“It changed my day. It really changed my life,” Kevin Resnik said. He recently received the services he needed by visiting one of the new Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) van from District 16, Washington County.
The van was making its first official community visit at Heartwood Commons in Aloha where Resnik, along with several other residents, were provided eligibility intakes for the Oregon Health Plan, food benefits, (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) and were connected with Vocational Rehabilitation to get help with obtaining employment and provided clothing resources for job interviews.
Resnik said he’s been trying to get to an ODHS office for months. “For you to bring it here, it was a godsend,” he said.
The ODHS District 16, Washington County van is one of two ODHS vans that have just started to go into communities to offer services to people where they live or work. The other van operates in Coos and Curry counties. People can get food benefits (SNAP), sign up for childcare, get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other benefits if eligible through ODHS. The vans are an example of the ODHS Community Integration work, which aims to meet people where they are rather than making them come to an ODHS office.
Don Erickson, ODHS Business Operations Manager, Community Integration, explained how the van idea got going:
“A few years ago, Michael Marchant and Josh Harlukowicz in Coos Bay shared an idea they had to take services to people, where they live, work or play in the community. It was a creative idea and an exciting conversation. That discussion stuck with me and when DAS [Department of Administrative Services] motor vehicle let me know that they were looking for a home for two high-roof vans that had been used by OHA [Oregon Health Authority] during the pandemic, I recalled that conversation. Michael and Josh were still excited about the possibilities of providing mobile services and we were able to make it happen. The idea has caught on! As luck would have it, we’re going to be able to expand the mobile service option in additional districts. It goes to show; never let a great dream fade away!”
Chad Reinheardt, Community Development Coordinator and Self-Sufficiency Manager for District 16, Washington County, said the idea for a van for started for him over a year ago.
“At the time people laughed and said it wasn’t possible. It was too expensive to buy a van and outfit it like an office,” he said. Reinheardt is currently on a job rotation as a Community Development Coordinator.
Reinheardt had been providing pop-up resource events in the community and observed that when he and his employees would set up a booth at one of the local libraries, there would be 50 or more people show up.
“We saw a desperate need to provide services outside the office and took advantage of an opportunity to partner with our local Aging and People with Disabilities Program. We realized the van could really be an opportunity to show that we’re here to help and truly meet people where we were needed the most.” he said.
Then, recently, two used 2021 Dodge ProMaster Vans became available through the Department of Administrative Services. The vans had been used by the Oregon Health Authority to deliver vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vans were already outfitted with workstations, a refrigerator, air conditioning, and an awning for setting up outside. They only had to add some technology upgrades for Wi-Fi.
“One of our offices is located in Hillsboro, which is a drive for many people in the county. Plus, there are a lot of our rural communities which have no internet or public transportation. We wanted to be able to offer service to folks in a more equitable way,” Reinheardt said.
The vans also help relieve the stigma and anxiety for some of coming into an ODHS office.
“The van is a way to soften the approach of connecting with ODHS,” Reinheardt said.
Changing the perception of ODHS is also one of the reasons the Washington County van has a graphic scene on it of trees and mountains, as a way to make it look inviting. Reinheardt hopes to soon set up a regular schedule for van visits at community gathering places such as local libraries and partner organizations so people know when the van will be in their neighborhood.
The van in In District 7, Coos and Curry counties, has already been out to Brookings for a senior food pantry day; the Coos Bay Farmers Market; and a Pride in the Park event. It’s scheduled to go to the Restoring Hope Health Equity Fair in Coos Bay as well as other places in the community soon. Their van, for now is plain white. They are still soliciting community input to determine what type of graphic design they want on the van.
Having a van has been a concept of the ODHS District Manager for Coos and Curry counties Mike Marchant for decades.
“One of things we’ve always struggled with is the authentic voice of the customer. One thing we’re trying to capture here with the van visits is really getting some voice of the customer. Is this the right location? What other services would you like to see? How has been your experience? Hopefully the van visits will inform us if we are in the right place and that if it was a good experience for people. We feel we are closer to the customer in a mobile van than in a brick-and-mortar office,” Marchant said.
“Our real goal is to get to more rural areas and also connecting with the Tribes,” Josh Harlukowicz, ODHS Child Welfare, Aging and People with Disabilities, and Self-Sufficiency Programs Chief Operations Officer for Coos and Curry counties, said.
“Some people have said they sometimes had difficulties getting ahold of ODHS. People told us they preferred to go over to mobile unit to ask general questions. The first question I got in Brookings was about the Vocational Rehabilitation program and how to get ahold of a counselor and how the process works and if there are counselors in their area,” he said.
Not only do people out in the community like the convenience and accessibility of getting information and services from ODHS, but ODHS staff like going out in the vans. Reinheardt said that almost every single Washington County staff member is asking to go out in the van.
The same is true for Coos and Curry counties staff.
“When we recruit staff for these events, we have people who are passionate about engaging community to reach all populations. The ability to go out in the community brings them a new perspective of the people who are not coming to our office. This brings a sense of reward to staff. Staff have said it is so interesting to go out and just talk to people. People say they need help, then we try to get them that support, or resources, childcare or whatever we can provide. It’s a whole new holistic approach to community need,” Harlukowicz said.
“The van allows communities to connect with ODHS on a different level. It’s a great achievement for the organization and huge opportunity for communities,” he said.