by Emily Carpenter
Peter Weinberger started using heroin when he was 14. Rehab twice. Two relapses. Eventually he also became addicted to cocaine. The drugs were his life, and he was okay with that. As he got older, says Weinberger, his ability to cope with the effects of the drugs diminished. He couldn’t maintain the lifestyle. He had been to an expensive rehab clinic before because his parents wanted him to get clean, but this time it was his choice. Now, at 54 he has been clean for 5 years. He sits in the Whiteaker Neighborhood of Eugene, playing his guitar and chatting with friends who are just like him, fighting every day to resist the addiction.
Weinberger is the office manager at the Jesco Club, a nonprofit organization for recovering alcoholics, addicts, and people with eating disorders or mental health disorders, anyone who needs support. It is one of several nonprofits in the Whiteaker Neighborhood, an area traditionally known as a cultural and political center but also for its services to a community that struggles with addictions and homelessness, among other hardships. Three of the many nonprofits are the Jesco Club, The Eugene Mission, and Community Alliance for Lane County. The Eugene Mission provides basic needs for the homeless, and Community Alliance of Lane County works through activism to create political action for major social issues. The organizations use different methods, but the general goal is to improve quality of life, to make life better. Often, one organization meets the need another cannot.
The Jesco Club
It is a white brick building with large front windows on Blair Boulevard. J.E.S.C.O. stands for Junction City, Eugene, Springfield, Cottage Grove, and Oakridge, all the areas the club serves. It is partially a social club, open every day of the week so none of its members ever have to be alone. However, it is also a meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous, Developmental Disabilities Anonymous, and similar organizations. Weinberger’s job includes ordering supplies, bookkeeping, and keeping track of membership dues. All the money from the dues and coffee sales goes back into the club.
Weinberger says Jesco provides camaraderie, so the members don’t feel alone in their fight to overcome challenges. “If other people aren’t around… my mind will go to drugs because I am a hardcore addict,” he says. He needs other people who are trying to stay clean, and says if it were not for the Jesco Club he probably would have ended up buying heroin or cocaine again.
Lisa Beck stopped using methamphetamine after 27 years. Like Peter, she said the life was becoming unbearable. She attended a meeting at Jesco and decided to change her life. Beck was the Jesco caretaker for a year, and today she is vice president of the club. She has stayed involved for the continued support and to be a friend to other people with similar struggles. Not only was Beck addicted but she was homeless. “I couldn’t really get clean and sober living on the streets,” she says, so she moved into the Eugene Mission.
The Eugene Mission is tucked into a northwest corner of Whiteaker, on West First Avenue branching off of Blair Boulevard. The mission has a policy that residents cannot be noticeably under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Like the Jesco Club, it is a safe place for someone trying to stay clean and sober, which is why it is a good starting place for recovering addicts like Beck. The goal of the Eugene Mission is to provide food, bed, gospel, and restoration, as stated on their mission pamphlet. Besides three meals a day and a warm place to sleep, the mission offers day services such as laundry, showers, and haircuts. They also provide addiction recovery programs and skill training to help people obtain jobs.
While the Jesco Club was started by people who had overcome addictions and alcoholism and wanted to help others do the same, the Eugene Mission is driven by Christian charity. “We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” says Lyn Cogswell, the volunteer coordinator at the mission. Just as Weinberger says that a lot of the Jesco Club’s value lies in the way the institution is set up to be free of judgment, Cogswell stresses that what the mission wants to do is help people without judging them.For Cogswell the best things about working at the mission are tasks that aren’t written into her job description. Sometimes, she says, people just need someone to care about them or listen to their story. She wants to provide the people who come to the mission with hope and reassurance. They are always understaffed, which is an opportunity in a way because everyone who works there is involved directly with the boarders. Ironically, she says, this is also the hardest part of working at the mission.
Every day Cogswell has to put a conscious effort into achieving a safe balance. She witnesses the pain and sorrow of hundreds of different lives. It is easy to become depressed or discouraged by all the hardship, but Cogswell says she can’t help people out of the pit if she falls in herself. “I don’t want it to ever get easy,” she says, “’cause I’m afraid I would be pretty calloused at that point.”
The volunteer coordinator position represents a shift in the way Eugene Mission is operating. About 18 months ago the leadership at the mission changed, and then a year ago Cogswell was hired to help fulfill the desire for community involvement. Before, volunteers were only taken for chapel service, but now community members help with household tasks in the three centers: the Women’s Center, the Men’s Center, and the Mothers’ and Children Center. Skilled volunteers with human services backgrounds help residents of the Eugene Mission with goal planning and basic mental health service. Some volunteers simply come to help improve the appearance of the mission, to create a more cheerful atmosphere.
