Sunlight filtered through stained glass windows at the former Cascade Presbyterian Church on Monday morning as community leaders and other attendees gathered to bid farewell to the church’s former role and welcome its new function as a place for homeless teens.
St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County broke ground Monday on its Youth House at the site. In coming months, the nonprofit organization will remodel the church to provide housing and social services for homeless girls ages 16 to 18.
The Youth House will be as much like a home as possible, according to St. Vincent de Paul spokesman Paul Neville.
A manager will live on-site, and the girls will be able to remain, rent free, for up to two years as long as they remain in high school and until they graduate. The house will include a community space, kitchen, laundry, counseling office and computer lab. Each student-resident will be assigned a mentor.
A full-time caseworker will help the students connect to social services and work with mentors and school officials to create individualized plans for steps after high school.
The remodel will cost an estimated $1.85 million, but the organization already has raised about 70 percent of the overall construction cost via donations grants from the Oregon Community Fund, as well as the Collins, Chambers and Autzen foundations.
Earlier this year, local philanthropist and community activist Tom Bowerman announced a $50,000 challenge grant from the OCF’s Barbara Bowerman Fund, and donors since have fully matched the grant. Banner Bank has approved a construction loan for the project.
Monday’s event — which officials described as a “ground shaking” instead of a groundbreaking — was emotional. About 100 people attended the event at the former church at 33rd Avenue and Willamette Street in south Eugene.
The hourlong event included remarks from community leaders, including Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, Springfield Mayor Christine Lundberg, Bethel School District Superintendent Chris Parra and Dave Williams, the executive director at Hosea Youth Services.
It was not a typical groundbreaking ceremony; there were no shovels, no dirt and no sledgehammers. Instead, it featured musical instruments — a guitar, a cowbell, a tambourine and maracas.
Following a series of short speeches, local musician Rich Glauber played guitar and led the group in a song that featured some key phrases and ideas expressed by those who spoke at the “ground shaking” event:
“Put the suitcase down/you’re home in this town,” Glauber sang. “This is a ground shaking/hope is in the making/it’s earth-changing.”
St. Vincent took on the project in the summer of 2016 after the south Eugene-area neighborhood association contacted the nonprofit’s executive director, Terry McDonald. The neighborhood association wanted St. Vincent to acquire the former church to serve the community’s growing homeless population.
St. Vincent bought the building in December 2016 for $585,000 after the Eugene-Springfield Home Consortium provided a $625,000 federal HOME grant. Although St. Vincent spearheaded the effort, it had some help from several other organizations, including Hosea Youth Services, which will operate the Youth House; the Eugene, Springfield and Bethel school districts; The 15th Night Coalition; and the Eugene-Springfield Home Consortium in an effort to address one of the area’s largest issues: homelessness.
On any given night in the Eugene-Springfield area, nearly 400 homeless high school students ages 16 to 18 struggle to find a place to sleep, according to Neville.
“Many of them end up couch-surfing with acquaintances, and some end up on the streets, where they are vulnerable to violence, drugs and a thriving human-trafficking trade the along the Interstate 5 corridor,” he said.
The most recent data, for the 2015-16 school year, indicated a higher number of K-12 homeless students in Oregon than during the Great Recession, according to data from the state Department of Education.
Last school year, 21,340 homeless students were enrolled in K-12 public schools, or about 3.7 percent of Oregon’s public school population.
The Department of Education reported the number of homeless pre-kindergarten students in Oregon as 1,929.
“Just imagine for a second that you’re a 15- or 16-year-old kid, carrying suitcases of your bedding and clothing, and then your backpack with a couple of books,” said Janet Thorn, a homeless-student liaison for the Springfield School District. “How are you supposed to concentrate on schoolwork?”
Thorn said the people gathered at the former church on Monday — who have made the Youth House possible — have increased the odds of a better future for homeless youth.
“This is going to give them an opportunity to change that cycle,” Thorn said.