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The Last Refuge : Housing: In desperation, some homeless families in Oregon are settling on national forest land. Now, a pilot project will officially give them shelter at camps in the woods.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Randy and Lori Lycett hit hard times last year, they pulled up stakes and headed for the trees.

Joining an estimated 25 to 30 other families in this part of Oregon who have become pioneers by necessity, the homeless Lycetts took refuge in a national forest campground, living with their two sons and three dogs in a homemade plastic tent supported by tree limbs.

It is a remote existence. The closest town--Cottage Grove, where the Lycetts had lived--is 25 miles away. The nearest neighbors are several miles down the road at another campsite.

But the isolation of the Lycetts will end soon. In May, the family will join five others in what is believed to be the first project to officially house homeless people on national forest land.

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The Lycetts and the other families will pitch their shelters in an abandoned rock quarry equipped with chemical toilets, fire circles and other improvements in a deal between the National Forest Service, the county government and a private charity in Cottage Grove.

“We think this is a viable alternative for folks who have a rugged constitution and are self-sufficient--a place for them in the woods until they get their feet on the ground,” says Daniel Lindstrom, a former Lutheran minister and director of Community Sharing, the charity that will administer the pilot project.

Although the program is intended primarily for local families, regional publicity already has attracted inquiries from a family in Portland and another in Idaho, Lindstrom says. “We’re hoping this does not become a Mecca,” he adds.

Lindstrom says about half a dozen families have expressed an interest in the campsite, which will house from 30 to 60 individuals. Eligible families must meet income guidelines and agree to abide by camp rules regarding such matters as fire safety and trash disposal.

Lindstrom expects families to stay at the camp a minimum of one month. Ideally, no family would stay more than two or three months before returning to permanent housing. Families will be counseled regarding assistance programs that can help them make the leap out of homelessness, Lindstrom adds.

Community Sharing’s decision to participate helped end debate over whether the county government should finance the project with $10,000 from a state grant for the homeless.

At a recent public hearing, a few homeowners living near the forest boundary protested the experiment. Hardscrabble gold miners, themselves backwoods dwellers, also worried that the encampment would pollute forest streams, fouling the clean water crucial to their small operations, Lindstrom says.

However, in a region where independent spirits are admired and economic calamity has rocketed the unemployment rate to 14%, the homeless of the forest have evoked widespread sympathy.

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“Just because they are homeless doesn’t make them criminals,” says Lindstrom, echoing prevailing public opinion. Furthermore, Lindstrom credits the Lycett family with a positive influence on public attitudes. The family is among the best organized and most outgoing of the forest homeless, he says. Other families and individuals often shun contacts with outsiders, sometimes retreating deep into the forest.

Although most Oregon homeless gravitate to cities, Lindstrom says there are perhaps “hundreds and hundreds” of homeless people living in the state’s forests. An accurate count may be impossible. The forest “is the sort of place where folks go when they don’t want to be hassled by authorities,” Lindstrom explains.

Usually, camping out for prolonged periods is illegal. Campgrounds typically limit stays to 14 days, and in winter many campgrounds are closed.

The Lycetts, who have been at the campground about a year, have established a neatly maintained, semi-permanent settlement. Their sprawling tent--layers of weather-tight plastic--is equipped with a screen door, a kitchen table, shelving and mattresses. The shelves behind the table are filled with canned goods--donations from local residents.

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The tent’s two propane heaters spread a surprisingly cozy warmth through the 20-foot-by-10-foot living area. Within the last month, the family acquired another civilizing touch: a used generator to power a small television and that universal attachment, a Nintendo electronic game.

Lori Lycett, a former waitress, spends much of the day teaching her two boys--Bronze, 11, and Jantzen, 8--using books supplied by the small East Dorena Lake School District, which reportedly has 19 homeless children attending classes.

Lycett’s teaching includes a course of her own invention: “Practical Home Life Application,” which includes instruction about measurements through cooking and arithmetic through balancing a checkbook.

But, she says, “it’s a little hard to balance a checkbook when you have nothing in it.”

