Homeless students find Refuge with Vancouver couple

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

The Refuge

Local faith-based activist David Bilby and his family launched a nonprofit that places promising homeless students with volunteering host families so the kids can finish high school.

TO LEARN MORE

A public information session about The Refuge is set for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11 at City Harvest Church, 8100 N.W. Ninth Ave. in Hazel Dell.

The 10 o'clock curfew is strange. The whole family sitting down to a meal is really strange. Parents and siblings who want to know your daily news, who discuss your triumphs and troubles with clear eyes and caring hearts while politely passing the butter: beyond bizarre.

"It was so weird and I felt so out of place," Jose Ramirez, 20, said of the first time he broke bread with the Bilby family. "It was never a thing before, eating together at the kitchen table. But it was good."

Tayler O'Bryant, 19, said it was a big but welcome change for him, too. "This becomes who you are," he said.

Like calling David and Diana Bilby "mom" and "pops." Those titles are informal, not legal — and the fact that Jose and Tayler requested permission to use them underlines how solid and affectionate this uniquely blended family has become. Diana said the OK was given only after it was clear that use of those familiar names came with "higher standards and rules," like those weekday curfews, a strong focus on schoolwork and graduation — and lots of dialogue.

"I cried on her shoulder, one time," Jose said of his new mom, Diana. It's not an image you normally associate with a rough-looking dude substantially covered in gang tatoos.

"We've accepted him for who he is and what his past is," Diana said. "But because it is so very different from what we've known, there are challenges."

Disastrous result

The Bilbys started putting their heartfelt Christian faith into practice a few years back with efforts such as Compassion Vancouver, a network of churches that hosts free medical clinics every year, and their own nonprofit, GoConnect, which aimed at first to organize volunteers for low-key tasks including performing yardwork for the elderly.

They also started reaching out, personally, to homeless people they met. They had nearly lost their east Vancouver home to foreclosure but managed to modify the mortgage and come out OK; after that, David Bilby said, he felt obliged to share his blessing with people less fortunate than he was.

Lovely idea, disastrous consequences: The homeless couple they faithfully housed took advantage of them. There was trouble with the law and David is convinced drug dealing went on under his roof. These days he slaps his forehead over the episode, which cost him money and, he realized, put his children at risk, too.

"Probably one of the most irresponsible things we've ever done," he said.

But getting burned didn't cure the Bilbys of compassion. They started hearing from the family resource specialists and counselors at local schools who'd caught wind of their efforts to extend real, practical help to the homeless.

Specialists like Carol Boyden, homeless liaison for Washougal schools, who said there are approximately 70 homeless or "couch surfing" students in her area; and Peggy Carlson, homeless liaison for Evergreen Public Schools, who said she's got more than 600. Of that number, Carlson added, about 75 are "unaccompanied," meaning there are no parents on the scene at all.

Boyden said she's known teen girls who were living in a nearby forest camp. She once emerged from a late meeting to find some kids still loitering around school at nearly 10 p.m.; when she told them to go home already, they replied there was no such place. They liked coming to school, they said, because it's warm and dry and provides breakfast and lunch. They hated vacations, she learned.

"I'm incredibly impressed with these kids because they come to school despite" significant obstacles in their way, Boyden said. At least some were trying hard to succeed because they realized it was the way out of their predicament, she said.

These school officials urged the Bilbys to try again with some deserving students they believed in. Just get more cautious and formal this time, they said: Do your research. Protect yourselves. Build a program.

Last year, the Bilbys launched The Refuge as an arm of GoConnect, focused on finding "host families" willing and able to take in homeless high school students who are legal adults and on track to graduate. Eighteen- to 21-year-olds who are plodding towards graduation — truly motivated but tripped up by poverty, busted-up families and homelessness — aren't that rare, David said. But they inhabit a gray zone, according to Carlson, where public assistance for needy children is no longer available, and neither are adult opportunities and resources. And these young adults don't even have the advantage of a high school diploma yet.

"There's not a lot of safety net for these older students," said Chelsea Unger, family resource coordinator at Hudson's Bay High School. "If not for The Refuge, I don't know where they would go."

The Bilbys themselves became The Refuge's first host family.

Rough starts

Jose Ramirez grew up "in a bad home" in Merced County, Calif., he said. Gangs, drug addiction and jail were his family's culture. He was a gangster himself by age 12. He's got a criminal record and once spent time in a "suicide cell," he said. When some friends moved to Vancouver, he decided to escape as well. His charming smile and easy manner made him a natural leader at Legacy High School — but at home there was still trouble, and Jose was semi-homeless at the beginning of his senior year, in autumn 2013.

