If you think the number of unhoused Oregonians has been increasing, you would be right. More than 18,000 Oregonians are without a house, and more than 60% of Oregon’s unhoused population sleeps on the streets or in cars.
Federal data indicates that Oregon experienced one of the nation’s largest increases in houselessness between 2020 and 2022. (Note that the term “houseless” is used instead of “homeless” whenever possible to make the distinction between the physical structure of a house and the community of a home, and to respect people as unique individuals and not a stereotype.)
Serving the unhoused in Benton County and neighboring areas is a longstanding priority for hundreds of students studying in the College of Health.
Alumni and faculty, too, support organizations that serve the unhoused.
Public Health Instructor Ashley Vaughn serves on Unity Shelter’s Board of Directors; Human Development and Family Sciences Senior Instructor Tasha Galardi, human services internship coordinator, is vice president of the board for Corvallis Housing First; Kinesiology Associate Professor Will Massey runs a physical activity program for houseless youth with Jackson Street Youth Services; and Human Development and Family Sciences Associate Professor David Rothwell is on the board of Corvallis Housing First.
In Tasha’s course on families and poverty, students complete 15 hours of community work with local agencies that serve the unhoused. She says they often tell her that this unique offering is one of the most transformational experiences of their time in college. In some cases, students have become employees of these agencies.
Ellie Ruble, BS ’22, completed her practicum at the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center (CDDC) and now works there as a basic needs navigator, supporting individuals in navigating community resources and services. Marie Palmer, ‘23, who completed an internship at the CDDC, was recently accepted into the MSW program at Portland State University, where she will learn advanced skills to better serve the unhoused. Dietetics student Taylor Rink created a mobile kitchen classroom at Community Outreach Inc. to help residents improve their cooking skills.
Ellie witnessed her dad, a veteran with PTSD and bipolar disorder, struggle to get the mental health and financial support he needed, which led to him living in a tent.
“My experience with my dad and watching my mom support him painted a clear picture of how personal and systemic barriers make it hard for individuals to achieve success,” Ellie says. “We need to listen to the people who have lived or are living the experience of homelessness in order to identify the true changes that need to be made to aid in this crisis.”
Meeting basic needs
Mackenzie Ruff, pictured above, an HDFS major pursuing the human services option, was drawn to Community Outreach Inc. (COI) to complete her internship. She thought its scope of services would help introduce her to working in the human services field, and its mission of helping people help themselves resonated.
COI’s programs and services are designed to move families and individuals from crisis to stability. Services include housing, behavioral health support, medical and dental care, childcare and more.
After her internship, Mackenzie was hired by COI as a social service assistant (SSA).
“SSAs do safety checks to make sure everyone is OK, answer questions for clients, help enforce the rules, get live-in clients their medication, solve conflicts, make food boxes for people and more,” she says. “As an intern, you are allowed to observe or help out as long as you are with an employee at all times.”
While working at COI, Mackenzie says she’s learned how to recognize her biases. “Being able to talk to someone without making assumptions is a crucial step in helping them.”
She’s also come to recognize the potential challenges and rewards of a human services career.
“It’s hard to not let work interfere with your personal life, and it’s hard not to overinvest and care for people who are going through hard times.”
The flip side is that Mackenzie is able to make real change in someone’s life.
Support and stability
Ailiah Schafer, ’13, MPH ’21, pictured above, is currently the operations coordinator at Unity Shelter, a position she’s held since 2021 thanks in part to her MPH internship.
“When I started at Room at the Inn in 2017, it immediately surprised me how much I enjoyed working with adults and how I was able to build strong relationships and support individuals to find much needed stability,” she says.
Unity Shelter provides emergency shelter and transitional housing in a trauma-informed setting. It includes The Men’s Shelter, SafePlace, Room at the Inn (a women’s shelter) and Third Street Commons.
“Many individuals we serve are fleeing domestic violence, have a history of substance use, mental illness or chronic illness, have lost a job, are passing through town or are waiting for their apartment to be ready,” Ailiah says.
