Relaxing on a set of overstuffed floral couches last week in a pristine cottage off Chestnut Street, Sandra Anderson and Lori Colburn — who until recently were homeless — marveled that they could end up in a house with clean wood floors, new matching furniture and a living room filled with friends.
Part of a new “halfway house” provided by Medford’s First Presbyterian Church, with help from a local developer, the house is the first of what church officials hope will become long-term sober-living residences.
Pastor Murray Richmond, who dubbed the program “The Bridge,” said the concept involves creating a path between abnormal living and “as normal as possible” living for people who have struggled with mental illness and drug abuse that led to homelessness.
Just over a year ago, Anderson hit “rock bottom” after years of drug addiction and run-ins with law enforcement. She was already in dire need of a knee replacement when a bike accident landed her in the emergency room.
A regular who showed up at First Presbyterian on Holly Street during sermons to avoid summer smoke or to pick up sack lunches, Anderson was befriended by Richmond and his wife, Angelee.
After Anderson’s accident, Angelee Richmond took her to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and stayed to ensure she was OK.
“The hardest thing for me in living on the streets was just finding a place to sleep,” Anderson said. “Because of my knee, it was really hard to sleep on the hard concrete every night. I’d been homeless for a long time. I was on a lot of drugs back then.
“When I finally hit my rock bottom and ended up going to the hospital, they stayed with me and wouldn’t let the hospital discharge me.”
She wound up staying in RRMC’s mental health unit, then moved to respite care and then to the Addictions Recovery Center in Medford.
Clean and sober for the first time in years, Anderson finished with a 60-day stint at a local outpatient facility. While she waited for a knee replacement and tried to line up Social Security benefits, she was offered a place to sleep by a parishioner.
Said Angelee, “After Sandra was done with respite care, there was nowhere, literally nowhere for her to go. We realized there were really no options, but we also knew that we couldn’t let her go right back on the streets.”
For Colburn, homelessness came on slowly after the death of her husband back home in Georgia. Invited west to stay with friends — a plan that didn’t work out — Colburn ventured toward Medford. Never imagining couch surfing, much less homelessness, Colburn soon “learned the ropes” about shelters and staying safe outside. Befriended by a small group of homeless people, she found respite in church services and various outreach programs offered there. Richmond notes of the church, “a lot of people get their mail sent to 85 South Holly.”
Colburn said it was emotional to go from sleeping on hard dirt to feeling cared about and moving into a newly renovated home.
“It was phenomenal when we walked into the front door,” Colburn said. “Four walls and a roof would have been awesome and more than I could hope for. This … this was far and above what I ever expected.
“It is life-changing when someone shows you that they care and that you’re lovable and that you matter. It gives you some self-worth again.”
Local developer Marquis Johnson, who renovated the property, said The Bridge concept gels with his own goal of rehabilitating blight properties and providing fair market housing.
A long-term resident of west Medford and a network security administrator, Johnson saw a post by Richmond on Facebook, explaining the church’s desire to provide sober living housing.
“When I got the house, it was a wreck. Needles and garbage everywhere, just in horrible shape, but it still had a little bit of life left in it,” he said.
“Basically I want to get rid of blight houses to help the community and provide affordable housing. I love real estate and I love helping people and cleaning up neighborhoods, so it all sort of just fit. When I heard what they were trying to do, I just knew. I said, ‘I’m in. Let’s do this.’”
For their part, the Richmonds network about the project, provide outreach through the church and coordinate needed support services. Angelee provides transportation for residents — the home can accommodate up to three people. Rules to live in the house include no drug or alcohol use, following treatment requirements and keeping the house in good repair.
Richmond said long-term housing is a permanent solution versus a Band-Aid approach for addressing homelessness.
“A lot of people want the homeless to go away, but away is not a place,” he said. “People have to be somewhere. I’ve been working with the issue of homelessness for a long time. People go through rehab, they go through treatment, then they end up in some room or some apartment by themselves. When they’re on the street or in treatment, there’s a comradery, so they miss that when they end up alone.”
Richmond said providing connections with others is important in any scenario.
“This might just be a little thing we’re doing here, but for these people it’s a big thing. We’re not solving the problem, but we’re solving their problem. What people need — what everyone needs — is support and to feel like they have people who care.”
Finishing touches are being applied to The Bridge house, which could still use help with new fencing, yard work and railings for the front porch. The church accepts volunteers for its outreach programs, which provide meals and sandwiches to the area’s homeless. For more information, see http://firstpreschurchmedford.com.
For information about Johnson’s housing rehab projects, and “before and after” photos of housing projects in Medford, see www.facebook.com/peoplefirstmedford.
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at email@example.com.