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‘I’m still learning how to crawl’

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Tahra Haner is working her way through drug addiction and trying to regain her children after years of homelessness.
Medford woman finds hope after a decade of homelessness and addiction

Tahra Haner has few worldly possessions, but she has more to look forward to than she’s had in at least a decade.

Aside from a bicycle, some clothes, a donated TV and a makeshift “vanity” that’s a mirror on a shelf and an old office chair, Haner doesn’t have much to her name. But she’s got plans for a trip to Washington, D.C., a path toward the custody of her two teen children, newfound and burgeoning sobriety and most importantly, a stable living situation after about a decade of living on the streets.

Her clean-and-sober-living house in west Medford is a far cry from the place she and others in homeless circles knew as “Paradise” — the place Haner called home less than two months ago.

Paradise was an unauthorized camp in south Medford off Alba Drive behind the Motel 6 and Traveler’s Inn. It was where Haner lived separate from her kids and dealt drugs.

Over the past 47 days, Haner’s gone from a flooded homeless camp to taking a leadership role as “president” of the sober living Oxford House known as Freedom Park. She says she’s working on herself toward a goal of helping other recovering addicts.

“It’s just been an amazing journey,” Haner said. “I’m still learning how to crawl.”

As Haner relaxed at home — with Amber on her phone and Joseph on his Nintendo Switch — her roommate Brittany Ruby popped in to let Haner know she was leaving for work and when she’d be home.

“Want us to save you a plate?” Haner asked.

Ruby, one of Haner’s six roommates at Freedom Park, said she reluctantly looked into the Oxford House because it was an opportunity to keep her children. She’s there, she said, because of Haner’s encouragement.

“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me and my kids,” Ruby said of Haner.

Ruby said she’d once been sober for a year and a half, and was afraid the pressures of “conforming” in group living would trigger another relapse.

“The thought of going into an Oxford House has always been an iffy,” Ruby said. “But here it’s a cool situation.”

“It’s like a family here, honestly,” Haner said.

Haner will be 47 days clean and sober Sunday. She can hardly believe the whirlwind of changes after a decade living on the streets, but she knows that she didn’t find her path out of homelessness by herself.

It took persistence from Medford police officers, the Kelly Shelter’s "hella supportive“ accommodations, among countless other supportive efforts.

What’s more dramatic than Haner’s changes in a month and a half is how far from uncommon her experience is.

Haner is one of 609 people the Medford police Livability Team has connected to housing services since the unit’s September 2019 rollout, according to numbers provided by Medford police Sgt. Geoff Kirkpatrick.

"People like Tahra, they’re all over the place,“ Kirkpatrick said, adding that stories like Haner’s are ”what keep us doing what we’re doing.“

The Livability Team is composed of three officers, one corporal, one full-time community service officer and two part-time community service officers.

Although the Livability Team has been active for two years, Kirkpatrick said the team’s focus shifted somewhat after August 2020, when Medford’s Urban Campground opened.

The authorized camp operated by nonprofit Rogue Retreat makes it much easier to help a homeless person find a stable environment where they can be linked with services.

“They have a supportive system there,” Kirkpatrick said.

Since August, they’ve made 718 referrals to the camp, including helping 568 homeless people move in.

“Most of the time we take them because they’re ready,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said that developing a method of police work that serves “both sides of the coin” — which he described as enforcing the laws on the books while also looking at a person’s problems holistically so that the Livability Team does more than move the same problem to another place — has required more than just modeling programs that are successful in other places over the past two years.

“We have reinvented the wheel in many different ways,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Livability Team’s “strong suit,” Kirkpatrick said, is the police department’s relationships with service providers.

“I’m not a mental health provider, I’m not a substance abuse (counselor), I’m not a housing specialist, but I do know those people,” Kirkpatrick said.

Because the team has developed those kinds of relationships, connecting a person with appropriate resources is often a phone call away.

The Livability Team also builds relationships and trust with homeless people. They watch for when a homeless person wants to make a change, then they use their connections.

“When it’s time, we know,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ll be like, ‘All right, let’s do it.”

Haner’s decision to change came after a June rainstorm that flooded her Paradise camp.

Her possessions were wiped out, and Haner remembers how she “just sank” at the thought of having to start over again.

She’d already started packing because police were preparing to shut down the camp, but Haner said she was already growing “tired of the hustle” and “that look on my kids’ faces.”

She’d spent more than a year and a half resisting the Livability Team and the mental health, addiction and other specialists who’d often accompany them. With nothing left to lose, however, Haner let police refer her to the Kelly Shelter in downtown Medford, and gave her a ride.

From concerns about keeping her support dog — a Chihuahua-dachshund mix named “Dobby“ — to sleeping in close proximity to others after years of camping on her own terms, Haner had a litany of reservations about the bunk bed shelter operated by Rogue Retreat.

“I don’t do ‘inside’ well,” Haner said.

She was strung out and paranoid, but a shelter operator she recognized as someone who used to be homeless put her at ease.

“I took her camping spot back in the day,” Haner remembered. “She was so happy to see me.”

The shelter made sure she had a bottom bunk, and Haner remembers that she was placed next to neighbors who were “very kind” to her and Dobby.

“That right there was huge for me,” Haner said. “They were just hella supportive.”

While she was detoxing, she started going to meetings and the Medford nonprofit Reclaiming Lives’ Recovery Cafe events three times a week.

She described the events, which include dinner and coffee, as a “big family reunion kinda thing” where the family circles get closer-knit the more regularly a recovering addict attends.

When Haner is in an off mood or otherwise struggling in her recovery, friends at Recovery Cafe pick up on it and draw her out. When someone misses a meeting unexpectedly, they look for them.

“It’s literally a big family,” Haner said.

It wasn’t a place that her kids could visit. Within two weeks at the Kelly Shelter, the residents of Freedom Park voted her into the house.

One resident in the all-women house in west Medford has three kids, and Haner’s kids — currently in their grandfather’s custody — are free to visit and stay over with their mom in trundle beds.

As president of Freedom Park, she’ll represent her Oxford House next month at the Oxford World Convention in Washington, D.C. One of her biggest concerns is finding a gown for the event, when she’s just learning how to live independently and support herself.

After the convention, Haner said, she is looking forward to participating in the Medford Walk for Recovery slated for Sept. 10 in Hawthorne Park. Her longer-term goals include reaching the one-year sobriety milestone — after which her father has offered to help Haner get full custody of her children — and the two-year milestone, after which she'll be eligible to take classes to become a recovery coach.

“I want to be where I’m changing other addicts,” Haner said.

She said she's sharing her story with the goal of helping others in homeless circles find their own sobriety. Despite her own path away from homelessness, she said she respects those who prefer to live outside and still thinks of those she camped with as her family.

"We get so discriminated because we’re homeless,“ Haner said. ”We have a disease.“

Haner looks back fondly at her time at Paradise. She loves that there’s a tree near Bear Creek with her name carved into it, and she was visibly upset at the thought the unauthorized camp is no longer there.

“It makes me angry because it’s a beautiful place,” Haner said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

About this series

Ripple effects is a partnership between the Mail Tribune and KTVL News 10 exploring the effects of homelessness in Southern Oregon. See more in KTVL’s 6 p.m. Monday broadcast.