Shayne Bertrand, 48, grew up in homelessness. He never knew his father. Bertrand’s mother pushed him off to stay with other people and, when he was 10, left him at the nearest Oregon Department of Human Services office. He became what was then called “a ward of the state.” That meant a series of foster homes, now called resource families – some good, some not so good. He spent time in juvenile correctional facilities. He’d get released from one juvenile facility, get into trouble again and then be sent to another juvenile facility. As an adult, he traveled the country: the south coast of Florida, Texas, the Bible Belt, Colorado and then Oregon. He used drugs, committed crimes, was convicted of a felony and spent time in prison.
“I was punishing myself for the idea I had that my parents didn’t love me enough to keep me,” Bertrand said.
About 12 years ago, his girlfriend gave birth to a baby girl. Bertrand, who had given up drugs a year and a half before the baby’s birth, had to convince social service workers and the courts that he was no longer using drugs and could raise the child. Bertrand worked with Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) case workers.
“They helped to get me on a really good path. They helped me through all the phases of family court. It was really nice to have them there and point me toward resources like family counseling and a Salem health nurse,” he said.
But Bertrand still struggled to find shelter, a decent job – and the necessities of life. He and his daughter stayed in different shelters, but those experiences were not good. Shelters can be crowded, there can be illegal drug use and there are rules to follow or you get kicked out. One of the rules is that you can’t panhandle. That was the one that caused Bertrand and his daughter to leave a Corvallis shelter. He then spent a year, every day on the corner of Fifth and Harrison in Corvallis with a sign asking people to help him and his daughter pay for a night’s stay in an area motel.
“I had to make sure we had a place to spend the night. One guy paid for three months for us to stay in the motel,” Bertrand said.
It was right about that time that he got in touch with Corvallis Housing First. This non-profit group helped get Bertrand and his daughter into an apartment.
“They asked me, ‘How much can you afford to pay?” The apartment was $1,400 for two bedrooms and two baths. They brought it down to $799 a month for my share. We were super lucky to get in there. When we first got in the apartment I was working at McDonald’s for minimum wage. Then I got double pneumonia. I was in the hospital. I thought I was going to die. I lost my job. I had no income, had to go on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families),” he said. He was very worried he’d soon be homeless again.
“When Corvallis Housing found out I lost my job, they said, ‘Don’t worry. Let’s find something we can do.’ They put my rent payments on hold. It took me six months to get better,” he said.
This was the turning point for Bertrand’s life. It’s an important point he wants to make about assistance for people who are homeless. Sometimes people just need a respite – a pause from the stress of being homeless.
“Just the idea that these people – out of the goodness of their hearts – said let’s find something we can do. Just having that relief – not having to stress about where we are going to live that night, where are we going to get food, where to cook it, where to store our food. Having that six-months of relief – it allowed me to get better and to realize I am not going to be able to do it on my own. It allowed me to get in touch with a real therapist. That’s one of the best things I have ever done – besides having my daughter in my life,” he said.
Corvallis Housing First has helped about 70 people with housing this year, according to Development Coordinator Lindsey Stallard. They also provide other social services and resources.
“Our philosophy is based on the principle that before people can have stable success in a job or in kicking substance abuse or in succeeding in their family life, they need to have stable housing so they are not in scarcity mindset of trying to figure out where am I going to sleep, where am I going to take a shower, where am I going to put my food. Our goal is to connect people with the right type of housing so they can breathe, take a moment and decompress,” Stallard said.
Before this six-month reprieve Bertrand said he measured his days in nanoseconds. For example, he was always checking his front door to see if there was an eviction notice tacked to it.
“Things changed so often. Depending on a person for a ride and the ride falls through so I’d have to find a ride somehow. I was just working so hard to provide the basic necessities. I started to see that I was punishing myself for being a bad person when I was just a kid. I just didn’t know any better. I could never make plans. Now all of sudden I had six months to just concentrate on getting better. How much of a difference that made. It was the break I needed,” Bertrand said.
He went to counseling twice a week to understand what his needs really were and what he needed for long-term success. And he was able to stop blaming his mother, who, he said, had mental and emotional health issues.
