Harsh winters compound the challenges of living outdoors for homeless residents like Steve Richardson. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

ONTARIO – A raw wind rattled the leaves across the parking lot and dark clouds lingered low above Ontario.

Billy Vance, homeless for nine years, found comfort inside a local convenience market, Mallard Grocery. He was buying a Little Debbie cherry fruit pie.

Vance was cold and hungry, and the corner store was one of the few places in town that welcomes people like him, exchanging labor for food. 

For hundreds of homeless men, women and children in Malheur County, winter is a challenging season.

And this year, it is more challenging than most. The community once again has no shelter for homeless to sleep or even take a bath. Those living on the streets can get at most one hot meal a day, served in a local church.

Without shelter, the homeless are left to fend for themselves.

Vance knows that life well.

He served in the U.S. Army, was married and had four children. He moved to Ontario to be near the kids when he and his wife divorced.

Vance, 56, worked for a local produce shed for 25 years, until it shut down, throwing him out of work. 

Without a stable income, Vance became homeless and the banks of the Snake River became his refuge.

“I moved down to the river about nine years ago. At first, it was not by choice,” he said.

Vance said he has grown used to his camp life.

“I like it. It’s peaceful and quiet,” Vance said. “I like the isolation. I don’t like most people. I do get depressed in the winter. It’s just depressing. It’s colder and harder.”

He lives in a makeshift cabin he built out of plywood. There, he takes care of 60 cats, a pet skunk and an osprey. His furry friends keep him warm at night.

“It’s cold at night, but I have my cats to keep me warm. All 60 of ’em sleep on top of me on my queen-sized bed,” said Vance. He said a couple gave him the bed.

His only neighbor is another homeless man and friend, Richard. 

He said he has relied on Harvest House Missions’ day shelter and New Hope Kitchen for meals. Now Harvest House is gone, its doors shuttered last year. Community in Action assumed duty for the providing one free meal a day, but couldn’t run the shelter.

Since the nonprofit only offers meals Monday through Friday at the Origins Faith Community church, Vance finds other ways to feed himself. 

He said he takes up temporary jobs in exchange for money or food. He takes out the trash at Mallard Grocery and helps with recycling bottles and cans. He also does yard work for people.

Vance says he feels safe with his living situation though he encounters other homeless people who use drugs, steal and get violent. 

“I’ve had all my stuff stolen over the summer. Someone stole my clothes, my things, my food – everything. And one time, I turned in someone who murdered a guy,” he said. “But I don’t hang out with those people. I don’t like them. I don’t do drugs or deal dope. I like beer and I drink it, but that’s it.”

Vance said he has seen more homeless people coming in from the Boise area. He said they hang out by the Walmart on the east side of town.

“I think Boise tried to clean up its streets, so they moved them here,” he said.

Vance thinks that a shelter could be problematic for the community. For one, he thinks there would be more people from Idaho coming to Ontario if there was a shelter. 

He said there were “good and bad elements” to having a shelter. 

Vance said a shelter would allow homeless people to stay warm or get away from the sun during the summers. 

He said shelters could attract troublesome individuals, such as those who sell drugs.

 “In a perfect world, it’d be nice to have a shelter here. But it’s going to be complicated,” he said.

Billy Vance, 56, often goes to Mallard Grocery to help haul out the trash in exchange for food or some money. A homeless resident of Ontario for nine years, Vance lives in a makeshift cabin made of plywood by the Snake River. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

No place to go

Harvest House once provided a day shelter where people could take showers, use bathrooms and wash their clothes. The nonprofit also provided meals and emergency housing services to youth.

But funding faded and the operation closed in December 2016.

 “There are no shelters in our community,” said Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action. “It’s just a deplorable situation.” 

Higinbotham said the nearest shelter is the Lighthouse Rescue Mission in Nampa.

“It’s a problem we’re working on with the state and the city to figure out solutions,” she said. “We do have some funding and I’ve applied for some state grants to work on this.”

