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Little House Makes Big Difference In Lives Of Central Oregon Teens

OPB | May 20, 2013 6:29 a.m. | Redmond, Oregon

Contributed by David Nogueras

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Across Oregon, non-profit programs have lost funding both at the federal and state level in recent years. At the same time, the number of people in need of help has increased. Sometimes difficult circumstances leads to creative solutions. David Nogueras has this story about a unique partnership between two Central Oregon non-profits and the Redmond Police Department.

A few years ago, an online ad for the little house across from Redmond High School boasted of its great location. Back then the house had new vinyl flooring and fresh coat of paint. But today the inside of this house is a mess. Marijuana growers ran an indoor growing operation for nearly eight months before Redmond Police Department broke up the operation during the summer of 2011.

The department seized this house and another that the owner was also using to grow pot. But Police Chief Dave Tarbet says, the dwelling was in such rough shape, it was as much a liability as it was an asset.

Tarbet explained, “I thought, ‘Oh crud, we’ve got a headache coming here’ because you know we’re not in the property management business.” So Tarbet picked up the phone and called Cyndy Cook the head of Housing Works, Central Oregon Regional Housing Authority.

Cook said, “So he tells me, he’s got two houses, they’re drug seized houses and is there an opportunity here to take these houses and create a community houses out of them. And I said ‘You bet.’ ”

About two years ago, Housing Works launched what it calls it’s “tutor house” program. That’s tutor as in teacher, not Tudor the architectural style. Cook says the point of the program is to prepare people for homeownership. But before any tenants can move in here, the house needs to made habitable again. And for that Cook suggested bringing in group called YouthBuild. It’s a national group that takes at-risk youth and puts them to work building affordable housing. In Central Oregon, the program is run by the group Heart of Oregon Corps.

Blanchette said, “I want you guys to go around the same rooms you were working in before and I want you to measure your trim pieces.” YouthBuild construction manager Rich Blanchette is teaching about a dozen kids how to measure the area of the house in order to determine how much paint is needed. Blanchette says for many of kids, it has been awhile since they’ve seen the inside of a classroom. He said, “For them to be in YouthBuild they have to be either dropped out of school already, kicked out or about to.”

Blanchette says before any construction can take place, the students need to sit down for some classroom instruction. Blanchette teaches his kids about basic safety and fundamental math skills. But even with that foundation, for many of these kids it’s the first time they’ll be stepping onto a construction site. And sometimes it takes more than one attempt to get the job right. Blanchette said, “What I try to teach people here, is everybody makes mistakes, but if you make a mistake, don’t try and fix it on your own. I’d like to see it, ‘cause it’s a learning moment.” Blanchette says some of these errors are so common they actually have a name. Messing up is part of the learning experience, he says. And YouthBuild actually budgets them into its expected building costs. He said, “Mistakes don’t bother me, it’s when they don’t try. I’d rather they try and fail than to not try at all.”

A lot of the lessons being taught here are relevant outside the work site. Brenan is 16 years old and one of many young people here trying to correct mistakes that he’s made out in the world. We’re not using his last name because he’s a minor. He says two years ago he and a friend got drunk and decided to start throwing rocks at the cars passing by. Brenan said, “And we wound up throwing rocks at a cop car. And when you turn around to try and find your buddies and they’re all gone, you realize they’re not really your friends.” A judge gave him probation and ordered him to community service. By any standard, he’s has had a rough start to life. His mom’s in jail. He doesn’t know where his dad his. He lives with his 20 year old brother. But he says he didn’t really start to take responsibility for his actions until he joined YouthBuild. Brenan said, “Well they way I look at it is, if you hide from them, they’re gonna just come to meet you later.”

Laura Handy is the Executive Director of Heart of Oregon Corps, that oversees this chapter of YouthBuild. Handy said, “That’s what’s so inspiring about the work. They’re at an age that they can be responsible for their own change and they can be responsible for their own improvements, and we get the chance to create opportunities for them to be responsible for themselves.” At some point this simple one-story house will have taught all it can to the YouthBuild volunteers. And at that point its mission will change as it’s incorporated into Housing Works Tutor House Program.

Director Cyndy Cook says whoever moves in here will take care of this house as if it were their own. Tenants do all the upkeep and get regular inspections. They also learn to develop budgets for maintaining a home and they learn about the home buying process. Cook said, “They get to work though all of that before they make the big commitment of buying their first home.” And all the while, a portion of the tenant’s rent is placed in a savings account, towards a down payment on a home of their own once the program is done.

Laura Gettle has been in the program for two years and will be one of the first to graduate. Gettle said, “Little girls dream about their weddings. I dreamed about my house and how I would decorate it and what room I would do what and how the yard would look. So instead of my dream wedding, I had a dream house.” Gettle is a single mom taking care of her two teenage daughters. She works the overnight shift at Walmart, where she makes makes just over $27,000 a year. While she does receive housing assistance, her earnings alone puts food on the table for her girls. She sees the tutor program as a way to reach her ultimate goal: self-sufficiency for her family. Gettle said, “I mean I tell my girls the truth. I’m like ‘It’s the three of us. We’ve got to do it together.’ So we all three are sitting in there figuring out how to fix the dishwasher. Mowing the lawn, doing the yard work whether they like it or not. I’m like ‘I’d rather teach you how to do it now, so when you get older, you’re not like, ‘Mom how do I do this?’ ”

Both YouthBuild and Housing Works face a fair amount of uncertainty about future funding. Heart of Oregon Corps has reduced an upcoming round of Americorps grants because of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the “sequester.” The organization is also bracing for a possible reduction in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor in the next budget cycle. Housing Works Director Cyndy Cook says cuts in rental assistance created huge wait times for applicants. But she says limitations, as difficult as they are, offer an opportunity for creative solutions. By letting Housing Works use the drug homes, Redmond Police didn’t only help two non-profits, it also helped itself by giving kids who otherwise might have been in trouble with the law a path to move forward with their lives. And Cook says those types of solutions are going to be even more important going forward. Cook said, “If we sit back and we wait for the federal government or the state government, we will sit back and wait for the federal government or the state government. When people walk through that door and they are in dire situations, we have a responsibility to listen and we have a responsibility to think about how do we best create our own triage here locally.”

Cook is about to retire from Housing Works. She predicts that at least in the short term, Oregon nonprofits could be facing a painful period. She thinks an organization’s ability to thrive will depend on how well it’s able to collaborate with other community stakeholders, to find new and creative ways help those in need.