His insight: "No matter how high and drunk you get, when you're sober, your problems are still there." It was a school counselor who first called David to alert him to a talented and promising student only in need of some help and stability. The counselor kept calling even after hearing not just "no" but "no way!" at first.

"She was a bulldog," David said.

Jose started out living in the Bilbys' curtained-off dining room; eventually they cleared a real bedroom for him. When they received a call about another promising young man in need of a stable, supportive situation, Jose promptly volunteered to share his bedroom.

Tayler O'Bryant is a local boy who describes himself as a "knucklehead" when it comes to getting along with people. "I have a hard time learning things sometimes," he said, "and I sort of put my foot in my mouth a lot."

He was thrown out of the house and stayed with a friend. Then he got thrown out of that house. Then he got thrown out of another house. "I never had anyone helping me," Tayler said. "I would just get kicked out and kicked out." But somewhere along the line he started slowly realizing that "something needs to change." It was his girlfriend's mother who started a chain of phone calls that ended with the Bilbys, he said.

When the family got that first call for help for Jose, they did what they didn't do the first time around: convene a meeting to discuss it — the parents and all four children.

"At first I said no," said Meagan Bilby, 19. The previous homeless folks they tried to help "used us." She didn't want to share her parents with strangers, she said. She liked the status quo.

But her conscience came back at her: "Who am I to say he doesn't deserve a second chance? He wants to graduate from high school despite all these things working against him. I didn't have that. I've always been comfortable. Maybe sometimes you have to be uncomfortable."

That goes for the two newcomers, too. "I hadn't really experienced a lot of communication and openness like this," Tayler said. He and Diana both laughed about a time when the iffy subject of sex came up; Diana wanted answers and Tayler wasn't sure, in this untested new situation, whether it was OK to retort, gently: "It's none of your business."

Those sorts of challenges have not gone away over the year. In many ways, Diana said, they've grown more complicated and challenging.

"We're not just a house for them. It's a family," she said. That can mean "hours of conversation," she added with a laugh. "I get in their faces. I make 'em talk."

Which is exactly what The Refuge aims to provide. It's not just room and board, David said. It's caring and involvement. It's social as well as physical needs. If it's not a literal, legal family, it's not far off from that either.

"We like to call them 'host families,' " David said. "Really what they are doing is creating new families."

Rules, rewards

There's a difference, though. These families come with written agreements and legal accountability. There are background checks, training sessions and insurance requirements for host families and random, ongoing urinalyses for the students — as well as whatever other rules and agreements the two parties work out.

Every match begins with a 90-day trial period. This is tricky business, David said, and some matches just don't work out.

"You have to be willing to take a risk," Diana said. "There's no guarantee." Even the matches that do work out — like Jose, Tayler and the Bilbys — "are hard," Diana added. "It's just hard. There's no way around that."

Crucially, David said, student referrals need to come from school officials who know and believe in the kids they select. Nobody comes to The Refuge without a recommendation.

"We are looking for the cream of the crop," he said. "We're definitely not looking for kids who just want a place to crash for a while." As The Refuge's case manager, he said, "I am looking for their commitment to get things done. I'm looking for a trajectory change."

Under David's supervision, host families and their students negotiate individual rental agreements and other house rules. Room and board for the school year is the bare minimum expected of host families; that may extend through the summer. Most students don't have jobs or incomes, but rental agreements can include token rent payments — which would help the students establish real rental histories — as well as normal household chores, if desired. Some of the students may bring benefits including food stamps.

"You are not expected to become a foster parent," David said — but a friendly "mentoring" relationship is just fine. And if it grows into something even warmer and more solid, that's great.

Accomplishments, challenges

Jose just graduated from Legacy High School and plans to study diesel technology at Clark College this fall; it's not yet clear whether he'll keep living with the Bilbys. He's also taking anger management classes, and David is driving him to tattoo-removal appointments. Meanwhile, Tayler is on track to graduate at the end of summer and plans to study restaurant management. Both young men have jobs — Jose works at a bakery and Tayler is a cashier at a big-box store — and both are looking for more work as well.

And David, who is pursuing a master's degree in global development and justice at Multnomah University, is looking to grow The Refuge, which has launched impressively but still has little "capacity," he said — that is, dollars and host families to make it all work. Right now there are just five students placed with host families through The Refuge, he said.

On June 15, Tayler posted on David's Facebook page: "Happy fathers day pops you have been like a father to me and (I'm) blessed to have met you I hope you have a great day!"

"Really, I have seen their hearts change," David said. "The two kids I've got here today are different than the ones who first came here."