Just before Christmas last year, Kathy slept on the sidewalk for the first time in her life. She remembers how the rain soaked right through her sleeping bag, with only the plastic poncho a friend gave her to keep some of her dry. It was around 33 degrees that night.
It all started when Kathy’s sister passed away the previous month from a terminal illness. Kathy had been taking care of her for years, sharing a one-bedroom apartment in East Portland by the Gresham border. The sisters were from a family of eight siblings who moved to West Lynn in 1970 from Kings Mountain, Kentucky. They were close.
“She was my sister and I would do anything for her. She was my best friend in the whole world,” Kathy said.
When her sister passed away the owners of the apartment building didn’t allow Kathy to stay because she wasn’t on the lease, threatening to call the police. For a while Kathy slept in her car. A close friend helped her out by taking her to doctor’s appointments, letting her wash clothes and shower at her home, and occasionally letting her spend the night. During this time Kathy looked for a new home but wasn’t able to afford the full move-in costs – which can be as much as $4,000 to $5,000 – on her monthly disability check, and affordable housing had wait times of up to four or five years.
“I was scared"
Things got worse when Kathy was in a car accident and her car was repossessed for missed payments. Not only did she lose her transportation and shelter, but her diabetes medication and other essential health supplies were in the car and she wasn’t able to retrieve them.
Sometimes she slept on the sidewalk in front of The Father’s Heart day shelter in Oregon City, waiting for it to open in the morning. Other nights, she rode the MAX train to stay warm until it shut down for the evening. It was one of these late-night trips that someone took her coat, wallet and phone – leaving her to shiver at the Max stop in Hillsboro for hours until service began again in the morning. When she heard about the robbery, Kathy’s doctor gave Kathy her own coat at her next appointment.
During this time, Kathy was in and out of the hospital, trying to control her blood sugar without medication or the ability to measure it. A few times, she lay on the sidewalk unable to get up. “I was scared I was going to die from a diabetic coma,” she said. “I feared that more than anything being out there.”
Help, and a plan
Even though things were difficult, Kathy didn’t give up hope. At a Christmas party at The Father’s Heart last year, Kathy heard about a motel shelter that the nonprofit runs in partnership with Clackamas County. With the help of Alex from Providence’s Better Outcomes Through Bridges program, she was able to get off the streets and into the motel shelter within days. The shelter program is paid for by Metro’s supportive housing services fund.
“The thing I remember most is I just kept hoping and praying that, you know, things would turn around and I believed that it would,” she explained. “I think it takes a lot of inner strength when you're out there.”
Reflecting on all she had learned about homelessness in those months, Kathy has a new level of compassion for people living on the streets, in cars and in shelters. She heard many people’s stories: “Not everybody is on drugs and not everyone drinks. I wasn't a drinker. I wasn't on drugs. Some people just have things that happen. Families are out there with little, little kids.”
Shortly after moving into the motel shelter Kathy was enrolled in the Regional Longterm Rent Assistance program. This program helps participants pay their rent; address housing barriers like debt and low credit scores; and connect with physical and behavioral healthcare and other services. Both the rent assistance and the case management are paid for by Metro’s supportive housing services fund, in partnership with Clackamas County.
Staff at the motel shelter reached out to Northwest Family Services for case management to help Kathy find a home, and that’s when she met Evelyn. “Evelyn came along and she just said, ‘Okay, what should we do here?’ And then we made a plan, and thanks to her, I'm here.”
“Here” is a one-bedroom apartment close to where she grew up in Clackamas County, where Kathy finally has safety, warmth and her own space. The apartment complex is surrounded by tall trees, and she enjoys watching squirrels play outside her window and the feeling of being in the forest. She describes the neighborhood as much nicer than where she had lived with her sister.
“I feel happy to be alive"
Working with Evelyn has been a positive experience for Kathy. Thinking back to when they first met, she remembered, “We just hit it off. I knew that she would be able to help me. I felt very comfortable with her. I had a lot of people tell me things that didn't come true, but I believed that this was really going to happen and it was just going to be a little time.” Evelyn took Kathy to look at the apartment and her application was accepted soon after. She moved in June this year.
Kathy is taking it one day at a time. Thinking back on everything that has happened over the past year she said, “I'm in a very much better place. I'm very, very happy. And I love being in my own place.” She’s thinking of getting a small dog for company. “I feel happy to be alive because I didn't know if I was going to be for a long time.”
Clackamas County and their community partners have housed 247 people with Regional Longterm Rent Assistance since the program launched in June 2021.