In the community

What happened at Origins? Homeless efforts falter amid staff, money ills

ONTARIO – Origins Faith Community Church has described itself as a homeless organization taking the lead on the challenging task of serving the community’s homeless with food, medical care, housing and addiction recovery.

Behind the scenes, the effort was crumbling.

“It breaks my heart to see this occur in Malheur County where the need is so extreme as it is across the state,” Ken Rush, a former counselor with Origins wrote in a complaint filed in May to state officials. 

Rush’s account told a starkly different story of an organization on the brink of imploding as it struggled to provide crucial local drug treatment, counseling, housing services and food services as one of the prime resources for homeless care in Malheur County. 

By then, Origins had burned through more than half a million dollars in state money. Now, the state is concerned where the money went and whether services were in fact given to the homeless struggling with addiction at the scale Origins represented. State officials informed the agency’s leaders Sept. 18 that it was terminating a grant that helped fund its food kitchen and the agency’s addiction services. 

Origins Faith Community Church got into the homeless business in 2007. Operating under an umbrella organization, the nonprofit began providing counseling, addiction and homeless services, cold weather shelters and a food kitchen that served more than 100 meals daily in Ontario. 

That quickly made it one of the prime resources for homeless care in Malheur County. 

The organization got a huge boost after voters passed Measure 110 in 2020. State officials moved millions out to communities to tend to one of Oregon’s most vexing problems, drug addiction. 

Millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue were distributed to expand treatment.

Origins Faith Community was awarded more than $600,000 to be one of those drug rehabilitation providers. Under the grant, the agency provided peer counseling, employment services and housing and harm reduction services. 

Such an approach to treating substance abuse that doesn’t require complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Instead, it focuses on reducing the consequences of addiction by making available to people Narcan, a medication used to reverse an overdose, and needle exchanges to prevent the spread of disease.

Origins planned to connect addicts to counselors and refer them to other services when they showed up in Ontario for the meal program at New Hope Kitchen. The food kitchen owned by Origins serves more than 100 meals daily.

The meal service, headed for closure, has remained open with an emergency church grant. Its future remains uncertain.

Origins Faith’s troubles began not long after the agency received its initial grant award in August 2022, according to an Oregon Health Authority presentation on Sept. 13 to the committee that awards and terminates grants. While the committee can approve or cut funding, the health authority monitors the spending. 

Rush said in his letter that not long after the agency received its first round of funding, Heather Echeveste, the organization’s executive director, told him Origins could not afford to pay him. Rush’s wife Dana, also a peer support counselor, left a week later, in part, because someone told her she would need to add Rush’s workload to hers.

Echeveste didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. 

But Rush’s departure in November left the peer support center, the Bridge Renewed, without a supervisor. “This greatly concerns me,” his complaint said.

The value of peer support 

Peer support connects those seeking recovery from substance abuse with another “peer,” an equal, around the shared experiences of addiction recovery. Counselors or mentors are typically people who have struggled with addiction but have since completed drug rehabilitation and continued in recovery.

The idea of a peer support center was to offer a place beyond a clinical setting staffed by peer counselors and mentors to engage with addicts at different points in the recovery process.

In a Friday, Oct. 6 email, Rush wrote the peer support center had shuttered in the early summer and that “virtually no outreach” had been happening in the community.

Frank Borst, Origins church board member and secretary, said that while the Bridge Renewed closed in late May due to the landlord selling the building, Origins continued to offer peer support services on a smaller scale until the state terminated the grant Sept. 18.

Rush wrote to the health authority in March that Echeveste was fired following an investigation by the board. 

Borst said the board appointed Sandy Kendall, a full-time employee at Community in Action, an Ontario nonprofit that focuses on housing.

Rush wrote that Kendall had no substance abuse experience. This “concerned” him and so he reached out to her and offered to help with the grant requirements he said.

“She did not respond back,” he said.

In a Sunday, Oct. 8 email, Rush wrote that he also contacted Borst about the executive director position but did not hear back.

Borst disputed that, saying he emailed back and that Origin’s funding troubles went beyond counseling and addiction services. He also said the terms of the Measure 110 grant would prohibit Origins from contracting out services it was no longer providing in-house.

Jessica Anne Carroll, program manager with the health authority, differed on that point, saying Origins had the opportunity to ask to subcontract services.

In the January report, Kendall wrote the peer support program had been an “amazingly successful program,” with the Bridge Renewed offered a “safe” and “judge-free” space for people.

Kendall wrote that Origins had been holding Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a spirituality-based 12-step group that is an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, an abstinence-based program. 

Kendall wrote that peer support mentors attended with clients seeking help.

Kendall said Origins staff made daily calls to people who were trying to remain abstinent, checking in to see if they needed help.

Kendall did not respond to a voicemail left at Community in Action and a written request sent on Facebook messenger.

From January through May, Origins officials didn’t submit to the state mandatory spending reports or program narratives designed to ensure services were being delivered. Origins also provided incomplete reports that made it impossible for state officials to determine if services were getting to those who needed it, according to the health authority. 

Meantime, in a May 10 letter, the state wrote Origins, citing understaffing and asked for records showing how clients were being treated.

“OHA wants to ensure that individuals seeking services at your organization receive timely, appropriate access to those services,” the health authority wrote.

A former employee contacted the health authority in July and told the state agency it was folding, according to the state agency. In July and August, the organization provided information to the authority, but it had errors, and agency officials again could not tell what services the organization had provided, the agency presentation said.

Tim Heider, communications officer with the health authority’s behavioral health division, said the termination of the grant came because of Origins’ inability to prove it had provided services.

In the Sept. 18 termination letter, Kristen Donheffener, a health authority contracts official, requested Origins return any unspent funds and that the agency would review past expenditures to determine if they were allowed under the grant. Any expenses not allowed would need to be paid back, according to Donheffener.

It remains unclear how long the health authority’s review will take, according to Heider.

Kitchen left in limbo

Nor is it clear what funding options remain for the New Hope Kitchen after the next week, Borst said.

Borst said the tiny house project, another significant resource for the county’s homeless population, is also in jeopardy. Owned by Community in Action, Borst said the 16 tiny houses at 312 N.W. 2nd St., which Origins manages, has not received funding from the state for the homes. The homes have been available in the past from October through April. Officials from Community in Action did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Origins, according to the state health agency’s database, has so far received $513,640.

Of the $265 million in state funding that went out, three organizations in Malheur County have received grants under Measure 110, totaling $1.5 million. The Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living, a resource and advocacy center for those with disabilities, was awarded $516,536 for harm reduction intervention and Lifeways, an addiction treatment center in Ontario, was awarded $698,210 for a suite of addiction services.

NEWS TIP? Send an email to [email protected].

SUPPORT OUR WORK – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.