There’s always hope: A look at homelessness and RCC

By Becky Musard

Staff writer

Look at the people around you in class. Now look at the instructor. After a term you might feel you know them, but would you be able to say if they are, or have ever been, homeless?

Jenny Jackson spent some of her teenage years stuffed into a singlewide trailer lacking electricity, sometimes with 15 to 20 other people. “It was a really dark and sad time in my life,” said Jackson, now the Associated Student Government advisor on Redwood campus. “I was really scared.”

Many others at RCC and in the Rogue Valley are currently in the same predicament as Jackson once was.

RCC student Ryan Katz is one of many who have struggled with homelessness. Currently in his fourth term, he is excelling in his classes and working on getting his CNA license.

However things haven’t always looked so bright for Katz.

After losing his dad to cancer at 12 years of age, Katz has never been the same. It started on the day of his dad’s funeral when his uncle handed him his first shot of whiskey. Not long after that, his aunt came with his second and that was all it took.

From that point on, Katz never turned back, and that was when the downward spiral began. After his father’s death Katz became a very hateful, bitter and angry child. He was an alcoholic and user by the age of 15.When his mother became a Jehovah Witness, she was no longer allowed to have anything to do with her son because of his actions, and so Katz was kicked to the street.

Not remembering much of anything from the age of 12 to 15, Katz does remember waking up in the hospital after being in an alcohol induced coma for 48 days. Opening his eyes he saw his mother and the tears and pain in her face, “What am I doing to my mother?” he thought, but it wasn’t enough to stop him.

“The pain I felt inside nobody knew,” said Katz.

The two people he loved the most had left him feeling abandoned. And so he lived the only way he knew how to block everything out.

Katz graduated from high school in South Dakota, although he doesn’t remember it, and then joined the Marines for the next 9 years.  While on a two week furlough, Katz had been on acid the entire time. He didn’t remember much from that trip, but he does recall being pulled up a cliff by paramedics. Katz was rolled off a 75 foot cliff in Hawaii and left for dead at 19 years old.

Katz had been clinically pronounced dead after being in another alcohol induced coma for three and a half days. But before even leaving the hospital he slammed a half of a bottle of whiskey given to him by a fellow Marine that was at his bedside.

“This addiction is such a scary thing,” said Katz. “I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t have the courage to do it.”

“I never took baths. I learned how to eat out of garbage cans, and I knew the best places to eat,” he said. “I went to places that no human being should ever go.” But because of his addictions, he went.

Finally in 2006, Katz had a moment of clarity, and he knew he needed help or he was going to die. He had heard about an Alcoholics Anonymous group in White City, and before he knew it he was at the Domiciliary. Katz is in his third year at the program. Knowing that he has overcome his battles and there are people out there who support him makes each day a little bit easier.

“I’m a guy today that should not be here. Why I’m here is beyond my reasoning,” Katz said, “My life is really good today, although Algebra is kicking my ass.”

Today Katz is taking things one day at a time. “I don’t have a lot in life, but I’m comfortable with who I am,” Katz said. “I’m not a hateful man anymore, I’m not bitter, and I’ve forgiven myself. I’m a freaking miracle, I really am.”

A hand up, not a hand out

Working with homeless and at risk for homeless youth in Jackson County, the Maslow Project is just one of many places willing to help those in need.

In a tiny space on Main Street those who are in need of help will undoubtedly find what they are looking for. Aubrey Sharp and Drew Fitzpatrick are just two of the staff who are there to help those who come through their door.

Sharp, a case manager, and Fitzpatrick, a mentor and outreach coordinator, help supply the homeless with basic needs, and much more.

The Maslow Project has an abundance of supplies to give: On-site food, water, hot drinks, snack bins, heat up food, a hygiene closet, school supplies for those who are continuing in school, clothing, a place to do laundry, a place for showers, food boxes, sleeping bags, blankets, furniture occasionally, and free counseling services.

The clothing is supplied through Jessica’s Closet, which allows you to take up to 20 items once a month, and food boxes can be filled with enough food to last five to eight days.

Once a week a DHS worker will come in to help those who want to get on food stamps.

Maslow Project is open Monday through Friday, and usually sees about 25-50 walk-ins each day.