After graduating with her MPH, Ailiah wanted to take on administrative responsibilities so she could experience the strategic aspects of running a nonprofit.
Regions of the state where unsheltered houselessness are designated emergency areas include:
- Portland metro
- Multnomah County
- Washington County
- Clackamas County
- Central Oregon
- Eugene, Springfield and Lane counties
- Medford, Ashland and Jackson counties
- Salem, Marion and Polk counties
“Even though I no longer work directly with guests, I love helping our incredible staff who are doing really difficult work every day and supporting them in their growth.”
Ailiah recognizes that supporting her staff directly supports the unhoused.
“Unity Shelter staff are incredible humans and interact with guests respectfully and fully,” she says. “This work can take an emotional toll. Ensuring our staff gets the support they need to continue their good work is an always-evolving process.”
Ailiah also helps Oregon State students find their place in supporting the unhoused through internships and says Unity Shelter’s internship program is evolving. Apart from direct service internships, Unity provides projects in program planning, evaluation, communications and more. Interns are trained in trauma-informed care and de-escalation and have opportunities for many other trainings.
“We often find that many of the guests we serve just want someone to talk to, and direct interaction gives interns a deep understanding of a guest’s circumstances and how to engage with them.”
Although she grew up hearing that individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Ailiah says that’s not true.
“The realities of homelessness are so much larger than any one person,” she says. “It can last for generations, and people need support, money and time to find long-term stability. When someone is living outside, every day is dedicated to surviving, not thriving.”
An introduction to the unhoused
Interns at the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center
Human development and family sciences students have worked with the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center for their practicum or internship since 2020. Assignments vary, but for most students it’s their first time working directly with the unhoused – an experience that sometimes influences their career aspirations.
The CDDC is a community-based resource center providing information, referral and direct services for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Benton County and surrounding areas. It’s also a safe, welcoming space for individuals to gather.
Marie Quist-Plamer, ’23 wanted to support the unhoused, so after 20 years of working in alternative education she decided to pursue an HDFS degree.
“I was concerned and disturbed by the living conditions of my unhoused neighbors,” Marie says. “I decided to test the waters of doing work with the unhoused through the HDFS human services option and practicum opportunity.”
“What keeps me moving forward on my human services and social work path is the knowledge that as communities and individuals we can make changes that improve the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Marie Quist-Plamer, ’23
Marie worked with the CDDC for more than one year in various positions – both paid and in fulfillment of degree requirements. During her internship, she helped build community by talking with guests and connecting them with staff, services and activities offered by the center.
In fall 2023, Marie is starting the Master of Social Work program at Portland State University to continue her work.
Ellie Ruble, ’22 completed her advanced internship at Corvallis Housing First and her practicum as an HDFS student at the CDDC, where she was first introduced to serving the unhoused. She now works there as a basic needs navigator, supporting unhoused individuals in navigating community resources and services.
For Ellie, the issue is personal. She witnessed her dad, a veteran with PTSD and bi-polar disorder, struggle to get the mental health and financial support he needed, which led to him living in a tent.
“My experience with my dad and watching my mom support him painted a clear picture of how personal and systemic barriers make it hard for individuals to achieve success,” Ellie says. “I witnessed how lengthy and difficult the process can be to access services and resources and realized the need for navigators.”
“We need to listen to the people who have lived or are living the experience of homelessness in order to identify the true changes that need to be made to aid in the homelessness crisis,” Ellie says.
Ellie says she’s motivated by her experience, the unhoused people she’s worked with, the changes she hopes to see and the work already under way to support this population, not only in Corvallis but throughout the country.
Like Marie and Ellie, public health doctoral student Maddie Bean, pictured above, has a desire to connect with and understand unhoused people, as well as address systematic barriers.
After working as a clinical dietitian in health care settings, Maddie became interested in learning more about drivers of behaviors and health outcomes, and she wanted to address population health from a more comprehensive approach.
She decided to pursue her PhD in public health and has been working at the CDDC as the Street Outreach and Response Team (SORT) coordinator for two years.
