June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

New LTD street liaison role connects our community

17 min read
Sarah Koski: "My family and my community is the street family and community now. My life is dedicated to supporting the unhoused and what I've heard from our street community is: LTD is getting the job done. They feel supported. They feel loved."

The Lane Transit District heard a six-month status report from its first-ever community resource liaison. Speaking to the Strategic Planning Committee and then the Board of Directors at their April meetings, Sarah Koski.

Sarah Koski: My name is Sarah Koski. I am brand-new here to LTD. I came in in November with a bit of a social experiment. It’s a little bit of a build-the-plane-as-you-fly-it position. So my title is ‘Community Resource Liaison.’ I would like to think it’s ‘Homeless Advocate and Community Resource Liaison.’ When we talk about marginalized communities, that’s kind of my bread and butter right here.

[00:00:38] I came from a nonprofit background. I was an executive director of a nonprofit, worked in philanthropy for 15 years—disasters and disaster management, mass care, feeding, all of these different things. I left in 2021 an executive directorship and a consulting firm to be the sole case manager at 410 Garfield Safe Sleep Site, which at the time was Oregon’s largest, lowest-barrier shelter in state history, right? We didn’t quite know how to deal with this community.

[00:01:06] John Q: She expanded on those challenges.

[00:01:10] Sarah Koski: On average, folks that moved into 410 Safe Sleep, on average: 11 years unhoused. We’re talking manic-depressive, multi-personality, schizophrenia, unmedicated, right? How do you support that type of community? Well, the support came, but I had to go and equip myself. Those resources didn’t come to me.

[00:01:30] So, learning how to connect LTD was not just the community outreach component of a nonprofit or an executive director, but having a liaison that can work directly with case managers and community navigators in the trenches.

[00:01:44] And for the last six months, that has proved completely invaluable, not just to supporting the community, but how we are learning from the community.

[00:01:53] John Q: She said the new role benefits from her experiences as an executive and on the street.

[00:02:00] Sarah Koski: So, this role and position is not just working with that executive leadership team, it’s working directly in the trenches with case managers and community navigators to hear exactly what’s going on from that street perspective, and how can we create solutions to better support not only those folks in the street, but our case managers and our community navigators.

[00:02:20] We wanted to assess the roles that we played here in the community in supporting marginalized communities. And not only how do we support marginalized communities, but how do we support our own internal staff who have to deal with the brunt of a lot of the touch points when it comes to people in crisis: those expressing duress; people experiencing poverty; those who may or may not use drugs chaotically; folks who are leaving domestic violence situations. How do we in this role support our community and support internally?

[00:02:52] And so the first thing that we looked at was internal staff and driver-operators and then the second role in this position was the outreach to partners. That third role that this position plays is folks with lived experience.

[00:03:05] So our own internal staff and driver-operators are equipped and supported with resource guides, maps of the community, de-escalation techniques, the way of communication, trauma-informed language. We work with the case managers and the community navigators. Public Safety has been an incredible partner. Our field supervisors, our ambassadors, all of these things.

[00:03:26] Word on the street is LTD is kicking butt, right? In my opinion, my family and my community is the street family and community now. My life is dedicated to supporting the unhoused and what I’ve heard from our street community is: LTD is getting the job done. They feel supported. They feel loved. They feel like Public Safety is not there to wave a baton, but genuinely care. And they see it from the leadership to the people sweeping or taking out the trash at the downtown station.

[00:03:53] And to me you’re only as good as how you treat the least of the community. How do you treat the least of these, right?

[00:04:01] That’s why I’m really excited about this role. Because the mission here at LTD: ‘Connecting our community,’ right? We’re connecting community through working with our internal staff, community partners, nonprofit partners, and with the streets in and of itself.

[00:04:14] So I like to think of myself when I’m going out as, like: How can I be the embodiment of what we want to see here at LTD?

[00:04:22] So what it really started was this internal staff training and listening session. Because, what I realized was, I couldn’t come into LTD being like, ‘I know all this information, listen to me, here’s—,’ because you can only hear so many subject matter experts without turning a deaf ear, right?

