Norman Vincent, 68, had to fight back tears when several residents of The Dalles showed up at his motel room door on Feb. 19 to deliver a motorized wheelchair.
After all, a Navy veteran is supposed to be stalwart and not show emotion.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair for so long,” said Vincent. “I think very much of this. I did my time and I paid taxes all my life and now I need a little help.”
Standing at the door of the mostly barren room in Hamilton Veteran Housing, a former motel on West Second Street, was Timothy McGlothlin, a city councilor and chair of an ad hoc group seeking to help the homeless.
With him was Andretta Schellinger, a veteran advocate who is working with Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler and others to establish Spruce Village, a tiny housing project for the homeless.
Schellinger’s husband, Jon, an Army combat veteran, was also present, as was Ron McHale, a member of The Dalles Lions Club who had offered help.
He and McGlothlin had mounted a two-day fundraising effort to raise $1,000 to cover the cost of purchasing Vincent a gently-owned chair and providing it with new batteries and accessories, such as a wire basket that could carry his groceries.
“Would you mind if I did a wheelie?” asked Vincent after being shown by McGlothlin how to work the controls of the chair.
Vincent has lived in the motel for a couple of months, after spending about 18 months in Hood River.
“I moved here for the housing,” he said.
The chair was not the only gift that Vincent received from local residents. A neighboring tenant gave him a television that is currently sitting on the floor.
However, Skyler Moffett, a student at The Dalles High School, is making him a television stand. The teen already worked with the shop class to construct a table that accommodates Vincent’s wheelchair.
“Making connections is important. There have been people stepping up to make his life a little better and that’s what community is all about,” said McGlothlin, a retired educator and school principal.
The efforts to help Vincent began almost three weeks ago when McGlothlin observed Vincent struggling to get his manually operated wheelchair up the grade by the skatepark.
“He had turned his chair around and was pushing with his feet to get it uphill so I decided to stop and ask if I could help,” said McGlothlin.
Vincent was trying to get to the nearby stores so McGlothlin pushed him up the incline before resuming his errands for the day.
About a week later, the same scenario played out, only this time a car came speeding around the corner as McGlothlin was trying to get Vincent’s wheelchair across the street.
Although there was no collision, that near-miss led McGlothlin to buy an orange safety flag for Vincent’s chair.
“I asked him why the VA wasn’t helping him and he said that he hadn’t been in combat or injured in the military so he didn’t qualify for a motorized chair,” said McGlothlin.
A catastrophic accident after Vincent left the Navy, where he served four years during the Vietnam era, led to his disability.
After stewing about Vincent’s predicament, McGlothlin decided that something needed to be done.
“I told him that I’d look into it,” he said.
Enlisting the support of Andretta, McGlothlin shared Vincent’s story on KODL radio and provided his cell phone number if people wanted to help.
He then began pricing wheelchairs, finally finding an ad that looked promising on Gorge Network’s website.
Within two days, McGlothlin had raised enough money to cover the purchase. He wanted to provide Vincent with a “hand-up” and not a “handout,” so the proud new owner of the chair was asked, and agreed, to cover $200 of the costs in $50 per month installments.
“It’s the little things like this that make a person’s life better,” said McGlothlin.
He said Vincent has a whole new outlook on life because he knows that people care about him.
“He’s been saying that he’s going to go out and cruise for women now,” smiled McGlothlin.
On another front, McGlothlin is busy trying to figure out ways to help the homeless population in The Dalles as chair of an ad hoc group dedicated to that mission.
Whether people follow the biblical instruction to take care of those in poverty and need, or are just led there by a sense of humanity, he said opportunities will present themselves to provide help.
Members of his group, which has grown from six to 26 since last fall, have been coordinating with St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits and agencies to provide services.
“Their stories are all different, all unique,” said McGlothlin. “They come from all socio-economic walks of life — one man that I met had been an attorney — and many went through some type of a catastrophic event that led them to the streets.”
The first order of business, he said, is not to approach any situation with a sense of judgement.
“Most people are ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ when dealing with the homeless, that’s the existence they have,” said McGlothlin.
Some of the homeless self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and McGlothlin’s group, which does not yet have a name, is leaving it up to the professionals to deal with these issues, as well as mental health challenges.
By and large, McGlothlin said the resident homeless are self-policing and, unlike transients who are just moving through the community, they want a shelter to stay in and a stable supply of food and water — the basics.
They also rejoice in any opportunity to be valued as human beings.
“A homeless person has the same aspirations as anyone else — they want to fit in and be a part of things,” said McGlothlin.
Homelessness becomes a vicious cycle for those who want to rebuild their lives, he said, because they have to overcome so many obstacles.
These challenges include a lack of funds to pay the deposit for a rental and some have even lost their identification, which makes rebuilding a life that much harder.
“We’re not going to find a solution for this because it’s been here for thousands of years, but we can help those who are helpable,” said McGlothlin.
He said the faith-based community in Wasco County can be a big part of the solution and he would like to see area churches work together on the common cause.
“We need more long-range planning,” said McGlothlin.
Topping his group’s to-do list is scoring lockers and lining up a place to store them so people on the street have a safe place to leave possessions.
“They don’t have much but it’s everything they need to survive so it means everything to them,” said McGlothlin.
He invites people wanting to help find solutions about how to deal with The Dalles homeless population, or meeting the needs of people like Vincent on fixed incomes, to call city hall at 541-296-5481 and leave him a message.
“We just want to be able to help provide people with basic needs and, perhaps, just a little bit of friendship. I’ve discovered that really goes a long way.”