Grocery Outlet Bargain Center in Cottage Grove has key items labeled for the “youth warming” project. DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO

Sometimes a simple gesture comes at just the right time to make a big difference in one’s life. For Karen Munsell, it was a gifted pair of socks at such a juncture when she really needed it. Facing a tough family situation, Munsell had to shift for herself early and being given something she really needed was a turning point for her. She relates to and has a soft spot for youth in general but especially for those who are homeless or having to put up with tough living conditions.

Sure, growing up you probably had to walk four miles through snow drifts to school, but in those times a single wage earner could afford rent and food for the family. 

Community support was more the norm and it was rare to see someone living on the streets. With a long recession leading up to a series of devastating fires, into rough times brought on by the Covid pandemic, housing is far more uncertain. 

With available rentals low and prices high, families displaced by fires, job loss, or fate are forced to do what they must do for their children. Some double up with friends or family, others are living in vehicles, in shelters, tents, or small trailers on someone’s property. It is easier with small children, but teens are large, have voracious appetites, and crave privacy.

There are a surprising number of South Lane youth who are couch surfing, living in cars, or camping out. The McKinney-Vento Act defines “unaccompanied youth” as a minor, who is not living with parents or guardians (the legal term being “in custody of”) and homeless as well.  

Grocery Outlet Bargain Center in Cottage Grove has key items labeled for the “youth warming” project.DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO

Often the reasons are family situations where it is hard for teens to feel safe due to drug use, neglect, abuse, or other unhealthy conditions being present in their families.

The dramatic rise of homelessness in the 1980s alarmed many Americans and pressure was put on Congress to act. In 1986, The Homeless Persons’ Survival Act was introduced as a broad program to address the issues of those without housing. 

Ultimately, only parts of the proposed legislation were passed into law. Shortly after its passage Republican Congressman Stewart McKinney (Conn.), the bill’s cosponsor, died and the bill was renamed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. On July 22, 1987, a reluctant Pres. Ronald Reagan signed it into law.  

The act was reauthorized several times before 2000, when Pres. Bill Clinton added Rep. Bruce Vento’s name to the act. Vento, who was dying of asbestos-caused lung cancer, was the Democratic sponsor of the original bill and had worked closely with McKinney on its passage. Both men were fierce advocates for affordable housing, the social safety net, and the forgotten Americans; in particular, homeless individuals suffering from mental illness.  

One of the key features of the legislation was affirming the right of the homeless to receive services without having a physical address. While this may seem obvious, before McKinney-Vento, lacking an address (by being homeless) put those on the streets in a Catch-22 situation of not being able to use social services.

In 2001 McKinney-Vento was incorporated into Pres. George W. Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” affirming the right of homeless students’ access to public education. McKinney-Vento was further modified under Pres. Barack Obama’s 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act to include preschool children suffering from homelessness, attempting to help homeless students prepare for college readiness in addition to emphasizing and increasing the support for unaccompanied students. 

The “Warming Youth Project” happened as a “spur-of-the-moment” idea that included Cottage Grove residents and area businesses, including Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE

Tessa Hart, who serves as McKinney-Vento liaison for South Lane School District, explained much of the complex history of this legislation and described some of the conditions that unaccompanied students face.

“These students are going to school despite it all. Being at school provides a stabilizing and steadying influence for at-risk kids,” Hart said. She also spoke of a coat drive SLSD is sponsoring. Hart is requesting new, or gently used coats of all sizes. Why not look through your closet and see if there is a lonely coat or two that could warm a cold student trying to succeed in spite of a lot of roadblocks put in their way. To contribute, drop your coat donations at any of the South Lane School sites or call or text Tessa at 541-735-5702. The coats will be distributed to all in need once they are collected.

Unhoused students have no access to an emergency shelter in South Lane County, the closest being Station 7 in Eugene. But there is one resource they can access, Looking Glass Rural in Cottage Grove. Located at 508 E. Whiteaker Ave., Looking Glass provides a safe place to come relax, use the wifi, and get help in many ways. 

