Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Reason to Celebrate Despite the Crisis

By Colleen Sinsky

You can’t tell in the picture, but we had all just wiped away happy tears and those smiles continued long after we were done posing for the camera.


Last week, the Edwards family got the keys to their brand new, ADA-accessible three bedroom unit at Home Forward’s Stephen’s Creek Crossing property. We filled out the application on a whim several months ago, not banking a whole lot of hope that they would actually be chosen. I can’t emphasize how huge this is for a family that has subsisted on social security disability and sporadic income from short-term jobs.  When I met them in the winter of 2011, they were sleeping in their car.  With our support and their own income, they moved into an older, non-accessible 2 bedroom in a high-crime, but affordable part of Gresham.  It was better than being homeless, we all agreed.

So now they are set.  Literally. They have a subsidized unit for as long as they want to stay, in a safe neighborhood, with many on-site amenities and a great school district.  The kids have their own rooms and Linda can do things like use the kitchen sink and an enabled-shower which she’s never had access to before.  We were all teary-eyed as we toured the place for the first time and Richard and Linda shared a long hug, full of relief at finally having made it.

(I just realized I’ve been unintentionally following this family on the blog. You can check out older posts about their journey here, here and here.)

Here’s the thing though: attaining this kind of housing stability should not be that rare.  As a housing caseworker for the past 3.5 years you’d think that I get to see this type of success more often.  Unfortunately, because of the massive shortage of subsidized or even affordable housing that that is not the case. 

In contrast, I also work with a single mom, Sandy, whom JOIN helped off the streets and into a modest, two bedroom apartment in Gresham for her and her two young boys.  Rent is $750, utilities another $200, and though she receives about $400 a month in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), plus food stamps and child care support, every month is challenge.  Sandy is one of the hardest working people I’ve met, and has submitted more applications, worked more night jobs, and taken the bus at 4am to be at work more rainy mornings than anyone should.  In several months of trying, she still hasn’t been able to secure a job that will cover her family’s expenses and continually requires occasionally rental assistance from JOIN or a family member.  She and her boys are living in a constant state of stress, unsure whether they’ll be able to make rent next month. With no disposable income and few outside resources, life after homelessness continues to be a struggle.  Sandy put herself on waitlists for site-based Section 8 in 2010 and started out at number 320.  She is now number 92- meaning that it could still potentially be years before her name comes up.

To write this, I wanted to find out what the current waitlist was for the Stephens Creek Property and reached a recorded message informing me that ALL waitlists to ALL public housing units are closed due to over capacity.  This isn’t a surprising fact, unfortunately.  It was big news when the waitlist for a Section 8 voucher lottery opened for ten days in 2012, for the first time since 2006.  Tens of thousands of Oregonians who struggle to pay rent have their name optimistically on these waitlists, though they are well aware of their slim odds at being chosen.  Many lists have estimated wait times of 10+ years, though a few do have better estimates, like 2 years.  All of these units are subsidized, allowing residents to pay 30% of their income, whether they are on social security, zero-income, or working a low wage job.  The other 70% of market value rent is supplemented by federal grants, funded by the department of Housing and Urban Development and managed locally. 

I don't know what the answer is.  The system worked for the Edwards family, but not for Sandy and her family.  Affordable housing is an idealistic and often unattainable goal for many, and the growing income disparity in the US continues to marginalize a large portion of the population.

I cannot emphasize how thrilled I am for the Edwards family getting into one of the beautiful units at Stephens Creek Crossing.  But like Sandy and her family, I am still well aware of the millions of homeless and unstably housed Americans that our current system isn't serving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Tears are okay- they help the pain come out."

By Colleen Sinsky

When I first met Susan, she was living in a tent with her pitbull on an undeveloped butte in East County.  Without opening her tent door, she yelled at me and Outreach Worker Quinn to please go away.  We obliged immediately and hiked back through the nearly invisible trail we’d taken to get there, pausing to leave a business card with Quinn’s cell number scrawled on the back.

That was over three years ago, and since then we have had the pleasure of getting to know Susan, her family and her wonderful pitbull “Speck."  Susan has been in housing, struggling to pay rent on her meager social security check.  While she is a more confident, secure and happy person than she was while homeless, achieving housing was not (and rarely is) the end of the battle.  Susan continues to experience both high and low points, and I’m honored to have gotten to walk beside her on her path.

Sometimes our “relationships first” model means that we are visiting our folks in the hospital or hospice (and occasionally the only one to do so).  It’s difficult, of course.  But I can think of few things more important than being a non-judgemental, caring presence at someone’s bedside when they would otherwise be alone.

