now. If it has four walls and a bathroom for $325, I  have  to take it,” he said.

He may not be able to buy food, but he will have a place to sleep out of the weather.

There may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for these and the other homeless people in Ontario. A plan to install 20 tiny homes for the homeless between Northeast 3rd Avenue and Northeast 2nd Avenue off of North Oregon Street is moving ahead.

The new homes could be ready to be occupied by mid-January.

The tiny home plan is a collaborative effort between the city, Community in Action and Origins Faith Community Church.

Last month, the Ontario City Council approved a revised license agreement between the three entities.

“It is a six-month license. That will give us time to do the project and do an evaluation. They (the city) are providing the land through the license,” said Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action.

Officials said the tiny homes will be a temporary solution. Adam Brown, Ontario city manager said the facility will not be for the “perpetually homeless. It is for people who are in circumstantial homelessness.”

The tiny homes are 8-by-10 feet and plans call for Community in Action to buy 20 using money from a state grant.

Last week Higinbotham said she believed the grant money would be available soon and a local vendor to build the homes will be chosen.

“I do think we will see something happening the first week in January,” said Higinbotham.

The city, said Higinbotham, will do some preparation work on the property – including moving several gravel piles – to make way for the tiny homes.

There are plenty of people, she said, who need the homes.

“We have lists of people who have applied for services who are homeless that we can’t find homes for,” said Higinbotham.

Right now, Higinbotham said she isn’t sure where all the homeless are finding shelter.

“Some are living in their cars. I am really not sure where they are all at,” she said.

According to Robert and Marrese and others who come to the Origins Faith Community Church meal site, the homeless are everywhere but unseen. That’s because they duck into quiet corners in the night near buildings or find abandoned vehicles to crawl into to find warmth.

 “Port-a-potties get cold as hell at night,” said Robert.

If he can’t find shelter, he does what many other of the homeless at the shelter say they do: walks around all night to stay warm.

Shane Hewitt, who volunteers at the meal site and day shelter, is also homeless but he is able to sleep on a friend’s couch every night. Hewitt, like many who come to the day shelter, also has as criminal record.

He battled drug addiction, served three years in prison and is out on parole. He’s trying to stay focused on the future.

Hewitt began his homeless journey at 13, in California, but now wants to help people get off the street.

“This is good therapy,” he said Friday as he helped get a cup of noodles for a homeless man.

Ready for the night after packing his suitcase Jeffery Marrese heads out of the Origins Faith Communitiy center homeless day shelter. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

“Everyone here has a story. You know, most people are a paycheck away from being homeless,” he said.

He sees illegal narcotics as a major factor in the homeless trend.

“This town is horrible with drugs. Meth, heroin. I see people come in here who I know who don’t recognize me,” he said.

Hewitt said the tiny homes could make a big difference for many people.

“Lifeways will be able to come in and police can come in and do checks whenever they want, which is good because that will keep the drugs out,” he said.

The Origins Faith Community Church meal site and day shelter is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Fridays the shelter does not provide a full meal because Upland Lighthouse Church in Ontario provides a full meal.

Homeless people also come to Origins on Friday to get a sack lunch for the weekend, said Alec Stinson, day shelter director. It is always busy, he said.

“Two weeks ago, we hit 40 people,” he said.

Stinson said he believes while the tiny home facility won’t solve the homeless problem, it will help.

“I think it will make a big difference in a few people’s lives,” he said.

As the afternoon sun began to wane Friday, Robert and Marrese, prepared to head back out into the night. Neither man had heard about the tiny home project until they were told by a reporter.

A big smile crossed Robert’s face.

“I am going to find out about that. That would really be a big help. Get me on my feet,” he said.

Marrese said he was going to look into the tiny home project too. As he packed and zipped up his luggage – which contained all of his worldly possessions – he glanced out across the dirt alley next to Origins Faith Community Church.

When a reporter pointed out it could get cold in the night he nodded slowly.

“Well I intend to stay warm. I have two coats in here,” he said.

Then he stood up, clutched his suitcase and walked out toward the town and another night on the street.

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