A new home for Almeda survivor
In 2020, a multitude of tragedies multiplied like the creases of a crumpled sheet of paper — COVID-19, the Almeda Fire, homelessness — and then social programs began buckling under the pressure.
“Our family fell through the cracks — there was a gap,” said Audrey, a single mother who lost her home to the Almeda Fire and became trapped in the creases of that crumpled page.
Over the past two years, Audrey, a victim of domestic violence who asked that her last name not be used, lived like a true mama bear, always moving and permanently vigilant as she took her babies in and out of different kinds of wilderness: shelters, couch-surfing and campsites.
She said shelters filled quickly, there was virtually no help from overburdened caseworkers, and there are too few homes for too many people at far too high a cost.
She believes that because she doesn’t have a substance-abuse problem or a mental health disorder it was harder for her to get help.
“Women like me, we call it being the top of the bottom, it’s hard for us. I feel like a lot women and children fell through the cracks,” she said.
On Friday, a local nonprofit called the Bus Project presented Audrey with the keys to a new home — a skoolie.
This school bus was renovated to function as a home. The remodeling work was done by hundreds of students from six local schools under the direction of skilled instructors.
The Bus Project, a collaboration of Southern Oregon Education Service District, Rogue Workforce Partnership, Talent Maker City, Project Youth Plus of Grants Pass, Southern Oregon Regional Development and the Skoolie Foundation, works to meet dual needs in housing and dwindling numbers of skilled tradespeople.
The groups are leveraging grant money from Oregon Community Foundation and donations of cash or materials from local businesses to turn school buses donated by Ashland School District into homes for the homeless, and in the process provide new career pathways for the next generation of students.
Students from Phoenix High School, Ashland High School, Eagle Point High School, South Medford High School and Armadillo Technical Institute all had a chance to work on the skoolie. Students from Talent Middle School helped too, but they worked largely on design and painting.
Piper Tamler, an instructor at Talent Maker City, said workshop classes have been underfunded and often unavailable for high school students, driving down the number of skilled tradespeople.
“We need tradespeople so badly, and as a teenager getting your hand in it a little bit is how you get into it,” Tamler said.
She said her students came to her first with nervousness. Months of distance learning left them unsure how to interact with her and each other. Tamler said most of them approached the skoolie project with no previous experience in carpentry, electrical, plumbing or any of the other skill sets the project required.
“I just feel like it was really healing for them, overall, to work on something and help someone out, especially with this fire that they experienced,” Tamler said.
When the Bus Project presented the skoolie to Audrey, she was seeing her new home for the first time, she said.
She was overwhelmed with gratitude, especially at the permanence of her new home. She said a skoolie felt like the only way to avoid being rent-burdened in an apartment and potentially dependent on social programs. And those payments never lead to real ownership, she said. This skoolie is hers.
She struggled to explain the importance of having a door that locks, walls and a bathroom always accessible to her. This is renewed dignity, she said.
At the shelters, she and her children were sharing space with people suffering mental health and substance-abuse crises, she said. Other homeless single mothers like her have secret campsites in the woods, she explained, where they sleep to keep their children from sharing the suffering of those populations.
There was also couch-surfing at the homes of friends and relatives, which was always time-limited, she said, and uncomfortable.
She and her children have gone from last place to first place, she said, and this comes with guilt.
“Right now, at this moment, there are single mothers out there, at the secret campsites in the woods. They’re invisible, they don’t look homeless because they’re working. But they’re out there,” she said.
Audrey got to first place through a combination of hard work, the generosity of others, and luck.
Last winter she heard the warming shelter in Ashland may not open due to lack of volunteers. She raised her hand and said: “You can’t say there’s no volunteers — I’m volunteering.”
Also volunteering at the shelter was Ashland Mayor Julie Akins. The two woman started talking, and Akins was struckthat Audrey was volunteering there when she was homeless herself. Akins took down the woman’s information and kept thinking of her.
The Skoolie Foundation was created by Akins after touring the West Coast interviewing homeless people.
During her tour, she said, she came to understand those who are displaced by economics or climate want a home they can take with them as they outrun fires or follow the shifting job market.
With a phone call, Akins confirmed Audrey was one of those people who think of a skoolie as “a dream come true.”
Akins connected Audrey with the opportunity to write an essay and be chosen to receive the donated bus.
“This is a 30-year home. This thing is stable; she can live in this for as long as she wants to,” Akins said.
Karla Clark, program manager for the College and Careers for All program with Southern Oregon Education Service District, said more buses are coming.
Ashland School District donated three more in the past year, and all are being worked on by the Bus Project and its members for future recipients.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.