By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved)
As he was dying from liver cancer in 2007, Lorie Perkins’ husband encouraged her to return to the work she loved: housing the homeless. It had been the couple’s passion before his illness intervened. Perkins purchased her first home about a year later, and today she’s a one-woman force for ending veteran homelessness in western Oregon.
“She keeps about four dozen veterans housed at any one time and is continually on the lookout for more homes she can retrofit,” says Tod Schneider, who retired as veteran homelessness analyst for the City of Eugene in late 2015. “Where nobody else is giving them a break, she’s stepping in.”
That view is shared in other parts of the community. “She’s the most committed person to helping veterans in Eugene that I know today,” says Chris Wig, counselor for a nonprofit called Emergence, which provides services to the local veterans treatment court. “Living on the streets is pretty much the most hellish thing that can happen to people. She makes a huge difference.”
For Perkins, it’s both personal and patriotic. Her late husband was an Army veteran who served in the 1970s. And she was astounded at the number of homeless veterans she encountered when she started doing volunteer work after her husband died.
“The tragedy is that you give up your civilian life to fight for your country, come home, everything you have is gone and you end up sleeping under a bridge,” Perkins says. “They’ve been let down – literally – by the people in our country.”
Perkins now operates 10 homes for homeless people who are clean and sober under her nonprofit Housing Our Veterans. Many of her residents are referred to her by VA, the treatment court and St. Vincent de Paul. A safe, stable home is critical to their future.
“It’s really hard to turn your life around so that you can be rehabilitated in the eyes of the criminal justice system if you are sleeping on the streets,” Wig says. “Getting housed is one of the most critical first steps.”
It’s made all the difference for Frederico Reyna. Prone to getting in fights, Renya spent a total of nine years behind bars. A series of injuries, both in the Navy and working construction, led to the painkiller addiction and heavy drinking that accelerated his downward spiral.
Veterans court set a new course for Reyna. He found a room in one of Perkins’ houses after completing court-ordered drug and alcohol treatment at VA facilities in Roseburg and White City, Ore. Today, he’s on VA disability, studying construction management in college and making plans to reunite with his family. He has a job as a construction superintendent waiting for him when he graduates. He credits Perkins for playing a major role in his recovery. “I called her on Thanksgiving and thanked her for letting me live in one of her homes and helping me turn my life around,” Renya says.
The men living in Perkins’ homes range from post-9/11 veterans in their 20s to Vietnam veterans in their 60s. She also houses some men who need transitional housing after leaving prison in order to help cover her overhead. Perkins provides everything from furniture to bed linens to dish towels and, if needed, cooking lessons.
Each home has seven or eight bedrooms, and the residents who are able pay a share of the rent. Perkins often has to pick up the difference, a cost that has become more and more difficult to bear as she has depleted her savings. Financial support has not followed the outpouring of praise from public agencies and officials.
“It gets pretty discouraging,” says Perkins, who invested in a Kettle Korn business in an attempt to improve her cash flow. “If I had the funding, I could get 200 people off the streets.”
Schneider echoes her frustration. “She pours all of her time and energy into finding new homes and running what she’s got,” he says. “She doesn’t have a fundraising arm.”
But community support will have to manifest itself in more than words of praise if Perkins is to survive.
“While all of your hopes and prayers are appreciated, they aren’t going to get people into shelter,” Schneider says. “It’s donations and renting them rooms. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
This story originally appeared as part of a group of stories about helping homeless veterans in the January 2018 issue of The American Legion Magazine.