“I never had the opportunity to understand what the real world is about. Not just some twisted facsimile of it. Growing up, everything was drug dealers. We fought every night. I realized I don’t have to be that person. I don’t have to be a reactor. I’d been doing everything backwards, fighting against everything. I never learned how to live – to keep a job, pay my bills. It never occurred to me,” he said.
Bertrand has an easy laugh. Often his laugh erupts in the middle of what he is telling people about his life. He is also good at talking with people – a trait he said he has practiced and has helped in throughout his life.
Another event happened in January. Brandon Stewart, a Self-Sufficiency Programs family coach, was just taking over a caseload of people who, due to COVID-19, had not been very engaged. Family coaches help people access services such as job training, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“I reached out to Shayne and we talked for more than an hour. He had prior bad experiences with trying to get services. I told him, ‘My job is to help you meet your goals.’ We set up a time to meet. He came in and did a lot of listening. Talking with him allowed me to dispel any bad experiences he has had with social services,” Stewart said.
One of the barriers that Stewart faced in helping Bertrand was that previous programs had traumatized him because the old system was more compliance driven. That means that if you don’t do this or that action, you are removed from the assistance program. Another barrier is that often programs are short-term fixes, he said.
“Programs are quick. Many say you must get it done in six months to a year – so you fail. The sense of failure really tears you up. We feed off each other’s negativity – no way to get out of that. A person homeless six months probably has people they can contact for help. For example, your car breaks down you probably have four or five people you could call for help. But for folks like myself – we don’t have access to that. Family – even extended family – we don’t have that,” Bertrand said.
“That kind of compliance-driven short-term fix didn’t work for Bertrand. You have to meet people where they are. I told him I don’t disqualify people. I learned where he’s been and where he wants to go,” Stewart said.
The big message Bertrand would like people to understand about being homeless is: “I’d like folks to understand we just need a break. We need time to catch our breath. If we sign up for a social services program, they want you to start immediately and that we have foreknowledge about how it works. We don’t. Fortunately, I ran into people in ODHS who have been willing to step in and say, ‘It’s not that bad. Take a deep breath and let’s see what we can do.’ It’s one reason I have been able to get back on my feet.”
Bertrand shows his compassion for others who are homeless with this message. He doesn’t want others to go through all he has – for them to take all the time he has to change his life.
“I don’t want people to have to experience the same life I did. It’s not fair. It’s not fun. It angers me and irritates me. When I was a kid, if there had just been one reliable, solid individual to say, ‘Come over here and see what we do.’ Homelessness is something you are doing – not who you are,” he said.
With Bertrand having the time to stop and pull himself together without having to worry about being kicked out, he put together a plan – what kind of job did he want. He’s been in sales before and really, he’s been a good salesman personally in talking with people, listening and learning from them, so a sales job made sense.
Stewart helped him with his resume and got him connected to an ODHS Vocational Rehabilitation jobs counselor. Bertrand got a job at Spaeth Lumber and Hardware in Corvallis. He works as a cashier and customer engagement specialist and is training for another job there, which will be a promotion. In fact, Bertrand will no longer need assistance from the TANF program. He does doubt that he’ll never make enough money to own his own home – but he does hold a glimmer of a dream of maybe someday being able to buy a piece of land and build his own home.
His SSP caseworker and Stewart get together with several non-profits once a week to discuss how Bertrand is doing and to see if he needs anything. Once he needed clothes for the job interview and they got him a voucher to buy new clothes. Another time he needed help getting a driver’s license. They were there to help.
It’s been four and a half years now that Bertrand’s his daughter is in the same school, living with him at the same residence. By the time Bertrand was in fifth grade, he had ben in 20 to 30 different elementary schools.
“I’ve changed my life around. I may not be the greatest parent. I can’t provide her with everything, but I know I am so much better than my parents. If I can just provide her with consistency and stability – that’s already multiple hands-up that I wasn’t given. I had to learn how to be a person, an adult, a father. I think I’m doing a good job. She’s always happy. She has no doubts her dad loves her. I need to be able to teach her how to build real relationships. The thing I’ve been most proud of doing is being a parent.”
And for Stewart, he said, “I see a lot of these stories and it makes feel that what we do makes a difference. There needs to be a place for people to go, where people can get another chance. Most people don’t want to be on TANF or to be told where they can and can’t go. They want the same life choices the rest of us do. I love what we do. We give people a lot of hope. We do practical things that help.”