Billy Reed, Street Outreach worker for Looking Glass spoke with me about what happens there. It’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (Wednesday it closes at 4 p.m. for staff meetings) with a drop-in center. 

There are hot meals three times a day and take-home packages available. Even if home is a vehicle or other marginal situation, there are lots of things we do to try to make it better for our clients. Sometimes that is just a warm, safe place to relax and take refuge out of the rain.

“We have clothes, hygiene items, snacks, and an open ear,” Reed said. “Another service we offer is helping to get missing vital records for our clients. It is a real barrier if you are homeless and don’t have an ID, birth certificate, or Social Security card. Those can be your most valuable possessions when you are on the streets.”

Looking Glass Lane County has other resources such as transitional housing and counseling, in Eugene/Springfield. But here locally, case management helps youth with resume building, working toward a job, dealing with OPH and SNAP benefits.  

There is exciting news for Looking Glass Rural. It was able to acquire a building down the street that will allow it to expand to four times its current space. Renovations will be taking place and donations are still needed for the new space.

It will really expand what the center will be able to offer its clients. 

Eventually it is hoped to have a real kitchen, showers, and laundry services made available to struggling youth.

Right now, Looking Glass in Cottage Grove is so cramped that it is difficult to have a private conversation with those who might need one.

There was a big “Socktober” drive that was rather successful through Looking Glass Eugene but no trickle down here to the sticks. When you live in your shoes (a smart move when you are homeless), socks take a beating and it’s hard to wash and dry them, and keeping your feet healthy when they are always encased in footwear with damp, dirty socks is very difficult. 

Karen Munsell is known for her constant search for food, clothing, hygiene items, and yes, socks to restock the shelves for youth who come to Looking Glass. 

At the big Halloween Hootenanny she was making the rounds and stopped by the Oregon Metal Roofing and Gutters booth and, having an interest in gutters, fell into conversation with owner Shane Navarro. 

The BMD buttons she was wearing got them talking about her involvement with the Helena Saloon and youth and somehow socks got mentioned. The Navarros were surprised that there was such a need here. An offer of a donation stirred an idea and the Grocery Outlet booth was nearby so it was a case of going to talk with owners Ed and Kori Sowa about putting together a drive for socks. The Sowas also issued a challenge that if Munsell could raise $100 they would match it. 

Running into some fellow Rotarians, it was short work to raise the challenge and seeing it build the Navarros matched as well, so Munsell left Bohemia Park with enough money for 100 pairs of socks. 

“Handing a young person a warm pair of socks can be like handing them a college degree at times,” Munell said.

At the Grocery Outlet, when Munsell came to buy socks, Kori asked “Do they need more stuff other than socks?” So after checking with the folks at Looking Glass and getting a list, the “Warming Youth Project” was born. “It was a spur-of-the-moment unplanned action, it was like ‘Let’s do this!.’ Using our list we made some labels for the requested items and put those up around the store so people could purchase what was needed. Karen got a barrel for the donations and it was off and running,” Kori Sowa related. 

As word got around town, the drive started blooming into something bigger. “Other businesses started asking, ‘What can we do?’” Sowa reported. “Something that will also help is purchasing $10 gift cards for Grocery Outlet that can be used for youths’ needs when they arise. “We hope this drive becomes an annual event. We are just the host, it is really the Community. It takes a village to help our youth.”

Looking Glass is excited to see the response from the Grove. They will be sharing the items donated with Al Kennedy High School, Cottage Grove High School, the McKinney-Vento program, and Family Relief Nursery. You can still purchase and donate items and G.O. $10 gift cards through Nov. 30.

Munsell is full of gratitude for the community response and especially for the support from Ed and Kori at Grocery Outlet. It is not the first time they have jumped in to help with drives she has organized in the past to help youth in need with food and necessities.

As we count our blessings this Thanksgiving it would be nice to add some good karma by helping some youth who are trying hard to do the right thing and make it through a cold wet winter. 

Looking Glass will be open Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for a “Give Thanks Meal.” If you or someone you know is hungry, stop in to see them this Thanksgiving. 

May you all be blessed by your actions on this day of giving thanks and socks.  

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