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Community Builder: A dream of helping people

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat.

Q: What was your pathway to becoming a pastor and a church leader?

Chad: My dad was a businessman who managed urban renewal development in downtown Portland. He oversaw 70 floors of apartments. I planned to go into business with him, so I went to college for a business degree. I grew up heavily involved in church and loved doing church work. My dad suddenly passed away during my junior year and my thinking changed. I finished my business degree, but I felt a calling to do something in the ministry. I married Debi, and we’ve been married 43 years.

After graduation I managed a medical clinic in Tillamook, but it wasn’t really what we wanted. So, we volunteered at a church in Corvallis for about a year. We got paid $300 a month, our rent was $210, but we loved it. We started a church in Philomath and spent 20 years with that denomination. We got a chance to come to Medford in 1991. Debi had grown up here. It was like coming home for her. We pastored a church on the east side of Medford, a big nice church with 600 members.

Debi had headache pain for many years. She ended up getting addicted to prescription pills. Innocently, you know. The doctors fed pain killers to her like candy, and the next thing you know she was in trouble. We had to go through the process of her healing. We didn’t understand addiction. As we were working through her addiction, our denomination decided we needed to move on. They didn’t understand how to deal with addiction any better than we did.

Q: Did that spur the idea for helping homeless people?

Chad: That set us free to do something different. In our time of crisis I had a dream one night. God showed me people on the streets. They had that hollow, empty look on their faces and just no hope, no light on. God said to me in the dream, “I want you to set these people free.” I said, “God, I don’t know how,” and He said, “I’ll show you.” That was 22 years ago.

Debi and I decided to stay here in Medford and try to serve people who needed help. Since then God has been showing us more and more how to set people free. If you come to Set Free Fellowship on any Friday, you will see hundreds of people coming who are either on the streets or the working poor. They don’t have enough resources. They need hope. They need clean clothes, they need food. There’s a Proverb that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is like a tree of life.”

Since 1997 we’ve been on this journey. We started Set Free Christian Fellowship because of that dream, and today we are a leading organization serving the community. I owe a lot of gratitude to Debi sticking with me when things were rough. In 1998 we helped found Rogue Retreat. Our dream was helping people with addiction issues, but it was a slow process. We were just kind of floundering. Then I heard the Lord say, “You’re helping an addict, but nobody wants to help an addict. You need to help the homeless.” Society wants to help the homeless more than they want to help addicts, even though it’s the same person. So Rogue Retreat switched emphasis from addiction to homelessness in 2006. That’s when everything took off. We had a small apartment complex on Riverside. All of a sudden people came out of the woodwork to help us.

About that time Kathy Bryan, executive director of The Gordon Elwood Foundation, sat down with me. We were in debt. We had nothing, just dreams. Kathy advised us, and the foundation started the process of helping our organization grow.

Rogue Retreat had a run-down apartment building for homeless, but a balloon payment was coming due. The state of Oregon had a special grant program called Housing Plus. We applied and got it. The grant enabled us to pay off the mortgage, provide money to remodel and provided supportive services for four years. We hired our first employee. Two months later the state came back. “There’s a second grant in Medford which was awarded, but now they don’t want it. Will you take it?” It was another eight apartments on South Grape Street. That was in 2009.

Q: What has happened in the past 10 years?

Chad: Now Rogue Retreat and Set Free have about 40 employees. We just keep doing the next right thing. I’m a man of faith, but Rogue Retreat is not a faith-based organization. It’s a 501(c)3 educational organization. We’re not pushing a religion, and we’re not proselyting. We’re just working with the homeless. Right now, Rogue Retreat has over 150 people under a roof and in case management.

It’s been crazy, because we see lives changed. Hope Village has a 56% success rate. That means six people of 10 who come to Hope Village move onto something better. We’re taking them off the streets and getting them into an apartment or into shared living. They’re moving on and many of them are leaving addictions behind, they’re getting full-time jobs and they’re paying off their debts, they’re going back to school. ... Our graduates are doing amazingly well. They’re becoming managers. They’re becoming self sufficient. They’re cleaning up the wreckage from their past. They’re being reestablished with their families.

I don’t think the homeless issue is going to end, but it can end for many people. If we can get people doing well, it saves them and their families. In the ripple effect of them getting their lives straightened out, their grandkids are now going to have a better life.

Q: How can we afford it?

Chad: A homeless person on the streets costs the community big bucks. When someone calls 9-1-1 because they see somebody lying in an alley, Mercy Flights comes out. And the fire department and police. There’s a cost to have them show up. If they take them to the hospital, now we’ve got a hospital bill. The average homeless person is in emergency rooms four times a year. And guess who pays for that? We do through our taxes. So, if we get the homeless off the streets, they’re not costing as much. That’s why the CCOs fund Rogue Retreat as much as they can. When we get homeless in our housing, their costs dramatically come down.

Q: But it’s also the right thing to do.

Chad: Absolutely. It’s the right thing to do, but I have to talk dollars and cents to get community people to support our work. Some people say, “They made their bed, they should lay there.” We have so much ignorance about homelessness. There are many sub-groups in the homeless community. Yes, some don’t want help, but it’s the minority. When we help those who want help, the community benefits.

I have a dream. We’ve got to have a legitimate place where people can actually sleep in a tent, have restroom facilities, can take a shower, can make food legally and not create a fire on the Greenway. It can be fenced and protected with oversight and case management to move them on. Not only tents, but cars — a lot of people sleep in their cars. We’re working with the county right now to identify a place. That’s my next project.

Then I have one more. I want to create something like in Austin, Texas. It’s called Community First. It’s run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Their website is mlf.org. They’ve got 25 acres, 100 RV spots and 150 tiny houses. They have this planed community where the homeless can stay. They pay a little fee every month. They never have to leave. That’s got to happen here in Jackson County. I want to have campgrounds and supportive housing clear up to permanent homes. We’ve got much of the in-between, we just need to get the two ends. We’ll get there.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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About Rogue Retreat

Rogue Retreat provides five different levels of housing: subsidized apartments, unsubsidized affordable apartments, women’s and men’s recovery homes, Hope Village (with 30 tiny houses), and The Kelly Shelter (a year-round shelter).

At each of these levels of housing Rogue Retreat provides relationship-based case management tailored to the needs of each participant. They provide wrap-around supportive services to help participants continue progressing toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency. Case managers measure the growth of the participants’ self-sufficiency by conducting regular assessments in 15 key life domains. More information can be found at rogueretreat.org.

Set Free Christian Fellowship, founded in 1997, has become a major community outreach center. Set Free provides a food pantry, shower and laundry services, free meals, clothing and bedding for homeless people. The fellowship serves hundreds of people each week. Set Free Fellowship can be reached at setfreemedford.org.

Chad McComas, pastor at Set Free Christian Fellowship and Executive Director of Rogue Retreat, is greeted at Set Free by Edward Trujillo, who lives in his van. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune