*This story was originally published as part of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2021 Season of Sharing campaign*
Robin Chisholm still jolts awake from anxiety-induced nightmares occasionally, but when she opens her eyes, she is reminded that she is safe in a home of her own.
“I can go back to sleep knowing that I am OK,” the 60-year-old said.
But for a short stretch of time in her life, Chisholm didn’t have that reassurance. After facing crippling financial challenges, she found herself without a warm bed to sleep in. She stayed with family until she couldn’t anymore, eventually finding shelter in her vehicle.
After ending up in the emergency room, she was referred to Transition Projects, a Portland nonprofit that helps individuals experiencing homelessness transition back into housing. The local organization manages emergency shelters and an array of supportive services. Founded in 1969, it runs on a $20 million budget funded by a mix of local government contracts, federal money and fundraising. The nonprofit employs over 330 people, operates out of 14 metro-area sites and assists 10,000 people each year through its various programs.
In 2020, Chisholm was one of nearly 1,000 formerly homeless individuals who was helped to find affordable housing in the surrounding four-county area.
But Chisholm’s tumultuous journey started years before that, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. In her early 50s at the time, she had been married, divorced and raised children. She was working at American Airlines and never expected to lose her home.
“The diagnosis started the downward spiral,” she said. “I was not able to work for a few months when I was going through chemotherapy and surgeries and going to more hospital visits than I could count. The medical bills started piling up and even though I had health insurance, it didn’t cover everything and since I couldn’t work, I didn’t have income.”
Chisholm would try to go back to work but would fall ill again and have to take another leave. She eventually quit her job so that she could live on her 401(k) savings while she waited to be approved for Social Security disability, which was a two-year process. Eventually, she even lost the vehicle she was living in because she couldn’t afford to keep it. Soon after, she learned about Transition Projects.
“That first night there was terrifying but it was better than sleeping in my car or outside,” Chisholm said. “The idea of sleeping outside was more terrifying to me than being there.”
After two months in one of Transition Projects’ mass shelters, Chisholm got a spot in Jean’s Place, a women’s shelter also run by the nonprofit. The shelter serves 60 women at a time and has helped 7,500 women since it opened 25 years ago. The program offers caseworkers who help clients secure housing, employment, benefit assistance and health services.
“Our community needs more shelter for women as the number of women experiencing homelessness increases each year,” said Roma Peyser, Transition Projects director of development. “There is always a waiting list for women waiting to get into Jean’s Place.”
At Jean’s Place, not only did Chisholm find support from her caseworker and advocate, but she found support from the other women staying there as well, many of whom she still is in contact with.
“I made friends there,” she said. “We helped each other through the good days and bad, and the women who worked there would take the time if you had a bad day to take you aside and listen … Staying there gave me the feeling of being safe and warm and cared about. It gave me the desire to want to improve myself and my life.”
As Chisholm searched through listing after listing for housing, submitting applications over and over, she was continually denied due to her low credit stemming from her medical debt and her low income. The advocates at Jean’s Place helped her navigate the process by writing letters of support to landlords asking them to look past her credit history. After seven months, the hard work paid off and Chisholm was able to move into her own apartment, which she furnished with free or discounted used furniture.
“I was scared not knowing what was going to happen next in my life,” Chisholm said. “If it hadn’t been for Jean’s Place and their guidance, I wouldn’t have a roof over my head now. They helped me realize that today was the first day of the rest of my life … Now, I love my apartment. It feels like home.”