Higinbotham said hurdles remain to establish a new shelter, ranging from a suitable location to insurance.

“Our first stab at starting a shelter might be a warming shelter, where people can take showers, wash clothes, dry up and just get away from the elements, even if it’s just temporary,” she said. “We do not have a place for this facility yet, but we’re working with the city about finding one.”

Higinbotham said a new shelter needs money and community support. Without that, the community may not see one anytime soon.

“We’re really trying to better understand some of those models and what would work best for our community,” said Higinbotham. “Some people in communities like ours are resistant to shelters.”

Facets of homelessness

Ask any social worker or homelessness expert, and they will likely say that no one solution exists to homelessness. 

That’s because there is no one cause. Those facing homelessness often deal with multiple problems.

They don’t fit neatly into one category. There are the chronic homeless, the newly homeless, veterans, youth runaways, the disabled, struggling immigrants and those fleeing abuse. 

Community in Action can offer some housing help, sometimes on an emergency basis. She said the nonprofit can cover the cost of motel rooms to families, for example. 

“We do want people who are having housing problems come to us. We might not always have immediate solutions, but we try to help,” said Higinbotham.

She said it’s difficult to fully identify all the homeless. Some live in their cars or abandoned buildings.

 “Some people are living in places not meant not for human habitation. Some people live in their vehicles. Some just don’t connect with traditional housing, such as people who are living by the river,” said Higinbotham. “Everyone’s different, and have different needs. So, we try to accommodate and help them in a way that works for them.”

Helping the homeless population requires a multifaceted approach. 

“I think a warming shelter would really help our community,” said Higinbotham. “Although warming shelters are not necessarily open overnight, they at least give people the opportunity to get out of the cold, and get out of those elements.”

Challenges of being homeless

Steven Richardson, 67, tried to find a place to sleep anywhere in Ontario. 

On Friday night, he was lying under a U.S. 30 bridge, a thin sheet and blanket serving as his bed on the cold concrete. A backpack and sweater were his pillow, while a thin fleece blanket provided some relief from the elements. Traffic moved by above him, the hum of passing cars his only company as he reflected on his situation.

“Each day and night is all about just trying to survive,” said Richardson.

Richardson said he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, bone cancer and alcoholism. But his addiction to drinking has kept him from getting a job. 

A native of Hood River, Richardson said he has worked nearly all his life. He has worked in apple and pear orchards in the past, but has since become homeless. He was previously staying at a shelter in Portland, but he left for Ontario. 

“You know at 67 years old, I’m kind of set in my ways. I need my own environment. I don’t want to be sleeping in a shelter,” said Richardson. “I’ve done that for brief periods of time. I have had this determination to pull myself up a number of times. I was camped out in my hometown one time. And I got tired of sleeping in a tent. And my friends, their whole fixation was just on their next beer. That doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Richardson said he moved east to be closer to his brother, who he said has a house and is a “sweetheart.” 

“I didn’t plan. I just kind of ended up here,” he said. “The other thing that’s significant is affordable housing. I mean it’s bad enough around here.”

Richardson supports a warming shelter or help for people like him in applying for subsidized housing. He also supports a tiny house program. More affordable housing, Richardson said, is needed for those who are trying to stay off the streets. 

He said he graduated from a Salvation Army sobriety program in Portland. He said he was sober during his entire time in the program, which offered him shelter. But the day he was let go, he fell back into his habits.

“Six and a half months, and I relapse the same night that I graduated,” said Richardson. “Alcoholism is a tough one. It’s legal and it’s cheap and it’s available. It’s a struggle, oh absolutely.”

He said people like him who are homeless on the streets are living in a brutal environment. 

“This business of honor among thieves – There’s no such thing as people helping each other out. Homeless people steal from each other and hurt each other,” said Richardson. “It’s cutthroat. It’s survival.”

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.