If Steve and Debbie Votaw didn’t know it before, they know it now: always be flexible, because in sometimes in business, things turn out differently from what you plan.
Steve Votaw puts some finishing touches on curbside landscaping outside Third Street Station. Votaw and his wife Debbie bought the former Twin Firs Retirement Center in 2003, did extensive remodeling, and gradually turned it into a transitional housing facility. Observer photos/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
In September 2004, the Votaws bought the former Twin Firs Retirement Center on Third Street, planning to transform it into a sort of boarding house, primarily for college students.
The couple thought the place with its 16 residential rooms plus kitchen facilities would help alleviate La Grande’s seasonal housing shortage.Instead, it has become a busy — very busy — transitional housing facility for people with special needs. Unexpectedly enough, the Votaws are running a social service-based business, providing people with a place to stay as they work to piece their lives together.
“Our clients are people who have fallen through the cracks and need some time as they strive to become self sufficient,” Debbie Votaw, Third Street Station’s office manager, said.
The Votaws aren’t sure exactly when or how the change took place. “It kind of morphed,” said Steve.
After Third Street Station had been open for a while, the Votaws started getting calls from public agencies and private charitable organizations. The calls had to do with people who were in need of a place to stay.
The Votaws found themselves providing rooms for clients on parole or probation, people with mental illness, people with physical disabilities, veterans without jobs or homes.
The couple did their best to accommodate. Eventually, they developed strong working relationships with the Department of Human Services, the Center for Human Development, Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, Shelter from the Storm domestic violence crisis intervention service, and Community Corrections, which oversees people on parole or probation.
They also work closely with area churches and community groups like Neighbor To Neighbor.
“We have had calls from the court where they’re releasing people but will release only to us. It’s an awesome responsibility,” Debbie said.
As time went on, the facility filled to capacity. It remains filled today. By now, about 600 clients have roomed at Third Street Station.
The owners say a problem now is keeping up with the requests for lodging that that keep coming in.
“In 2007, we had to turn away about one person a day, and this year, it’s been more than that,” said Steve.
Clients stay in either single or double-occupancy rooms, and additionally there is a dorm for men. Two serve Site Coordinator Renada Galligar. Steve Votaw conducts classes on budgeting; other people come in to teach classes on various subjects.
One immediate advantage for clients is the ability to list a permanent address. Without that, it is difficult to overcome some of life’s simplest problems.
“They can’t get identification, and they can’t get food stamps,” said Debbie.
People staying at Third Street Station do so on their best behavior. Alcohol and drug use is forbidden. Misconduct can result in eviction.
“We make it clear up front that we’ll try to work with people, but they can be out in 10 minutes if there’s risk to the safety of others,” Debbie said.
Most clients understand and follow the rules. Steve said only about 10-15 people of the 600 who have stayed at the facility have been asked to leave.
In October 2006, the Votaws went into social services for good, forming a non-profit corporation called Stepping Stone Foundation. Funding comes from contracts with agencies, rent paid by clients, grants, and contributions from the community. This year the foundation was approved for some funding from United Way of Eastern Oregon.
Stepping Stone’s board of directors is staffed by representatives from DHS, CHD, Community Connection, Community Corrections and other private and public agencies that sponsor clients.
Third Street Station, according to the Votaws, is a unique transitional house because it serves people with diverse needs.
“It isn’t just for the developmentally disabled, or for those dealing with alcohol and drug abuse, or for people on parole. It cuts across all those communities, and more,” Debbie said.
Though their business model took a drastic change when they decided to go into social services, the Votaws have no regrets. They feel like they are making a solid contribution to the community.
“It’s wonderful to be able to say you’re making a difference,” said Debbie.