In this role, she coordinates all aspects of outreach, from training volunteers and ordering supplies to visiting with the unhoused population in Corvallis.
“I have been surprised to learn more about people’s histories and the trauma that contributes to homelessness, as well as the systematic barriers at play that make it extremely hard for people to get out of homelessness,” Maddie says.
“Of course, there are some common barriers and needs, like housing, but I have come to understand that you really need to get to know someone as an individual to fully help them.”
“Many people experiencing homelessness in Benton County have a range of complex and overlapping health concerns, which can include addiction, mental health disorders and other chronic health concerns,” Maddie says. “While we need long-term solutions, like more permanent supportive housing, and more of this is in the works, we also need more immediate solutions, such as more emergency shelter space and micro-shelters.”
Ellie agrees and says there aren’t enough immediate interventions in place, such as mental health support and shelter options, to support people in crisis.
From Marie’s perspective, creative, collaborative and persistent approaches are necessary to successfully address the issue.
“Corvallis and Benton County can have what is referred to as functional zero homelessness, like what has been accomplished in other cities, such as Boulder, Colorado – if we choose to do so.”
Isaac Anderson, an HDFS student who completed his practicum at the CDDC, says if we want to end the housing crisis, we need to fully address intersecting issues in the United States such as domestic violence, drug abuse, criminalization, and support for veterans.
Mental health and movement
During graduate school, Associate Professor Will Massey, pictured above, worked as a trauma therapist for unhoused youth in a shelter that provides similar services to Jackson Street Youth Services.
Jackson Street is nonprofit dedicated to helping youth at risk of, or experiencing homelessness, by offering a safe place to live and resources to support them through crises.
“As a PhD student in sport psychology, while also enrolled in a master’s degree program in counseling psychology, I was interested in the intersection of mental health and movement, particularly in disenfranchised youth populations,” he says.
“As a therapist, I found that carrying boxing gloves and hand pads with me or going for walks with youth were some of the most effective tools I had to help young people re-regulate so we could begin to process the effects of trauma in their lives.”
When Will moved to Corvallis, he was driven to continue this work and reached out to Jackson Street, which expressed difficulty finding physical activity spaces for youth, as a potential partner.
“Given that we have access to physical activity spaces at Oregon State and do work in this area, we started what has been a wonderful partnership.”
That partnership, founded in 2018, is not part of Will’s research, but his graduate students are involved as it’s part of the culture he’s created in his Psychosocial Physical Activity Lab. Undergraduate students also work with the physical activity program as part of their internship.
“The youth of Jackson Street teach us far more than we could ever teach them,” Will says. “They are creative, curious, intelligent and resilient kids who thrive when presented with the right conditions and supports.”
Learning outside the classroom
As a public high school teacher, Public Health Instructor Ashley Vaughn, pictured above, knew that to understand what was happening inside her classrooms, she also had to look outside them and examine the history of the neighborhoods where she and her students lived. It was this examination that led her to public health.
“Schools do not exist in a vacuum,” she says. “Part of the context that shapes our education systems includes the history of housing policy and segregation. Schools are shaped by these forces, which shape them in turn.”
As a public health practitioner, she’s most interested in the structural determinants of health, which means that an individual’s health and wellness are largely determined by the environment and social conditions in which they live. The levels of inequity within these determinants are connected to deeper and more widespread structural systems of historical and present-day oppression and discrimination.
“Housing inequality and lack of access to safe, stable and quality housing are public health crises,” she says. “Where we live shapes how we live. Our neighborhoods determine where we go to school, the air we breathe, the doctors we visit, and pathways to success over a lifetime. Housing in particular provides the basis from which people build their lives and sits within the context of social forces that govern things such as education, policy and health care. The centrality of housing means that housing – or lack of housing – impacts everyone in a community, not just those who are pushed out.”
In the classroom, Ashley sees housing as an on-ramp to many different public health issues.