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Although her husband, Randy, a lumber mill employee laid off early last year, is working again, the Lycetts have found that their income doesn’t go far, even living in the forest. Their biggest expense is $120 per month to fuel the propane heaters; it might have been even costlier, but the Oregon winter has been exceptionally mild.

The price of staying warm is a sore point with Lori Lycett. She blames last year’s heating bill--$3,000 for their run-down, uninsulated house in Cottage Grove--for helping push her family into homelessness.

“We felt like we were heating the outside,” she says.

Gasoline is another big expense. On days when Randy Lycett does errands, picking up fresh propane tanks or canned food on the way to his swing-shift mill job, he logs about 100 miles round trip, double his daily commute.

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Still, the Lycetts agree life is cheaper in the forest, and until they get back on their feet financially, that’s where they will stay. Among other things, the open space and the privacy are two priceless commodities that wouldn’t be available at a homeless shelter, they say.

In a bitter double dose of bad luck, Lori Lycett’s mother and brother, a Vietnam veteran, are homeless too, she says, explaining that they live in an army surplus tent about six miles away.

The Lycetts’ fellow homeless also include Ben Gossett and Carol DeLee. Bound from Oklahoma to Alaska, the pair hit bottom when their truck broke down in Arizona and they were forced to stay in a hotel for five days until the truck was repaired.

“That really killed us,” says Gossett, a former bronco rider on the rodeo circuit. “The room rate was $55 a night, and two hamburgers, fries and drinks cost $16.”

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After eking their way north, Gossett and DeLee took the advice of a hitchhiker who recommended wintering in the forest. They plan to resume their trek to Alaska this spring, when they have accumulated some money and the traveling is easier.

Like the Lycetts, Gossett takes living outdoors in stride: “People can survive out here, or the Indians all would have died.”

And it is a life with small moments of refinement. While Gossett and DeLee chatted with a visitor, a local gold miner dropped by to deliver a book of poetry to the couple.

As well as reading, the pair have taken up writing. Addressing the problem of homelessness, Gossett and DeLee sent a letter to the newspaper in Cottage Grove.

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“Everybody has a right to be here,” they asserted. " . . . (We are) facing a crisis of astronomical magnitude. How do we feed the hungry, and how do we shelter the homeless? Since our system is overburdened already, we must turn to one another. Each person must be responsible for himself and willing to help his neighbor.”

In fact, personal memories of tough times prompted support for the Lycetts and others from many quarters, including a forest ranger who had been homeless himself.

“I have been on the road before, and I know what it is like to be kicked in the ribs for sleeping in the wrong place,” says Assistant Forest Ranger Kent Smith, a tall, soft-spoken man who works the 90,000-acre Umpqua forest district.

Over the last several years, Smith has noticed more and more people making their homes in the forest. “Until now, we’ve looked at this as a law enforcement problem. We could move them along every two weeks or push them into another district,” he says.

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Last summer Smith decided to see if the Forest Service would budget some money to house the rural homeless temporarily. He submitted a proposal under the Forest Service’s Region 6 “Challenge Project,” which encourages employees to submit unconventional proposals outside the area of timber, minerals and recreation.

“Dealing with social problems is not normally in our budget,” Smith notes.

Smith calls his proposal a moot point because of the attention the Lycett family and other homeless campers received when the local press reported that they were about to be evicted. He also credits a retired Cottage Grove lumber mill worker for steering the issue to the county level and obtaining necessary funding.

“I recognized Mrs. Lycett on the local news,” says Hal Conner, the former mill worker. “I remembered talking to her about a desk she was selling. She had put her possessions up for grabs last year when her family was forced to leave their home. I remember her saying she didn’t know where her family was going to go.

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“I’m no stranger to hard times,” he adds. “My parents picked potatoes in Klamath Falls, Ore., and we lived in a tent. The wind blew, and everything was frozen. But we were together. It is important to keep families together.”

Whatever the reasons, the idea of sheltering homeless people in the forest may be spreading: Officials in the Willamette National Forest, bordering the Umpqua to the north, are considering whether to establish a homeless project of their own.


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