[00:04:38] So instead, what I really wanted to do was sit in that break room, listen to the drivers, listen to the stress points, listen to the pressure points, see what they needed. And from there, that’s how we built the role. So the role was really listening, soaking up. I went on public safety ride-alongs, ambassador ride-alongs, field safety ride-alongs.

[00:04:57] From there the big goal was: How do we do training and advising and how do we create resource guides? So a couple things happened. Number one, I got a cell phone, an LTD cell phone that acted as like an ‘Ask Alexa’ or ‘Ask Siri.’ Folks who are responding to a crisis at a bus stop where someone’s: ‘I am in a mental health crisis. I need to go get help, immediate!’ And we can’t reach CAHOOTS. So we don’t have the ability to reach someone at 211.

[00:05:23] They can text my phone and through the resources and connections I’ve had through my past work, we can get someone coordinated or be like, ‘Oh, we know that they need to go to, this location. Oh, we know that this place is open for beds or different things like that.’

So, I have, whether it’s a weekend, at night, I try the best I can, five to 10 minutes, to have a response. Or I get an email, or people just stop me in the downtown station and just ask, ‘Hey, can we have help?’ There was someone in duress. She was without clothes. Where do I find warm clothes and blankets? Just worked that day, created a whole list, created what bus line, the easiest route, the route that you could do by foot, and then distribute that information within 24 hours.

[00:06:05] I had someone come up and say, ‘Hey man, there was this girl. She urinated on herself. We need to get her to a shower. Where’s all the public showers or low-cost showers?’ I didn’t know. I reached out to my city rep, they didn’t have anything. Reached out to a couple of people, they didn’t have anything.

[00:06:21] White Bird had a very basic list and so we took that list. I fact-checked everything and within the end of the day, we were distributing to all of our public safety and our field supervisors a list of low-cost and public showers.

[00:06:35] And the cool thing is, I took that as a gift and said to the city, ‘Here, I did all the fact-checking,’ To all of the case managers, ‘Here, this is what I found.’ So we haven’t just produced internal documents to support our own community, but when I see something and that there’s a need, it’s that thought of: See a need, you fill it…

[00:06:53] Just look at the hospital, the downtown hospital. We don’t have a hospital that’s walkable for unhoused folks in the Eugene area. Will, the professor (he allowed me to share this), that Will had a heart attack. (He’s housed right now. He lives a block away from the LTD downtown station.) Had a heart attack, they took him to McKenzie Willamette. He left his room without shoes. He was discharged at four o’clock in the morning. They gave him socks and a bus pass. Well, our driver-operator did what they were supposed to do and said, ‘Hey, no shoes, can’t get on.’

So (Will) went back to the hospital and said, ‘Can you find me some shoes? Can we work this out? What do we do?’ They said, ‘We don’t have any, we’re sorry,’ right? His battery died on his cell phone. He didn’t have any contacts at the time. And so he had to drain his entire savings, which was like $24, to negotiate with a taxi to taxi him back to his house, right? Now the money that he was going to try and use for food and potentially medicine is gone because he had to transport himself back.

[00:07:52] So, Will calls me and said, ‘What can we do on the shoe solution?’ Well, I had been in a meeting with RCPC, which is a peer-support-led group. They found temporary shoes for under a dollar. I got a couple prototypes, went and talked to our HR guy, risk management, Dave (Lindelien), said, ‘Would this be considered a shoe?’ And he says, ‘I don’t see why not.’ Went immediately to the office of (Director of Transit Operations and Public Safety) Jake (McCallum). Jake was like, ‘I like it.’ We were writing something up. We’re going to talk with the union about it. We’re going to talk to our driver-operators. Now we’re going to work hopefully with the Reveille team to have shoes and see what we can do.

[00:08:29] I mean that from one call and one instance to solution and problem-solving.

[00:08:33] John Q: Those problem-solving skills were helpful, when LTD changed its safety requirements.

