July 24, 2019 — Behind the Presbyterian Church of the Siuslaw, William swings his daughter Vadyn up and onto his shoulders, where she sits tall, grinning from ear to ear. She’s almost two years old.
Vadyn’s mom Nena sits watching them. “Vadyn was born into the program. It’s a blessing here,” she said.
Because of First Step, Vadyn has never been homeless like her parents have, and hopefully she never will be.
The family stands near two large, white trailers with brand new decks and gravel driveways under a canopy of trees behind the church, where William, Nena and Vadyn soon will move in.
On July 21, Pastor Greg Wood and Kathy Lenux, along with about 30 attendees, unveiled the homes that First Step has been working on since its pilot program was approved in September 2018.
“We’re in a bit of a housing crisis in our community, needless to say, and we were two years ago as well,” Lenux said. “So, a group of us met and were trying to figure out what to do.”
First Step is a response to the housing crisis that continues to impact families in Florence.
Lenux said the group was contacted by Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS), which asked what First Step could do to help children who were attending school, but whose families were living in their car.
“That’s what we decided our focus was going to be — to help families and help them transition into something a little bit better,” Lenux said.
Wood and Lenux are the president and vice president of First Step. There are seven members in total on the board of directors and about 30 volunteers helped put together the community First Step unveiled on Sunday.
“It’s a huge blessing. We’ve worked really hard to get this where it is and I’m pretty excited about it. I’m very encouraged by everybody that’s come together to make this work,” Lenux said.
First Step is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) cooperation that was approved by the Florence Planning Commission for a one-year conditional use permit.
Wood said the program will “prove the concept that if a family has sustained housing where they are warm, dry and safe but not too comfortable that they think it’s permanent, then they can successfully turn their lives around.”
Currently, First Step’s community has two homes behind the Presbyterian Church and a third off-site. All are drug- and alcohol-free with designated quiet times. The program is open to families experiencing homelessness in Florence who are looking to turn their lives around and get help leaving the cycle of homelessness.
A family is defined by First Step as two individuals, or a single parent with one or more children. Families fill out an application to be a part of First Step, and if the family is approved, they sign a lease of sorts that says they are allowed to stay for up to two years, they will remain drug- and alcohol-free and adhere to the designated quiet hours.
The lease also states that part of the family’s working wages, disability or whatever income they receive, will be donated monthly to a savings account that First Step sets aside for each family.
“When they are ready to leave, they will have some money set aside with their name on it that they can take with them and use that for a down payment for a rental or whatever they need,” Lenux said. “We want them to succeed.”
First Step works with two social workers who help families connect with the Department of Human Services, SOS classes such as money management, the Department of Motor Vehicles and other tools that will help progress the family’s lives.
“First Step is a program that will help families transition into a safe, self-sufficient environment,” Lenux said.
Ideally, the families won’t need to stay the full two years at First Step, Lenux added. The goal is to provide them with the tools they need to self-sustain and find permanent housing as soon as they can.
“We are focusing on who we can do the most good for in the shortest amount of time,” Wood said.
This is the housing-first approach to homelessness that other cities across the U.S. have successfully implemented as well.
“We were trying to do something that will improve the quality of a person’s life,” Lenux said. “There’s a lot of models out there, but we figured if we get them into something as close to a home as possible, it gives people the opportunity to get out of their cars, or get out of their tents, and focus on things other than just surviving.”
At the ribbon cutting ceremony on Sunday, Wood and Lenux thanked the individuals who donated trailers to the program, Viking Plumbing for installing the water line free of charge, Dan Lofy for his help with construction and the community support and volunteer work.
They also thanked the Oregon Community Foundation for its grant of $200,000 that helped First Step purchase a piece of property across from Sand Master Park, where the group plans to either expand or completely move First Step after its one-year permit with the Florence Planning Commission expires.
Lenux says once they prove that First Step works, they can continue to work with SOS to help house more families in Florence and either extend or renew their permit with the Planning Commission.
“There is a need in Florence to get families off the street,” Wood said.
He anticipates a waiting list for the three units they have so far.
William, Nena and Vadyn will be one of the first families moving into First Step. Already, they have purchased a vehicle and insurance and obtained driver’s licenses, and William said his job at McDonald’s is the longest he’s sustained a job in a long time.
“This program is the only reason we are okay,” he said.
The family went through SOS to find First Step and Nena says they plan to finally have a home of their own soon.
“The homeless shelters are good for whatever you need in the moment, but in the long run they can’t help,” Nena said. “It’s truly a blessing here with First Step. We’re learning how to take care of ourselves.”
For more information about First Step, visit firststepcommunity.com.