The "Welcome Home" sign in Lou's apartment. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

It was a scene out of any other moving day at a north Salem apartment.

Pots and pans came out of boxes.

A “Welcome Home” sign went up on the wall.

Sandwiches were served.

But the road to get into this one-bedroom apartment in early July was anything but ordinary.

It took months of work from advocates to get Lou into housing after being homeless for more than five years.

Lou is a pseudonym because she’s afraid relatives who have taken advantage of her in the past will find out she has housing.

In an interview with Salem Reporter, Lou, 60, talked about moving to Oregon six years ago and remaining homeless, living in Cascades Gateway Park most of that time.

Since March, homeless advocates Jean Hendron and Lisa Letney have been working to get Lou into housing. The pair don’t work for any social service agency but had weekly meetings with the Salem Housing Authority on Lou’s behalf. They felt the need to help her on their own time.

Lou has a phone but it only texts. Each week, Hendron set out to find her, searching through parks and other encampments.

It’s intensive work that takes time.

At one point, Hendron drove Lou to The Dalles to settle a driving charge that would’ve prevented her from getting into an apartment. A lack of rental history from being homeless for five years also served as a barrier.

Lou was staying at a Salem motel for two months in the spring as part of a program run by The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency to house unsheltered people vulnerable to contracting Covid. When that program ended in mid-June, Lou feared she would have to go back to the park.

Instead, she got the keys to an apartment.

In early July, she teared up as Hendron unpacked boxes of cooking utensils and Letney hung a “Welcome Home” sign on the wall of the ground floor apartment which looks out onto the parking lot.

In one corner of the room was a bed and lantern Lou bought in case she had to go back to the camps. She qualifies for SNAP benefits, known as food stamps, but has had her benefits stolen multiple times.

Lou said Letney and Hendron helped save her life.

Kimmberly McBeth, client services manager at the Salem Housing Authority, said advocates fill the gaps it takes to get someone off the street.

“We appreciate them so much, that they’re often a catalyst and a speaking voice for those who sometimes can’t,” she said.

McBeth said it takes a lot of work dealing with social services, government agencies and landlords just to get one person housed.

Salem has a Homeless Rental Assistance Program, which is how Lou was housed, which pays for up to a year of housing in private rentals and pairs people with caseworkers.

The program cut the number of clients it serves by half this year.

Through a spokesperson, City Manager Steve Powers said the program funding was cut because they had difficulty finding landlords to participate.

McBeth said it will allow the housing authority to focus on the navigation center expected to open this winter.

The goal this year is to enroll 25 people with the aim of getting them housed.

“Out of those 25 maybe we’ll have some serious barriers we’ll have to overcome,” she said.

Some of the barriers could be a lack of a driver’s license, criminal charges or difficulties finding people who may not have regular access to a phone and move around.

McBeth said there are clients who were enrolled into the program in 2017 who still haven’t obtained a home because of outstanding warrants or debts owed to a former landlord.

She said during the pandemic, “We kept getting no after no after no” from landlords.

Salem Reporter previously reported that landlords felt they were taking a risk renting to tenants through the housing program.

McBeth said part of the difficulty was getting landlords to rent during the eviction moratorium, which expired at the end of June. Even though the city program guarantees rent will be paid, she said landlords were still leery.

In the last month, McBeth said circumstances improved and the agency housed five people. 

This article was updated to clarify why the Homeless Rental Assistance Program funding was cut.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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