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Difference Maker

Erik de Buhr builds huts for the homeless – but eventually gives them a 'loving shove'

The 6-by-10-foot dwellings provide people who have been living on the streets a safe place to sleep and put together a plan.

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    Erik and Fay de Buhr, who run Community Supported Shelters in Eugene, Ore., stand in front of one of their huts for homeless people.
    Gail Wood
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Erik de Buhr’s ambition has never been to pull down a big paycheck each week. His search for purpose has had more to do with having a positive impact. “I wanted to find a way to make a difference in my community,” he says.

Mr. de Buhr, a chatty, easygoing man who grew up here in Eugene, Ore., has found his dream job in the construction industry. Today he uses his skills to build huts, 6-by-10-foot dwellings.

Then he gives them away.

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For the past three years, these small dwellings have become a home for the homeless in Eugene.

“When I look around and ask what do I want to do in society, nothing [else] appeals to me,” de Buhr says. “That’s why we went into business for ourselves. We want to do what we can to make our community a better place for everybody.”

Teaming up with 12 local churches, de Buhr and his wife, Fay, are giving people who have been living on the streets a safe place to sleep. So far they’ve placed 49 huts in the community, serving 100-plus homeless people.

De Buhr, founder and director of the nonprofit group Community Supported Shelters (CSS), calls his program a hand up, not a handout. He’s careful not to take away the motivation of the people he’s helping to better themselves.

“We make people comfortable but not too comfortable,” de Buhr says. “We know of other programs that make them too comfortable and that makes them stuck.”

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When a person’s needs are too well met, he says, the question they ask themselves is, “Why move?”

“The drive to improve your situation comes from, and has always come from, not being comfortable,” de Buhr says. “Not being comfortable is not a bad thing.”

Along with providing temporary housing for the homeless, CSS also provides a bridge to other programs. Whether the need is drug rehabilitation or job training, getting eyeglasses or going to a dentist, de Buhr and the churches he partners with can point the way.

The emphasis is always on the next step. “We foster a culture of self-improvement in the camps,” de Buhr says. “That’s what’s rewarded in our camps.”

The idea is to move homeless people from needing assistance to living on their own.

“We encourage people to find ways not to be a burden on the social services,” de Buhr says. “And also for their own well-being not to become dependent on those social services.”

But in some situations those services are very much needed, he agrees, such as for people with ongoing disabilities or mental health problems.

“But if you have the capacity to improve your situation, and also live with a certain self-confidence, that’s what we want to see,” de Buhr says.

The huts themselves are simple shells made from reused, salvaged, donated, and new materials to help keep costs low. The door is lockable, and there’s a window in the rear panel. The huts are insulated. Cots and bedding are supplied by the churches. Portable toilets are made available near the huts.

The churches that partner with de Buhr have agreed to put the huts on their properties and provide food. De Buhr has also partnered with the city of Eugene and provided huts at two rest spots the city has put up, about six huts at each site.

Robert Owen, a disabled veteran, credits CSS for helping him get through a tough time. Mr. Owen, unable to work because of a physical disability, was homeless. He found the hand up that he needed through CSS.

“Because of them I had a place to sleep,” he says. “That meant that there was no more of the vicious daily cycle that a homeless person has. I was able to focus on a bunch of other, more important stuff from what I was doing before.”

Owen, who stayed in one of de Buhr’s camps from March to October of 2014, now lives in a farmhouse outside Eugene. He stayed at the camp until his disability checks started to come.

“I have nothing but appreciation and adulation for him,” Owen says. “He’s a good guy. They should make a statue of that guy. He’s tolerant. He’s reasonable. He’s logical. And he’s sensitive. He’s a pretty sympathetic person.”

Every week or two, de Buhr leads a group to a city park to pick up trash. Owen was impressed that de Buhr didn’t just stand idly by, telling people what to do. He helped pick up the trash, too.

“He’s the coolest guy on the planet,” Owen says.

Since 2013, when CSS began, 67 people have moved through the program and on to better situations. At the same time, 23 people have been evicted from the program because of a lack of cooperation.

Reading from his stat sheet, de Buhr says there also have been seven people who were first evicted but then later transitioned on to a better situation. For them, the eviction was a helpful prompt.

“This is a very complicated thing,” de Buhr says, putting down the stat sheet. “Sometimes if you do the eviction at the right time and hang on to the clients, and at the right time when we know something is going to open up for them, we evict them to motivate them.”

Without the eviction, they probably would have stayed in the hut program.

“It’s kind of like a loving shove,” de Buhr says.

De Buhr – in addition to being part humanitarian, part carpenter, and part coach – is also part fundraiser, along with his wife. CSS relies on donations and, more recently, government grants, with about 100 donors a year.

The total CSS budget last year was $50,000, which covered construction materials and some income for de Buhr, who doesn’t have many personal expenses. He, Fay, and their 6-year-old son live in a 6-by-10-foot hut behind their renovated office building.

“We live in ... the backyard,” de Buhr says, pointing toward the back of their building. Next door to them are six other huts, temporary homes for homeless people.

De Buhr doesn’t confine himself to a 40-hour workweek. He and Fay often work seven days a week, helping homeless people.

“He loves what he’s doing,” says Ariel Master, who volunteers a couple of times a month to help with CSS’s bookkeeping. “He’s making a difference.”

Art and Sharlene Toler got involved with CSS after de Buhr put up a shelter in downtown Eugene. Because it had ramps Mr. Toler could ride his wheelchair into the hut. The Tolers had met de Buhr at First Christian Church, through their pastor. They lived in that hut for nine months and now have an apartment.

“Erik is really a great guy,” Ms. Toler says. “It’s really a good chance for people who are homeless to be able to have somebody that they can look up to and have someone they can rely on to help them get back into the community and get them into housing.”

De Buhr says he’s rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing that he’s helped people like Owen and the Tolers.

He tells the story of a homeless man with a 5-year-old son who was living on Skid Row in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks.

“He was on a temporary disability income,” de Buhr says. “But his disability income wasn’t enough to live on in L.A.”

So the man went online, did some research, and found an inexpensive place to live: It was in Eugene – in one of de Buhr’s huts.

“While he’s looking for work, he’s been working for us now and then,” de Buhr says. “He’s trying to save up to get his own place.”

• To learn more, visit www.communitysupportedshelters.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that help those in need:

Let Kids Be Kids Inc. advocates for people who have a desire to be heard but may not have a voice. Project: Provide vital supplies for homeless people.

Children of the Night is dedicated to rescuing America’s children from prostitution. Take action: Volunteer to organize an activity day for children.

Asia America Initiative works for peace, social justice, and economic development in impoverished, conflict-ridden communities. Its programs bring communities together. Take action: Provide refugee relief in Mindanao, Philippines.

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