The air is warm and humid, sunlight beating down on the old concrete, exposing all the small cracks and deep fissures, age marks on paved earth. Dogs barking behind a chain link fence add little to the cacophony of sound that is Highway 99 West. The parking lot is full, packed with old minivans and sedans serving as temporary homes for many of the people sitting on the worn curb.
Behind them is a one-story building, seemingly modeled after every school built in the 1970’s. Tall windowpanes sandwiched by brick, an obtusely angled roof aiming at the sky, and a small courtyard by the front entrance, picnic tables and wind chimes hanging from the branches of a tree. This is the St. Vincent de Paul Lindholm Service Center.
A man’s voice says, “If you step back, you’ve got to spring forward.” He is tall, but that is somewhat of an understatement of his build. He is a towering man, around 6 foot 5” give or take, with wide shoulders, yet his presence is relaxed and light hearted. “Keith Heath. It rhymes.” So it does. Heath is 46, but looks slightly younger, his face full of youthful energy. He is dressed in blue jeans, a black t-shirt covered by a stylish black leather jacket and an old Oregon Ducks baseball cap.
Originally from Buffalo, New York, Heath moved to Eugene 12 years ago with his wife to help take care of his father-in-law, who was terminally ill. “Here we are 12 years later,” he chuckled.
Heath has been working as manager at the service center for the last seven years and runs an overnight parking program. The service center is a lifeboat for many people in the area. They serve the homeless and those who are barely scraping by in the crippling recession by serving hot food through Food For Lane County and providing a free laundry facility.
He has a desk in the corner of the main room. It looks like a small scale version of a school cafeteria, tables with matching benches, racks of yellowing fluorescent tubes inset in the paneled ceiling and cubbies lining the walls where the homeless can stow their bags. It’s obvious that Heath has a deep connection with the people he sees day to day. “To be honest, it’s just like a family,” he says.
“Hey, what about that 30% you owe me?” a man, only identified as ‘Mike’ jokes from across the nearest table. Heath let out a loud laugh and looks back. “Any neighborhood…the people define it. A Lot of people don’t like the homeless.” He panned with his eyes around the room. He continues, “For most of them, it’s temporary,” although around the room, he is able to point out many people who have been coming in for years. One older couple, George and Sandra, have been living in a car. “But they’re makin’ it,” Heath points out. “We’re here if they need us.”
When he came into this position, there were fights between the homeless and problems with squatters, and even now, an employee interrupts him to let him know that two of the patrons were acting “Less than modestly”. But most of that has changed since he took over. “Never a dull moment at this service station,” he smiles. The troublemakers are a small minority and there is a sense of mutual respect between patrons and the workers. “When I’m here, I’m constantly looking around,” Something he contributes to his time in New York.
In addition to keeping order, there is a constant struggle for funding. “In a perfect world, I’d like to come up with a large sum of money to create an alternative to the mission to get more people off the streets.” But housing and career programs have been cut in recent years, and most funding goes to family programs, rather than individuals.
“There’s a certain amount of stressed you allow your self to be,” He said, casually leaning forward. “I enjoy helping people.” If there is one thing to take away from this experience, it is that helping your fellow man is something to take pride in. Heath puts it perfectly, “We’re all only a paycheck away from this.”