Sara Webb, program manager at the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, poses in front of a poster at Tanner House, a new low-barrier veteran housing project. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Sara Webb used to be more rigid in the path she saw for veterans reintegrating into civilian life after returning from a deployment.

Now, as she prepares to run Salem’s first low-barrier veterans housing project, the hardened approach she learned from her time as an Army wife and later as a contractor for the armed services has softened.

Tanner House is a 36-bed transitional shelter on Center Street for veterans experiencing homelessness in Marion County, and the region’s first to offer beds specifically for women.

Because the housing is low-barrier, people can bring pets and don’t need to be sober to live there.

Tanner House is named after a soldier who changed how Webb would approach her cases and later lead to her getting a master’s degree in social work.

During her husband’s initial 18-month deployment after 9/11, Webb started out volunteering with the Army to get more information about what was going on in his unit overseas. In the early days of the War in Afghanistan, Webb said there was no infrastructure in place. She couldn’t call her husband, so the only way to stay plugged in was to get involved.

Eventually she was offered a job as a contractor for the Army in family support, helping veterans returning from their deployments.

In that role, she was assigned to Sgt. Derrick Tanner’s case. After returning from a deployment, he was struggling with his mental health. He showed up to a drill drunk and was demoted in rank.

Webb caught him in the hallway and told him they needed to talk about what his next steps were, because what he was doing wasn’t working. He told her he had a plan, she said. That night he died by suicide.

“He’s the reason I do all the things that I do,” she said. “The loss of him really motivated me to build better programs.”

What she’s hoping to accomplish with Tanner House is helping those that are underserved by other programs and is prioritizing female veterans experiencing homelessness.

“Unfortunately, what we end up with is the people who need help the most are often the ones that don’t get it. Because of behavioral issues, because of transportation issues, because of drug and alcohol use. Those are really the ones who suffer most on the streets and stay on the streets the longest because they’re not as easy to work with,” Webb said.

She said female veterans are often overlooked for their service, and are subject to a higher risk of sexual violence, both as service members and when experiencing homelessness.

Webb said most services are geared toward males which is why Tanner Project’s goal is unique.

“When you vision this sort of veteran in your head, very few people actually think about females. From that aspect there needs to be some recognition for them; that they serve, that they matter,” she said.

Veterans in general face a greater risk for homelessness than their civilian counterparts.

According to the 2019 point in time count, a one-day snapshot of homelessness conducted each January, there were 827 unsheltered veterans in Oregon out of 8,103 total unsheltered people. Another 611 veterans were in shelter.

Tanner House will offer mental health support, peer support, and drug and alcohol case management. There will be an office in the front, so veterans can walk in off the street and get linked in with services.

Most of the beds, 29, are funded through $550,000 from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The remainder will be paid through $100,000 in grants from Oregon Housing and Community Services.

One of the rooms in Tanner House, a new low-barrier transitional housing project for veterans. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Residents will be allowed to stay for up to two years and will be referred through a coordinated entry system.

Inside, each of the rooms has been sponsored by a veteran or veteran organization. One local church, Grace Church, also sponsored a room.

Residents are expected to start moving in this month, and Tanner Project is working with Northwest Human Services to test every resident for Covid before they move in.

Ashley Hamilton, program manager for The ARCHES Project, said Tanner House was the highest sponsored event her organization has seen in years.

“The community has rallied around this initiative,” she said.

Hamilton said the number of homeless veterans in Marion and Polk counties is small enough that it’s possible to bring it down to functional zero, meaning the people on the list move into permanent housing as new people are added.

“What that tells me from a systems point of view, is solving veterans' homelessness is possible. That number is manageable,” she said.

Webb said there are about 70 veterans on a veteran by name list who are experiencing homelessness locally, but she anticipates that number is actually closer to several hundred.

Sara Webb in the dining room at Tanner House, new transitional housing for veterans. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Webb said there’s a military culture that isn’t understood by the general population. Her staff, 12 in all, will be veterans or spouses of veterans.

A common refrain Webb hears from houseless veterans is that they don’t want to take a spot from ‘someone who needs it more.’

“That’s a really big conversation that I have to have, especially with Vietnam veterans, is they’ll be under a bridge living there in a tent that’s ripped and leaking and they’ll say ‘well I know there’s so many people that need it more than me,’” she said. 

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Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.