“Students can focus on a variety of factors that all contribute to positive health outcomes, such as healthy behaviors like secondhand smoke in the home, responding to and preventing childhood lead exposure, and ensuring new constructions are accessible to folks with disabilities. Tackling housing as a social determinant of health allows students to apply evidence-based strategies such as permanent supportive housing with housing first or tenant-based housing voucher programs to develop programs and policies that are effective, replicable, scalable and sustainable. By working through the design, implementation and evaluation of these strategies, students gain the essential skills for community-based actions to address housing as a public health issue. Students also bring fresh perspectives and don’t yet have a ceiling to what might be possible.
“Their energy reinvigorates all of us and makes me hopeful that we can tackle these issues together.”
In addition to her work in the classroom, she also understands the value and impact of working directly in the community. While living in Detroit, she served as a community organizer with Ghana Think Tank, and her experiences there demonstrated how community-based work can shape and drive development. After moving to Oregon and earning her graduate degree, she began looking for an opportunity to get involved. When a spot opened on Unity Shelter’s board, Ailiah Schafer invited her to join. In her role, she supports programs and policies that increase access to safe, stable shelters for those living in Linn-Benton County.
“When our community members don’t have secure, quality housing that they can afford, it strains the health and well-being of all of us. But, as community members, we can change this. Together, we can shape what choices and opportunities are available to individuals in our community in the first place. Being on Unity Shelter’s board allows me to contribute a small portion of that work and support folks who have been doing this work for longer than I’ve been alive. Intergenerational connections are important to tackling today’s tough problems, and I’m grateful to be part of an organization that helps cultivate those connections, with the goal of providing safe shelter for all.”
As vice president of the board for Corvallis Housing First (CHF), Tasha Galardi’s connection to supporting the unhoused goes beyond her academic role as Human Development and Family Sciences Senior Instructor and human services internship coordinator and allows her to better understand the issues around supporting the unhoused so that she can more effectively explain them to students. She also deeply cares for others.
“I have lived in Corvallis for over 18 years, and this is my community. Those who are unhoused are just as much my neighbors as those who live in houses, and I want everyone who lives here to have access to the resources they need to thrive. It bothers me that there is so much stigma around unhoused folks because this impacts how they are treated and the type of support they receive from the community. There are many misconceptions about how and why people become unhoused, and what it takes to secure permanent housing. Those misconceptions fuel the negative stigma about this population, which is what I try to dismantle through my teaching.”
In the classroom, Tasha, pictured above, teaches about the housing crisis and working with those who are unhoused in the intro to Human Services course. She also teaches a one-week section of Families and Poverty, in which students work with unhoused individuals as part of the course’s community service requirement.
“This experience is especially impactful for students, because they come to learn much more about individuals experiencing houselessness and the community agencies that support those individuals,” she says. “I place student interns in many agencies that serve unhoused individuals and actively encourage students to consider working with this population because I think it is such a valuable experience. When a student comes to me and says, ‘I am willing to work with any population,’ I always suggest that they work with unhoused youth or adults. Becoming comfortable meeting people where they are, regardless of their mental health status or substance use, is an incredibly valuable skills for anyone pursuing a human services career. I also enjoy helping local non-profit agencies such as CHF develop effective internship programs for OSU students.”
Tasha hopes her students better understand the experience of unhoused people, including the barriers they face trying to access resources and getting into permanent housing.
“I want students to understand that it is not easy to get into housing when you are unhoused, and that the histories of trauma that many in this population experience make it especially hard. We do not have the type of safety net in this country that makes it easy for those without a strong social support system to be able to navigate the riskiness of the human condition, yet public discourse still suggests that somehow unhoused individuals are responsible for the situation they are in. As my students come to understand the challenges this population face, they are better able to explain this reality to others and to propose meaningful solutions. They also develop more compassion, not only for those who are unhoused but also for lots of other folks who are struggling to meet their basic needs,” she says.
“I am incredibly inspired by the ways my students show up to support unhoused individuals in the community, through my classes and as volunteers. When I meet with various agencies in the area that serve unhoused youth and adults, I am in awe of the number of staff members who are graduates of the HDFS program and have gone on to serve this population through their career. This is rewarding and meaningful work, and our program does a great job preparing students for careers where they can make a difference in the lives of others.”