So when we heard that Susan had suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized, I went over to visit.  She looked so tiny, curled up in her tiny bed, but came alive when she recognized me and we shared a long hug.  Susan has since reconnected with her family, so I’m happy to report that I’m not her only visitor, and she has balloons and stuffed animals and love notes around her room, and is due to go home next week.

Susan’s life story isn’t mine to share, but believe me that it has been rough.  She exemplifies the importance of communities offering holistic, trauma-informed services.  Susan asked me to share her story, in the hope that even one person might reconsider using drugs like she did.




“I didn’t know how to ask for help and I didn’t want to be ridiculed, so I self-medicated.  I started drinking.  You can’t think you’re doing better just because it feels better- the wound is still there.  I used heroin and then I tried meth to get rid of the heroin and that worked for a while, but underneath, the wound was still there.  You have to learn how to deal with the pain and not just hide it with a band-aid.   Tears are okay- they help the pain come out of you.  Drugs can have a lasting effect you don’t know about, for years sometimes.  Like me having Hepatitis C or this stroke.  At the end, the person you’ve hurt the most is yourself, but you also hurt people around you when they are wanting to help you and you don’t accept it.  Lately I’ve been okay with accepting help, but it’s hard. I really want to go all out for Thanksgiving dinner this year.  It might be my last one and I really need to make everything count now!  I want to help the whole world, and I know the best way I can do that is by sharing my story.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Daily Ups and Downs


By Colleen Sinsky


Apologies for the lack of blog posts for a while!  I’ve noticed how easy it is at JOIN to get sucked into the day to day chaos without stepping back to reflect (and blog!) about the experience.  And lately I’ve been putting energy into posting pictures and mini-stories onto our Facebook page.

I was struck today by what types of things determine whether I’m having a good or rough day at work.  In this constantly changing environment those variables can be thousands of types of events - evictions, benefits denied, benefits approved, babies born, cancer diagnosis, furniture, a trip to the pumpkin patch, a great conversation, domestic violence… the list is endless.  It’s life.  And because we are lovingly entrenched in the lives of so many of our folks we’re alongside for years’ worth of these events.

This morning I was thrilled by two awesome things that happened to two of my folks and shocked and saddened by a third.  

The sad news was one of my families deeply affected by a recent homicide in Gresham.  It was one of those barely-newsworthy shootings that is all too common in the poverty stricken areas of East County.  Please join me in sending your thoughts or prayers towards the victim's family.

Fortunately there will always be wonderful, beautiful things happening in the world that remind us why we keep doing this.  Today I got the amazing news I’ve been waiting for for months that one of my families was approved by HomeForward and will be moving into a brand new low-income housing project set to open this winter.  (I’ll try to remember to pester them with a camera and do a blog post on their big move in day.)  This will be the first time they’ve had an actual ADA-accessible apartment, and enough bedrooms for both kids and their parents.  Needless to say, we are all absolutely thrilled!

Also today I visited a housed friend of mine, Mike.  “Shanghai Mike” was a street legend for 14 years, riding freight trains cross country a number of times and drinking more whiskey than you’d think was humanely possible.  He’ll occasionally tell me a story from his days on the streets that I won’t repeat here, but they absolutely blow me away.  Mike and I realized that we both have ancestors from Cork County, Ireland which is a fun connection we joke about often.  He's been in housing for a few years and is grateful that he didn't die out there. Mike called me today to tell me the great news that a random Good Samaritan had seen him struggling with his manual wheelchair and had given him, for free, a new electric wheelchair.  “It’s absolutely life changing!  Like night and day.  I can get on and off the bus like a pro, and going down the store now is no big deal.  It’s awesome!”


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Friday, May 3, 2013

We Are The Safety Net


By Colleen Sinsky

Every day at JOIN, we encounter hundreds of examples of why the safety net is so hugely important to Portland residents who are too often overlooked.  Here’s a story of just one of those times when having flexible financial resources had an immediate, long-lasting impact on a hard working family in need.

Last night I went to the Portland Timbers game with a formerly homeless JOIN family on some generously donated tickets (thanks Timbers!)  It was awesome, and the happy seven-year- old and nine-year-old I got to sit with thought so too.  I should mention that these kids aren’t starving- they’d both had a hot dog before this conversation happened, and they are honestly some of the most well-taken-care of kids I’ve met in my life.  When the cotton candy vendor came around, the younger one knew better than to ask her dad for some and instead whispered to me, “Dad says we can’t buy stuff because we have to spend all our money on the electricity so we can turn the lights back on.”

