EMMA ROUTLEY/ THE CHRONICLE Bobby Simmons, a familiar face in downtown Creswell, tries to stay upbeat.
CRESWELL – As far as Bobby Simmons was concerned, 2019 wasn’t such a bad year. There was that historically heavy February snowstorm that paralyzed the entire area. Otherwise, nothing much out of the ordinary.
Then came the horror movie “2020” that we’re still acting out in real life. It’s been a nightmare for all of us.
So just imagine what this past year has been like for Bobby, who is homeless, and the rest of the homeless community.
“It’s hard when you get knocked down, but you just have to get back up,” said Bobby, who at 61 hasn’t lost much of his youthful exuberance. “I’m not proud of where I’m at, but I always try to be happy when I can.”
Indeed, those who know Bobby say he has a positive demeanor and rarely has a negative word to say about anybody.
Bobby even asked if there was a way to put a humorous spin on this story – which takes a look at the hardships the homeless face during a pandemic – and I assured him that once readers get to know more about him, it will surely put smiles on their faces.
That’s just Bobby. Take your gloom and doom elsewhere.
You’ve probably seen him if you’ve ever walked the streets of downtown Creswell. Bobby likes to sit on the sidewalk benches and he generally greets passers-by with a pleasant hello.
He doesn’t let anything get him down. Not an economic collapse. Not a virus that threatens his very being. Not civil unrest. Not raging wildfires that ripped through parts of Lane County.
During one of those horrendous smoke days, word got out that Bobby – a heavy smoker – had been taken to a hospital with breathing issues. Turned out to be a false alarm: he had actually gotten a ride to the coast in his search for some fresh air.
Oregon ranks fourth nationally with 350 homeless residents per 100,000 people, according to a 2019 study by Security.org. That same study ranked Eugene as the nation’s No. 1 city per capita for homelessness.
It’s a growing problem.
“I was just up in Eugene and people are acting a lot colder (toward one another),” Bobby said. “The rents are getting so high, it’s getting out of control.”
EMMA ROUTLEY/ THE CHRONICLE Bobby’s belongings are kept to a minimum.
Bobby estimates that he has about 30 homeless friends and acquaintances around Creswell. He guesses there are at least another 30 who he doesn’t know. Bobby recently found some new friends who let him camp in their yard and stay inside on cold nights.
The sad part about Bobby’s story – and many others similar to him, is that a host of people have tried to help them get their lives back on track. Yet they wind up back on the streets.
“Bobby hasn’t taken the same initiative as some of the other guys we’ve worked with,” Lane County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Denham said. “There have been many times when I’ve told Bobby to do something, and he’ll say, ‘OK, I will,’ and he never follows through.”
Denham pointed to Darryl Carpenter as one of the department’s success stories. Homeless for about 4-5 years, Carpenter is now renting a room in town and leading a productive life, thanks in part to the rehabilitating efforts of Denham and his department.
Dave Sydnes, who almost always has his rambunctious 6-month-old dog Poncho by his side, was planning on working when he arrived in Creswell about 4-5 months ago. A jack-of-all-trades, Dave hasn’t found any work. Going back to his family’s 22-acre ranch in Iowa is not an option. “I don’t get along with my sister,” he said.
First, he tried living in Denver for a short while, then landed in Creswell.
“Everybody has been really nice here. But there was one local business owner who gave me ‘the look,’” Dave said, meaning looking down at him like he’s some sort of lesser being.
“That’s the kind of thing that can push a lot of people over the edge, because a lot of us are close to that edge.”
On a national scale, suicide rates among homeless are estimated at nine times that of the general population.
Creswell’s homeless community is made up of a few tight-knit groups. When someone needs help, they can reach out to a buddy. Sure, they might yell and curse at one another occasionally, but they look after each other too. There’s a feeling of camaraderie. Like one big communal family.
Two members of that family (and friends of Bobby’s) are Samuel Espinoza, 55, and Rex Holland, 65. Both have been living in their vans. Both say they are thankful for what they have; still, they said, access to publicly provided showers on a regular basis would be at the top of most wishlists. As it stands now, the closest place to shower is the Chevron Truck Stop in Cottage Grove – and it costs $12.
EMMA ROUTLEY/ THE CHRONICLEDonated food in a plastic bag.
