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Over 30 years, issues have ebbed and flowed, creating new programs

Marilee Roloff is always glad to show the books in her office.

For the 30 years that Marilee Roloff has worked with Volunteers of America (VOA) of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, she has seen issues ebb and flow.  One year’s cause célèbre became forgotten after a few years.

When she started, a big issue in the state and national levels was street kids.  Interest waned.  Now it’s back.

“The State Legislature passed the Homeless Youth Act of 2015 to encourage focus on prevention and on developing more effective models than just sheltering youth.  Now the focus will be on transitional housing,” she said.

Marilee advocated for the law, along with Trudi Inslee, the governor’s wife, who led the effort.  Two Seattle foundations will hire a director to help mobilize the Homeless Youth Program.

“Through the years, churches have kept up their interest and been a great support for Crosswalk,” Marilee said.  “They continue to serve meals and help with projects.”

For many years, there was little attention to veterans or chronically homeless people.  In the last five years, interest has grown.

“We have two homes for veterans.  Goodwill Industries has support services for veterans and their families,” she said.

For the chronically homeless, VOA and Catholic Charities are building two 50-unit buildings to house homeless people.  Marilee will continue with VOA until they are built next summer.

“Some things are the same.  We have committed staff and volunteers.  People miraculously appear,” she said.  “Their quality has not changed.

“I’ve been surrounded by caring people—staff, volunteers, clients and donors,” said Marilee. 

“Congregations have been consistent at Crosswalk, Hope House and Veterans Housing,” she said.  “Hundreds of churches are involved in some way—from serving a meal to painting Alexandria house.  There are many ways to help.”

Volunteer diversity ranges from sixth graders from All Saints School serving tortellini soup to retired people preparing food.

Government and private funders now place more emphasis on demonstrating outcomes, Marilee said.  One criterion is housing stability, assuring someone is still housed a year later, either in the shelter, transitional housing or long-term housing.

“The goal is to stop the cycle of people moving in and out of homelessness,” she said.

Another outcome expected is for people to be employed or receiving regular social services.

A third expectation is for people with mental health issues to be stabilized and to have income, so they are not wandering the streets.

Marilee is inspired to see many become healthier, finish school and go into drug treatment.

“Working with the people we serve, however, we realize some can’t get better, but we can’t give up on even the most difficult people,” she said.  “Some have too many strong difficulties, and we can just hold hands.”

Success varies individually.

For some, it may be that they go out of their apartment to play bingo or go to a potluck.  For others, it may be to coming to the lobby to take a turn answering the phone.  For still others, it may be agreeing to go to counseling.

“I learn something every week,” she said.

Recently a resident was having a psychotic breakdown with hallucinations and making threats.

“Most of us were concerned about safety and thought of calling the police,” Marilee said. “One staff member, however, suggested that we realize how frightened that person must be.”

That helped defuse the situation.

“I’ve also learned that there’s no magic solution that works for everyone.  Everyone is different and needs something different,” Marilee said.  “We see that with our children.  They have different needs, personalities and insecurities.  We can’t paint with a broad brush, but every day there are new adventures and possibilities in what might work.”

She also finds that the mental health system is now more nimble and adaptive to individual needs.

“We understand that both mental health and physical symptoms connect with housing,” she said.  “How can someone be healthy if he or she does not have a place to live?”

Marilee also sees mental health improving as more case managers go to where people are living.  If someone is unemployed, it’s not just a matter of talking, but finding a home and a job.  Or it may require sending someone to a dentist.

“Mental health issues range from the not so serious to very serious,” she said.  “It’s an area of people’s lives that needs attention.”

She said announcing her retirement early energizes her to decide what she wants to do.

Marilee, who grew up in Creston in a stable family and attended Washington State University, served with VISTA for a year working with low-income seniors and teens in Spokane.  She finished studies in political science at Eastern Washington University in 1973.  She worked in Seattle, then Wenatchee and back to Seattle with a program for street kids.  While working with that program, she met former VOA Spokane director Ken Trent, who wanted to start a street kids program in Spokane and hired her in March 1985.  Crosswalk opened in November 1985.

“VISTA was a turning point in my life.  Wearing overalls, I followed Sr. Lois Marie, SNJM, who wore a habit, visiting single-room occupancy, low-income housing to find people who were sick, hungry or lonely,” she said.  “We began a senior services program in a small center on Madison, where we served lunch.

“Now there are all kinds of senior services,” said Marilee, adding that when someone died, Sr. Lois Marie rented a bus to take seniors one-and-a half blocks to Our Lady of Lourdes for a memorial service and brought them back for cake and ice cream.  “Everyone knew we would do the same for them.  It was a powerful lesson in how important it is for people who are lonely to know they will not be forgotten.”

In her family and community, she never feared being alone.

“I had a strong foundation in faith.  I was taught that we are to love one another, take care of the poor and that Jesus loves us,” she said.  “I’ve learned that other faiths also have strong beliefs.  It hurts to see fighting among religious groups.”

The motto of VOA, a nondenominational organization, is “to go wherever we are needed and do whatever comes to hand,” Marilee said.  “Our mission is to uplift all people, not just recipients, but also the givers.  One day, someone may be a recipient, and another day that person may be a giver.”

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Copyright © December 2015 - The Fig Tree