It was hard to hear one of my favorite kiddos say that.   I leaned over to their dad and asked if it’s true that their electricity was off.  He quietly confirmed, yes- it’s been off for two days and the reason why his wife hadn’t joined us for the game as planned was because they hadn’t been able to charge her electric wheelchair.  

I asked him to come in to JOIN the next morning- his day off from work.  Today he and I sat down to go over their PGE bill and our funding options and I was able to deliver the good news that we were able to pay their entire past due amount!  One phone call later and the family’s electricity was turned back on remotely.

It’s hard to convey how happy I am when we’re able to provide support in a situation like that, but unfortunately there are many stories that don’t end as well.  Because of this family and so many others, I support the Portland Safety Net!




Monday, March 18, 2013

Brenda Can Buy A Bra!


By Colleen Sinsky

Doing this work effectively involves pouring your soul in and riding alongside our folks through their highs and lows.  In the harsh world of homelessness and housing advocacy, the “lows” unfortunately tend to be common and severe (for example... the majority of these blog posts).  So it is such an amazing gift when I really get to genuinely celebrate with my folks.  This week a very long-time JOIN friend, Brenda was finally awarded social security after years of being too disabled to work.  Brenda spent her entire adult life doing the most labor-intensive jobs and is constantly talking proudly about her work in construction, the military, fighting wildland fires and commercial fishing.  Unfortunately, the social security system is a difficult one to navigate and it’s not uncommon at all for deserving applicants like Brenda to face denial after denial with long wait periods and lots of paperwork in between.  Fortunately, JOIN has some amazing community partners like the BEST team, BAC and the law offices of George Wall who heroically advocate for our folks to receive their benefits and help build a strong case.

In Brenda’s case, we referred her to George Wall after she received her first two denials from social security.  At that point, the case goes to a social security disability hearing and a lawyer has to get involved to organize records and advocate effectively through the system.  During this time (which takes many years) folks are generally living on zero-income.  Occasionally, as in Brenda’s case, we’d managed to get her on one of a very few “Shelter Plus Care” vouchers whose funding supports an apartment, utilities, a basic cell phone and “Honored Citizen” monthly bus pass.  She received some small monthly allotment in food stamps, and occasionally went canning to pay for prescriptions.  We took her to all kinds of medical appointments, often having to help her down the stairs and into the car.  Through all of this, Brenda was always so amazingly upbeat and hilarious.. one of few apartments I love to visit and hang out to chat way more often than is probably necessary.

So given this history, we were unbelievably happy last week when, in her appeal hearing the judge awarded Brenda social security, plus a couple thousand dollars in back pay (money awarded based on when an applicant who was initially denied first submitted their application).  For someone so conditioned to living on zero-income, this is huge beyond words.  As we walked out of the federal building downtown, crybaby me was laughing through happy tears and hugging Brenda and trying to simultaneously text her super longtime JOIN worker, Emily, the good news. Brenda was so ready for another denial that she was still in disbelief that she’d finally been awarded her deserved benefits.  

The next afternoon, Brenda and I talked again.  Now that she’d had a day to think about it she’d come up with a modest list of what she wanted to spend her money on.  Legally, recipients of social security can’t have assets in excess of $2,000 in their account, so there’s this bizarre “spend down” that has to happen once someone receives back pay to get their account balance lower or else their monthly payments will stop.  (The econ major in me hates how one-time irresponsible spending is incentivized, but that’s for another post.)  Anyways, Brenda’s list included purchases like taking her dog to the vet, visiting her out of state family, getting a new TV, and replacing the only bra that she’s had for a decade.  Something about that triggered a lot of the wordless pride and indignation I feel for our folks for whom basic human necessities are beyond financial reach, and seeing Brenda finally able to overcome those limitations and gain confidence as a woman was utterly amazing.

$698 a month isn’t much to live on.. especially once ⅓ is taken out for rent, and more for utilities, but even a modest amount like that is amazingly empowering for someone who’s had nothing for so long.  In the future, Brenda is going to have to be very disciplined to stretch that amount to cover expenses, but right now I’m preferring to celebrate this victory with her.




Friday, February 22, 2013

To Do Lists

By Colleen Sinsky

A friend of mine recently asked me, “so what exactly do you DO at work?”  She knows that I have this unique title, “Retention Worker” and that I do something related to housing advocacy at an organization that sounds like an acronym, but what exactly does that translate to in real life tasks at work?    

