Written by Sally Blanchard
The couple in their late 30’s came to Coos Bay to be close to the husband’s daughter from a previous marriage. He had a promise of a job but when that didn’t work out, they found themselves nearly out of funds with nowhere to go. They showed up at Harmony United Methodist Church with their car and a tent and asked if they could stay in the parking lot a while to figure out what to do.
They started helping by picking up trash in the parking lot which housed some other campers and doing odd jobs around the grounds. They liked the area and wanted to stay but it was cold and wet living outside.
A church member at Harmony UMC donated a 26 ft travel trailer to the church around the same time and the minister Don Ford, thought it would be an answer for the couple. If they could find a property owner willing to let them park it, they could live in it. A relative of the couple came forward with an offer of space and the couple moved into the trailer as soon as it was moved. Ford, said, “that got them off the street and with a roof over them.”
Since the church started offering free camping space in their parking lot in February 2019, this is how Ford measures success: one person at a time getting a roof over their head.
As the coronavirus has spread city officials have reportedly worried that if one individual becomes infected with the coronavirus, it could quickly be spread through the group and a quarantine area would need to be set up.
But thanks to the work of the Oregon-Idaho disaster response team, the group will be moved to a large tent facility with cots and kitchen and they will have access to the Oregon-Idaho disaster response shower trailer. Larry Johnson, disaster response coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference, said he has been in contact with Ford and is prepared to loan the trailer to the church if they must quarantine.
With all the uncertainty and some of the stigma that comes from homeless camps, Ford acknowledges that it has sometimes been difficult for people in the community to see the benefit of this service.
He has heard people say “send them back where they came from” even though 40 percent were born and raised in the county. He often counters with, “Where are they supposed to go?”
Ford is grateful for the support he has with The Devereuax House, a social service agency a few miles away, and city, local police and fire department officials.
“You need to know this is not all tea and crumpets,” Ford cautioned. “There are some people here who have emotional problems that can stir things up. Some people’s lives are very hard right now. But 99 percent of the people are very appreciative. For the most part they know it is a safe and secure place where the police won’t tell them to move. The hope is it is temporary until they can move on to a more permanent place.”
For the approximately 80 campers, the day begins with coffee in the parking lot made by church members who also put out donated breakfast food like donuts. Campers make their way over to share a few words or a cigarette. Since the coronavirus regulations began in March the campers are no longer allowed to use the restrooms in the church building so five outhouses and handwashing stations were brought in. Lunch is brought in on different days by church members, a social service agency and a group of friends. Church members are often around to lend a hand with cleaning or whatever needs to be done. They encourage handwashing and social distancing as best they can.
For now, Ford says, the church continues reaching out to those in need and loving their neighbors.
“I truly believe in living one’s faith and this campsite is living our faith,” he said.
To read more about Don Ford and his work see The World newspaper 4/17/20 article.