[00:08:39] Sarah Koski: We needed to amend our safety requirements of what can and cannot be brought on the bus. It was honestly for safety, but it really affected the marginalized communities, right? The difference between a wagon, you can only bring on one, no big bag of bottles and cans, all these different things.

[00:08:56] So one of the first meetings we had (and I really credit [Chief Marketing Officer] Pat Walsh) was: What are the type of communication styles that we need to do when talking about safety? And putting these things on a poster. We took those posters and brought them to every shelter and every frontline case management center in town, preemptively, before that press release was sent out.

[00:09:18] John Q: They created different materials for different audiences.

[00:09:23] Sarah Koski: We created this handout called ‘What to bring on the bus Q&A,’ and this handout was designed for case managers in mind. We went to all of the shelter sites. We went to White Bird, all of these other sites. I brought either a field supervisor or a public safety officer. We walked through the reasons of why we were limiting what to go on the bus.

[00:09:44] For the first time in organizational history, we opened up our customer service email for responses directly from the unhoused community and case managers. So we said, ‘We know that this is going to be taxing. We’ve already made this decision. However, in the future, as we plan and grow and build, please send us your information. We would love to hear it.’

[00:10:04] What happened was case managers and community navigators became our own ambassadors. When this information went live in public on KVAL, instead of seeing a massive backlash from the community, a lot of those case managers were advocating on our behalf where people were saying, ‘Hey, this really hurts the homeless,’ all this. And people are like, ‘Well, in fact, LTD came and talked with us and, you know, we’re good. We understand why we know this is going to be tough, but we’re going to work through it.’

[00:10:30] There was a lot of success that happened just because of a lot of preemptive work on our end in reaching out to marginalized communities.

[00:10:38] And I really have to commend (Chief Customer Experience Officer) Cosette (Rees), who is my direct supervisor. We saw a gentleman who had made a comment on one of the KVAL social media sites, and he was chair of LEAGUE, which is the Lived Experience Advisory Group for the county. Longtime unhoused, but currently housed, and he had made some very valid concerns. And within 24 hours, Cosette and myself were at a coffee shop with him, listening to his concerns.

[00:11:06] John Q: He said that was the first time anyone ever listened to him.

[00:11:10] Sarah Koski: And he said, “My gosh, my gosh, for the 20 years I’ve been a homeless advocate, I have never had a large-scale organization listen or hear what I had to say to the degree of what LTD did.’ He became an ambassador for us and when there was a lot of chatter online of, like, ‘Oh, LTD doesn’t like the homeless because they’re doing this,’ the guy was like, ‘No, LTD is cool.’

[00:11:30] It’s just been an incredible opportunity to really share love and I think the biggest thing that I want to emphasize in all that we do is: LTD is leading by example.

[00:11:40] John Ahlen and I went to the White Bird harm reduction site which was built from Measure 110 funding. It’s on Polk Street. It just opened in November, so it’s only as young as I am here at LTD. They’re going to be doing very innovative stuff of drug testing, immediate wound care, they have supplies.

[00:12:01] Now, what the benefit was, well, John is incredible. John is a subject matter expert of everything RideSource, RideShare. We spent more time with their case managers asking questions about RideShare than we did the tour.

[00:12:15] And granted, they haven’t even had their full public grand opening yet. We were the first organization that they allowed to tour because they knew that we had a heart for the community. White Bird wants all of their case managers and all of their therapists to sit and be able to ask John questions.

[00:12:33] John Q: Sarah said LTD’s willingness to listen opened a lot of doors.

[00:12:37] Sarah Koski: What was really cool was the more I’m going out and doing these connections and these site visits, I’m getting a lot more internal staff being like, ‘Man, I’ve never been to a shelter before,’ or ‘I’ve never done a visit before.’

[00:12:49] So I’ll give you a great example. Hailey (P.), our social media coordinator, went with me to Looking Glass and we did a tour of Station 7, because I’m doing a resource guide on phone numbers that you can call for people in need. And Station 7 actually has a phone number for people who are looking to detox immediately and they do an immediate referral.