“Sometimes I’ve picked donuts out of the garbage; in fact, quite a few of us have picked donuts out of there,” Samuel said. “People complained and now there’s a $500 fine for stealing garbage. But the community could donate those to us – or even charge us a little bit if they want to – instead of throwing them away.
“If just half of the places that throw away food every day could notify someone to come and pick it up, they could fill a lot of people’s bellies.”
Samuel has been looking for work – to no avail. As the bank account dwindles, the frustration level rises.
“There’s no jobs. I’m overqualified, but I’d like to get a description of being overqualified. What’s overqualified, too old?” said Samuel, a longtime mill worker who has also worked in construction and sanitation.
“A lot of us are out here because that’s the way the ball rolls, not by choice. A lot of people look down on us; but don’t look down on us because life has put us here. I used to make a lot of money and could do whatever I wanted to do. … But this (homelessness) can happen to anyone.”
Rex, who lived in Crow and Springfield growing up, said he has been reeling since losing his wife in Spokane nearly four years ago. A retired Sergeant after 21 years in the Army, Rex is disabled and faces health challenges. He tries to stay positive, though, and enjoys making rings, necklaces and other artistic trinkets for the friends he meets.
“I’m handicapped, I need to get out of that damn van. I’ve been in there 3½ years and it’s killing me,” Rex said. “I’m a 21-year vet and that should still mean something. But instead of being respected, I get harassed and treated like crap.”
Samuel said he’s “not looking for a handout, I’m just looking for a chance to make it on my own.
“But it’s pretty bad when you don’t have clean clothes and haven’t showered in a few days. … A lot of things can happen real fast to misplace you and put you in this kind of position.”
The city of Veneta has a homeless camp where campers govern themselves. It has a community pool that offers showers once a week.
Denham said that while Veneta could be a model for Creswell’s homeless problem in some respects, things do tend to get messy there.
“All the trash causes problems,” he said.
A few of Creswell’s kind citizens have tried to make a difference. Larry Turvey and his girlfriend Jenny Lynn host a barbecue cookout once or twice a week that usually attracts 10 to 15 people. Dina Kemp brings food, clothing and other necessities. Ed Gunderson built shelters on his property for people to sleep in.
And, of course, there’s Patti Scott, who is like a guardian angel, showing up every week with hot food, shoes, much-needed supplies, and more.
“They’re our family, so you always take care of family, right?” Scott said, when asked why she goes above and beyond.
“I’m really lucky because my husband allows me to do the things I want to do. I go to garage sales and estate sales and get them what they need. This is something the Lord has put in my head and I would never refuse the Lord.”
Scott recently finished hosting her own garage sale. “All the guys are getting new shoes,” she said. “That’s where all of the garage sale money is going.”
While everyone feels blessed to have her in their lives, Scott says it’s a two-way street.
“They’re a great bunch of guys and they each offer blessings of their own,” she said. “I had them over for dinner on New Year’s Eve and they watched football and fell asleep in their chairs. We had such a good time.”
There is still a need for warm-weather clothing items, specifically coats, gloves, scarves, shoes, etc., if anyone wishes to make a donation, she said.
As the end of each month nears, Bobby eagerly awaits the day he can get his $780 disability check, his lone source of income. Bobby is careful with his money, but a couple packs of cigarettes and one beer every day – “That’s all I can afford” – eat up about half of his daily cash allotment.
It’s a struggle, especially with all the pandemic hardships tossed in. There’s no way to ever get ahead.
These last few months have been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for Bobby. Living a transient lifestyle, life tends to take some crazy turns.
Bobby had been a happy camper for several weeks. He found a place to live and felt like he’d hit the jackpot. Roommate was awesome. Location was perfect. It was almost too good to be true.
Turns out it was too good to be true. The landlord told Bobby his appearance was unacceptable and asked him to clean up or leave.
Bobby, who has had long hair and a beard for many years, wound up getting evicted. For the next few weeks, he was sleeping behind the Dollar Store.
Fortunately, Bobby’s happy again, and seems to be set for the winter months with his newfound shelter.
When Lane County did its last Homeless Point-In-Time Count, there were 1,642 homeless people in 2018, including 1,135 with no shelter.
We need a happy solution for them too.