Here’s some real snippits from my ongoing weekly ‘to do’ lists.  I quickly learned to give up having a strict daily agenda at this job in favor of a set of 'goals to accomplish this week.’
(names changed)


-Can we pay Karen’s past due to PGE?
-Call Frank. Landscaping job? Financial aid?
-Invite Ken, Larry & Deb to Japanese Garden event.
-Did Turner family disappear?  Go visit.
-Food boxes to Jim K., Alicia, Randy and Doug.
-Rochelle needs couch, two twin beds, kitchen table, dresser (if available), kitchen stuff, bookshelf, microwave.
-Jamie needs ride to Mt Hood Hospital early Tuesday am.
-get Robin in touch with HealthConnect to figure out insurance

-introduce JOIN intern to Jenny for friendly visiting.
-Hospital records & psych eval docs for Steve. Call Aging & Disability asap.
-Make referral for George to social security advocacy lawyer.
-Help Kaitlyn get restraining order. go to Gateway Center together Monday am.
-Kyle’s kids want that donated fish tank stuff!
-Check in with Mark K.

-Take Julio to submit rental applications asap!-Gabe’s ID: need address proof, Social Security printout, order birth certificate online, ask Safety Net to print check to DMV.
-Give Rob’s kid my old Pokemon cards.
-Talk to Michelle’s landlord re: bedbugs
-Franco’s wake and memorial tonight at 6pm.
-Do Shelter Plus Care voucher renewal paperwork with Hank.
-are Lisa’s kids engaged with Morrison Child & Family Services yet?
-Stop by to meet new folks in Doug Fir Apartments

-DiAndre's birthday lunch on Wed at Burgerville!
-Bus tickets to William for job search-Talk to BEST team about kids applying for social security disability
-pick up donation of baby stuff from Rockwood Adventist on Saturday
-find free lunch for seniors in Gresham.


...and obviously the list goes on and on and on.  The more important things that I think we all do every day that I didn’t capture at all in this list are the more intangible listening, validating, and problem solving with our folks who are dealing with insurmountable-seeming obstacles.  While it feels great to successfully cross tangible tasks off of my to do list, so rarely are the most impactful and empowering aspects of what we do at JOIN captured in lists and reported data.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Stranger In The Night


By Colleen Sinsky


At times I can’t decide if the ability to draw a strict delineation between “work” and “life” is an ability I would want to have.  At the risk of this being a “TMI” post, Friday night for me was a glaring example of how the work I’ve done at JOIN has had a major influence on me, whether or not it’s during work hours.  I was walking down my street laughing with a roommate, on our way home from a bar sometime in the am hours.  I don’t think it was raining, but it was cold enough that I was walking fast, looking forward to a space heater and a down comforter.  Passing some trendy brunch spot, we walked past an older woman kneeling next to a full shopping cart who was literally praying the Our Father out loud, oblivious to pedestrians.

The contrast between our lives in that moment hit me in the gut like an avalanche of every emotion that I prefer to keep buried.  I burst into tears a few steps later feeling these waves of guilt, hopelessness and rampant injustice.  I think that when I’m at JOIN, or out visiting my folks I’m operating in a mental mode conditioned to experience this type of scene, but something about seeing something this intimate, this heartbreaking, on my street broke down some walls that I’d put up without realizing it.

At home, my roommate (who is an Outreach Worker at a wonderful organization similar to JOIN called HomePlate) and I shared a conversation about our role as service providers in the midst of overwhelming need.  I realized that I’m not jaded or experienced enough to be able to walk by something like that without having an emotional reaction, and I don’t think that I would ever aspire to be able to turn off that reaction.  I’m realizing that I’ve internalized enough vicarious trauma that sometimes seeing heartbreaking tragedies like the shootings in Clackamas and Sandy Hook  Elementary in conjunction with the daily tragedy of homelessness can be almost too much. My role in all of this can feel so insignificant and at times like these it’s easy to feel powerless and pessimistic.

I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer to these big heavy questions from a macro perspective, but the truth is that my role in the world is in a much smaller reality. Zooming in to a more manageable and realistic view- my Portland community, the long and disorganized list of “My Folks” at JOIN, and strangers in need who I happen to meet- the oppression of large-scale pessimism lifts.  I’m reminded of that parable about throwing the starfish back out to sea, which I always thought was so corny.  My reality as a service provider though is that I’m granted some freedom by my limitations.  I do have the ability to make a huge positive difference in the lives of some people, and that’s what I’m going to have to focus on.

Feeling renewed, I went downstairs and got one of the donated sleeping bags I have in my basement and went back outside, without a clear goal but hoping to at least wish her a good night.  But by the time I got back there she’d moved along into the night.  Oh well. Back at home, my roommate pointed out that what actually matters is the fact that I had cared enough to go back outside and try.  He’s probably right- perhaps it is just having that willingness to risk reaching out that will help foster a brighter world.