Astoria's Pioneer House seeks help to stay afloat

The white, weather-beaten house on Bond Street has stood tall on the hillside for decades. It welcomes and shelters the people that the rest of the town has rejected - it finds the people who were lost outside.

Pioneer House is a place where people can kick their shoes off and relax, eat a hot meal and unwind at the end of the day. It's a place where children can feel safe and structured.

It is a home for the homeless.

The way she sits in the oversized, blue armchair - thin hands clutching a warm cup of tea - no one could tell that Kimberly Smith had been homeless for 73 days. But Smith clutches that cup of tea so tightly because she remembers those cold nights when she slept on "Bum Beach" unwilling to be a burden on her friends or parents. Smith was holding down a job, but she could never make enough money to afford her own place. Eventually, she lost the job and found Pioneer House.

How to help Pioneer House, a three-day emergency shelter and home to families with nowhere else to go, is in need of many household or personal items including:

? cleaning supplies

? towels

? laundry detergent

? general toiletries

To donate items or money, bring items or checks to Pioneer House, 76 West Bond St., Astoria, or call 325-5510.

"I've been a homeless person on the streets before and had I not had a place like this to come to ..." Smith says, her voice trailing off. She shakes her head and smiles, refusing to focus on the bad parts of her life.

Smith is starting over.

Why they arrive

Women, families and couples all end up at Pioneer House for different reasons. Some people come because they have suffered domestic abuse, others because they don't have the skills or the ability to work. There are still others with low self-esteem issues, homelessness and substance abuse issues. Pioneer House helps them all.

"This is the last door on the block," said Caron Hart, the executive director of Pioneer House. "People come here in crisis and it's traumatic."

The facility, the only one in the area to accept children, is classified as a three-day emergency shelter, which means that in an emergency, people can stay as long as three days. But often, women and families end up staying weeks and months as they try to get back on their feet, get a job or a place to live. Last year, Pioneer House helped about 450 people.

"As long as they have a goal to get a job, get a place to live and they are working on that, and adhering to the rules and doing their chores, they can stay however long they need to," Hart said. She added that adults don't want to have to do chores or have a curfew, so most work hard on finding their own place.

The staff tries to help the residents find jobs and dress appropriately for interviews. Residents get haircuts and try to help each other select clothes and fill out applications. Pioneer House also has a transitional house for families trying to get their own home. The organization recently bought the small house next door and is renovating the basement into a two-bedroom apartment. There, families can try to correct their credit.

Residents at the shelter can learn how to prepare and cook balanced meals. Women have given birth there, and some have been able to overcome the emotional shock of abuse and self-esteem issues. The residents at Pioneer House can start their lives over, buoyed by the support of people who care and of people who have been in tough times themselves.

But with upwards of 20 people currently living at the house, Hart and other staff members say that operating the facility is becoming increasingly difficult.

Money worries

Pioneer House has an annual overall budget of about $120,000, which translates into $10,000 a month. That money has to cover staff paychecks, the mortgage on the new house, all utility bills and $4,200 for food.

"It's particularly tough this year," Hart says, shaking her head and almost whispering. "We had to cut back on staff." She says that new agencies have appeared, requiring additional money from the government and United Way. In response, many agencies including Pioneer House have seen the amount on their checks dwindle.

"There are just so many facilities looking toward the same dollars," Hart says.

She also thinks that the population Pioneer House serves is much more needy than it's ever been. Pioneer House has begun to take in elderly or disabled people who have lost their homes because they've lost their jobs or can't pay for declining health problems. Often they don't go out looking for work because they aren't capable physically or mentally and this adds a strain to the facility and staff.

"The needs of people are changing and we have less and less to help them with," Hart says. "Most of them are just frightened to the bone."

Pioneer House is a 20-year-old private, nonprofit organization. It is governed by a board of directors, which oversees policies and procedures. Hart, who serves as the executive director, says that they need to focus on fund-raising and other means to keep the facility afloat.

"Pioneer House is the only facility from Newport to Aberdeen (Wash.) to Portland to serve children," she says. "If it closes, where will they go?"

Pioneer House receives money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and United Way, as well as through fund-raising, grants, mail solicitations and individual donations. But Hart feels like they need to focus on a larger scale of fund-raising.

"We need to have something bigger than a bake sale ... we're tax-exempt, but we still buy milk at $4.15 a gallon," Hart says. "We get lots of donations, but that doesn't pay the water bill."

Staff affected

The budget worries don't affect the residents of Pioneer House the way they affect the people who work there. Residents don't like the extra strain it adds to Hart and the rest of the staff, but Smith and the others have all been through much worse, and are focused on dealing with and bettering their lives.

When Smith had been at Pioneer House foronly two weeks, but already she has been to job interviews and is thinking about what it will be like to have her own home again.

"It (Pioneer House) is a wonderful place to be and a good starting over point," she says. "But you definitely want to move on."

Smith is nearly 40 years old, but her bubbling laugh and easy-going nature suggest someone much younger. She wears sneakers and shorts, her blonde hair is pushed up away from her face. She's been busy all morning, cleaning up after the other residents, making sure that the pantry is organized and cleaning out a spare room, currently used as storage, so that it will be available for anyone who needs it.

Smith is often the first one up in the morning. Joanne, another resident, will cook breakfast and make sure that everyone gets something to eat. The other residents take showers and clean up their small rooms. Sometimes they all chat about what they have to do that day: job interviews, work, taking children to doctor appointments.

All the residents have to be out of the house by 9 a.m. so that the staff can do their jobs and the residents can go look for work on their own. Pioneer House doesn't just let the residents stay home all day - they have to be proactive in getting out and becoming a positive part of the community.

At the end of the work day, 5 p.m., they all come back to Pioneer House. Smith says that many of them have had long and hard days, but that everyone puts on a happy face when they get back.

"No one wants to be bummed out and it takes more muscles to frown," Smith says. She is still amazed that all the people she lives with tolerate each other, since there is such a great diversity of people and they have all been through hard and trying times.

Hard times

Smith and the other residents know that without Pioneer House, many of them would never have gotten through those hard times. They feel that the facility and the opportunities that Pioneer House gives is an asset to the community and the people who need it.

"Without it, people would be living in the bushes," she says, her eyes tearing up. "If it wasn't here, where would the families be? Where would the children be?" She knows that the streets are no place for people, especially children. But though the residents help out with fund-raising, and donate what money they can, they know they can't help much when the money problems are as big as they are. Instead, the residents of the house just try to help out whomever they can whenever they can.

Pioneer House is a meal site for the Oregon Food Bank, so if someone comes to Pioneer House needing food, the residents will take them into the pantry and fill up boxes for them.

"We know how it is to be hungry," Smith says.

The residents support their friends and fellow residents when times are rough or when interviews don't go well. They root each other on when goals are met and dreams are fulfilled. And they understand when someone has gone through something traumatic and is finally opening up.

The people who work for and live at Pioneer House know it is much more than just a shelter that gives homeless people a place to sleep for a couple nights. It is a place that changes people's lives and gives them another chance.

"People come together here," Smith says, standing outside the white house in the morning sunlight, grinning. "They get their lives on track, move on and they don't forget ... Pioneer House is about making you feel like you're worthy again."

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