Besides providing the homeless or at risk with basic needs, they also can provide referrals to shelters and other programs. If the individual is under 18 years old they refer to Hearts With A Mission, and if they are over 18 years old they refer to the Mission.

According to Sharp, most homeless youth do not stay in shelters. About 80-90 percent don’t access shelters; they sleep on the streets, couch surf or double up with two or more families.

“We can tell them about the shelters, but on average they aren’t going to use them,” said Sharp.

The Maslow Project also aids in case management. They can help with the process of getting a birth certificate, an identification card, getting enrolled at RCC, completing the FAFSA, help create a resume and job skills classes. The basic needs are easy to get, but in order to receive extra help you must meet with a case manager once a week. Sharp is actively managing the cases of 60 kids.

“We want to work ourselves out of a job, but due to the economic season, it doesn’t look like it will happen this year.” said Fitzpatrick.

After seeing 1,610 individuals from June of 2009 to June of 2010 and serving roughly 3,500 hot meals on-site last year, the MaslowProject is hoping to find a new space so they are able to expand their services to a larger space.

Thanks to places such as the Maslow Project, homeless youth and families are getting the help they need. “The homeless population in Medford is very invisible,” said Sharp.

Referrals from RCC

According to RCC counselor Tom Pike, when a new homeless student is at RCC referrals can be made. Where they are referred to depends on the circumstance of why the student is homeless and their age.

“We’re not in the business of providing housing, but we certainly refer to agencies that are in that business. So we try to make appropriate referrals and support them,” Pike said.

At RCC there is an SOS program used by faculty. If there is suspicion that a student may be homeless, teachers can contact advisors and they can then try to reach the student and see if they may be able to help in any way. RCC also has master’s level clinicians on staff who are trained to provide personal counseling.

The Drive of Jackson

As a child she was orphaned, and placed between different homes and institutions. This was a struggle and culminated in her becoming a runaway.

From the ages of 15 to 17, Jackson lived anyway she could, couch surfing from place to place. She spent time with people she otherwise would not have. The only reason she was with them was because they were the only people who were there to provide food and shelter.

While living in the trailer Jackson saw a lot. “We would burn kindling down to embers in an old barbecue and then take it inside to keep the children warm at night in the winter.”

The trailer was rented by one person who had an incredible heart for others, and welcomed those without a place to stay. When she could no longer stay in the trailer Jackson moved into a van with two other people, two dogs and all of their things. She lived in that 69 Dodge for about six months.

It was a tough place to live, and even harder for Jackson as she watched her things get destroyed. “Such an unclean place, no showers, and with three people and two dogs, things would get spilled, oils get on clothes and things just got ruined,” Jackson said. “In many ways I’m very grateful for that time because every day of my life I appreciate what I have. I appreciate every meal a little bit more and my big soft cushy bed,” said Jackson.

The people that she lived with in the van had a poor mentality. They spent their days driving around trying to find bottles and cans to turn in so they could buy liquor.

Jackson at 15 was smarter than that though.

“I remember talking with these people who were my mentors, and people that I looked up to, and I was saying, ‘Shouldn’t we do a priority check here?’” Liquor wasn’t on Jackson’s list; she wanted a place to stay and something to eat.

Technically Jackson could not get a job because she was still a runaway and not yet 18 years old. But at 17, Jackson got her first job working at Taco Bell.

Within a month, she had a home, and hasn’t been homeless since.

Jackson started going back to school at 17 years old here at RCC. Where she earned her high school diploma and college degree.

“I am really proud of how far I’ve come and where I am,” Jackson said. “One thing that is unique about having been homeless in the past, is when I tell people I used to live in a van, they view me differently. I can see a real change, because they didn’t imagine that about me. And it gives them a new perspective on what I’ve been through.”

Something that makes Jackson unique is that she can tend to be kind of hard on homeless people. “I have a big problem with people standing on the street corners and begging for money,” Jackson says. “I got up and did something. I made a conscience decision to be proactive and find myself a life.”

“Education has been my saving grace in life.” That is something Jackson says frequently. Jackson is full of encouragement for those who may be in the same place today that she used to be in. “It’s up to you to find what you need. There are resources out there and people who want to help you,” Jackson said. “If you choose to improve your life you can. It’s just a matter of doing it. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s certainly not easy, but it’s worth it.”

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