“It’s more labor intensive. It takes longer, but it’s based on what each individual needs, rather than the cookie cutter approach,” says Cogswell. The new approach is to make the mission feel less like an institution, and more like a community. They can’t do that with only the limited paid staff, especially with the changing demographics and increased number of people who need help. They are still serving mostly single men, but in just the last year the mission has seen a 40 percent increase in women and more than a 100 percent increase of mothers and children needing shelter and other mission services.
Community Alliance for Lane County
While the Eugene Mission is trying to ensure the everyday needs of people without homes, the Community Alliance of Lane County, or CALC, is working to inspire political action that will alleviate the suffering of the homeless. The CLAC office is just down the street from the Jesco Club, in a white house on Blair Boulevard. Michael Carrigan, the community organizer for CALC, says the goal is human dignity, peace, and racial, economic, and social justice. They meet with elected leaders to give them information and ask for action plans on issues like homophobia, continuing war, hate crimes, lack of diversity in education systems, and shelter rights.
Last November CALC held a conference to celebrate 45 years of activism. In the history printed for the conference one of the current programs listed was SAfER, or Springfield Alliance for Equality and Respect. SAfER leads a sub-organization that focuses specifically on the homeless, Springfield Shelter Rights Alliance. Among other things, they host the Harvest Festival for Human Rights every year to “improve the conditions for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness,” according to the history.
Much of CALC’s work is putting on events so elected officials see there is public support for the issues being raised and to increase support for the issue. For example, CALC was involved with the Occupy Eugene movement, assisting with marches, rallies, setting up camps, and bringing attention to the movement during city council meetings.
Other organizations CALC is partnered with to achieve economic justice are Opportunity Village and SLEEPS, or Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep. With Opportunity Village they are working to create a drug, alcohol and violence free transitional homeless village, and with SLEEPS they are trying to lift the camping ban in the Eugene city limits so the homeless have a place to sleep and designate safe legal areas for people to stay in an emergency.
Activism leading to the establishment of places for the homeless to stay the night is important for recovering addicts. Beck says places like Opportunity Village, SLEEPS, and Eugene Mission because “When you’re on the street you’re surrounded by people who use drugs.” For Beck using Methamphetamine allowed her to stay awake all night, so she didn’t have to worry about finding a place to stay. She says, knowing you have a place to stay relieves some worry so someone can think about progressing with their life, giving them time to find a job and work on getting clean. “What are you going to do tonight if you have nowhere to sleep…I might as well get high,” says Weinberger. If you have a place to sleep, it’s easier to stay clean.
Peter Weinberger and his friend Caitlin Little sit on either side of the front desk at Jesco. With matching grins they ground their elbows side by side on the desk top and prepare to arm wrestle. The battle ends in a draw, but it doesn’t matter. Really, they are in the fight together.
Though there are several nonprofit organizations in Eugene making efforts to improve quality of life, there is always something slowing progress. Unlike many nonprofits, the Jesco Club does not face financial difficulties. The building was bought by a couple members of the club more than 35 years ago, according to Peter Weinberger. All the money needed to support the club is provided by membership dues and coffee sales.
The problem for the Jesco Club is keeping the environment safe. “That’s the challenge, it’s just maintaining some kind of structure and rule abiding, which gets broken constantly,” says Weinberger, though he is clear that those who break the rules are good people dealing with challenges of their own.
The Eugene Mission does have some financial difficulties. Lyn Cogswell says the organization is entirely dependent on donations, and there is never a specific number to base the monthly budget on. She says, the Eugene community is very generous, particularly grocery stories like Trader Joe’s. However, residents of the Mission need basic things than. Anyone can bring donations to the mission at 1542 West 1st Avenue. Some urgent needs listed in the October 2012 mission newsletter are deodorant, shampoo, soap, coats, and shoes.
The Community Alliance of Lane County has a demographic problem. “Grey is the dominant color of our hair,” says Michael Carrigan. Recently, CALC has started using Facebook, and they will soon be on Twitter. They still need more members under the age of 50 if they are going to keep advocating for change. Young people who want to volunteer or become members of CALC can go to the office at 458 Blair Boulevard or call at (541) 485-1755.