[00:13:11] Because of the conversations, Hailey had some background information on a focus group that we didn’t realize that we were not providing bus route tickets to students who were homeless. We had the 4J, but Looking Glass had their own school. And because of these needs, there were these needs assessments.

[00:13:31] John Q: Each new collaboration snowballed into more resources for the community.

[00:13:37] Sarah Koski: Another group was like, ‘We have all of these resources and all of these phone numbers that you can call to get people immediate needs,’ which is building off of another resource guide. So every time we went to a site, it built this like collaboration snowball effect where—and building the plane as we fly it, right—we’re just building out more projects and more policies and more resources to assist not only internally, but the community externally.

[00:14:02] And one of the biggest needs at Customer Services, there’s a lot of folks that come and again, not our responsibility, but you think about mothers and women and bathrooms, and it’s another conversation for another time, but period poverty is a real thing. And period poverty affects women in a way that is substantial in the streets.

[00:14:22] A brand-new team of street outreach workers and volunteer doulas from Daisy Chain, these young girls donated a whole bunch of period supplies for our customer service teams. So when individuals come to our front counter and have needs, we’re able to give that for free.

[00:14:37] To them, it is like this giant thing. To us, it’s like a little drop in the bucket to everything we do, but it was just such a small, beautiful win.

[00:14:45] Now, talking about big wins.

[00:14:47] John Q: Sarah described a project involving Everyone Village, and Pastor Gabe.

[00:14:51] Sarah Koski: Pastor Gabe is a dynamo. He has lots of ideas and lots of passion, right? When we were looking at the bottles and cans, we had put Everyone Village as a location of where to return bottles and cans. He is the only site in the state outside of under the Burnside Bridge in Portland that is a bottle redemption site that is not an Oregon Bottle Drop redemption site. He has it at his shelter. There’s no limit. I mean you could bring $1,000 worth of cans and he gives you $1,000 in cash because it’s peer-run and peer-led.

[00:15:27] It also means that there’s massive amounts of de-escalation. There’s been no assaults, no fights, no verbal arguments, no banning of individuals like there’s been at other bottle drop locations. So we, Cosette and I, went to Everyone Village and we were talking about, ‘Gosh, let’s look at your bottles and cans, let’s taste, touch, see this whole thing. What birthed was this idea of, ‘Hey, what if we actually had a bus? And instead of people getting on the bus to go to Everyone Village, what if the bus came to the people?’

[00:16:00] Next thing we know, First Baptist Church had donated a bus to Gabe, huge school bus, and then we had a meeting with Oregon Bottle Drop, where we didn’t even have to submit a pitch. He said, ‘I like the idea.’ And the next thing we know, Gabe got a check for $25,000, right? And so just this collaboration, people are excited that these new ideas, new innovation, all of these opportunities coming.

[00:16:27] And at the end, the real emphasis is on the community and the people we love. Pops is a street father to a lot of people. I met him at 410 Garfield. He is as charming as charming can be. I think he’s proposed to me probably six or seven times. The thing that I love about Pops is he has a heart for the young women. He’s considered a street father in which he’s a protector for a lot of the young individuals on the street.

[00:16:53] So Pops has been a resource for LTD and a lived experience advisor when it came to some of the new training that we’ve done on anti-trafficking initiatives.

[00:17:03] John Q: Pops pointed out what to look for, when vulnerable people on the street are being exploited.

[00:17:09] Sarah Koski: Human traffic training, of the signs of labor trafficking, sex trafficking, all these different things. And just to have a room of collaboration where people—they could probably teach me that class—but they were so open and receptive of hearing new ideas. The amount of co-creation, of support, is what I see here at LTD all the time.

[00:17:29] TriMet came to us. They’re changing some of their policies and heard how we preemptively went out and they wanted to hear how we did it.  And because of the work that we were doing, I asked her, I was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this anti-trafficking initiative. Do you have slides? How can I source?’ Because transit has all of these statements on, we’re really effectively looking against trafficking.

[00:17:51] She said, ‘Sarah, LTD is so far ahead of the curve. We haven’t even given our staff training.’ So she and I had determined that we were going to have a monthly check-in and in kind of sharing and just, I can gab quite a bit, she said, ‘Hey, would LTD like to be part of this national transit work group?’ She’s chair of the National Transit and Vulnerable Populations Work Group. And so I just filled out the application for that today.

[00:18:16] It’s a really good reminder of our position in the community, and how when we make a decision of ‘Yes, we want to support marginalized voices,’ or ‘Yes, we potentially want to do this,’ when we make a decision, I didn’t realize the implications that a ripple effect of how other organizations follow.

[00:18:31] John Q: Members of LTD’s Strategic Planning Committee and the Board of Directors praised Sarah and her work.

[00:18:39] Vidal Francis (Strategic Planning Committee member, Oregon Department of Transportation): I’m really encouraged to hear what you’re explaining there. And to be honest with you, from an ODOT perspective, there’s a couple of plays we could learn from your playbook on our end as far as the things that we have to deal with, obviously, with the homeless population and so forth. And I love the fact that folks that you’re interacting with have a very positive tone towards LTD and seeing that there’s help from LTD and supporting them in some form or fashion as they go through their daily lives.

[00:19:09] Alma Hesus (SPC chair, United Way): Thank you. Sarah. Appreciate you being an ambassador for our community, everyone in our community.

[00:19:16] Gino Grimaldi (Board of Directors, president): We’re lucky to have you.

[00:19:18] Susan Cox (Board of Directors, vice president): I appreciate everything you’re doing. And Jameson, I appreciate the fact that you saw the vision of what could be. And when you just see Sarah talking, everybody’s smiling. And I can understand why your outreach to the community is so successful. And any way that we can support your good work…Thank you.

[00:19:39] Pete Knox (Board of Directors): I really appreciate that you’re doing this, and thank you very much for representing our organization well.

[00:19:48] Tiffany Edwards (SPC, Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce): Sarah, it is so great to hear all of the amazing things you’re doing. This, as you mentioned, is very out-of-the-box. This is like an social experiment. And I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody doing anything like this, especially transit whatnot. There seems to me like there’s a lot you could teach other markets and other agencies and just as a way of figuring out how to solve a problem a little bit differently. Because I just hear so many amazing things all the time about the work that you’re doing.

[00:20:19] Heather Buch (SPC, Lane County commissioner): I’m actually just astounded and thrilled that LTD has been able to make this kind of position happen and elevate it to the level that it has in order to really provide for the community.

[00:20:36] Sarah, I’ve heard of your work. We’ve not really spent much time together, but certainly know of all the wonderful things that you have done in our community and really ecstatic to know that you are now working with LTD and elevating a totally different angle to public transportation that a lot of people overlook, but is extremely important.

[00:20:59] And I want to thank Jameson for being willing to really put this together and elevate the issue. I think if our community knew more about what you were doing, they would also be thrilled just to know that public safety—it’s not just a public safety issue. These are customers that are coming and going on LTD and around our community every day.

[00:21:28] So thank you for what you’re doing and thank you to LTD for making a position like this happen.

[00:21:37] Jameson Auten (LTD, CEO): Thank you, Sarah. The one thing I’d like to add as well is, while this is helping us to understand a segment of our community, it’s also helping our frontline employees, our Public Safety employees, our operators to understand how to handle certain things that come up. It also helps to support them in ways that they need support.

[00:22:00] I think our community has changed over the last few years and our employees need a different level of support and this helps in that regard as well. So we’re proud of the work that you do and I look forward to seeing it keep going.

[00:22:13] John Q: LTD hears from its very first community resource liaison, Sarah Koski, who shares a progress report on her first six months. She invites folks to stop into her office to talk or just say hi the next time you’re at Eugene’s Downtown Station.

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