Cottage Grove Cares: Carry It Forward

“It almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as we all do something.”

— Arwen Maas-Despain, Carry It Forward Founder

December 15 - From coast-to-coast, the homeless crisis in America is growing and the burden on small rural towns with limited resources grows heavier each year. Local government leaders at the city and county level need monetary support from the state and federal levels and operational support from local nonprofit organizations such as Carry It Forward to adequately address the crisis.

Carry it Forward (CIF) is a grassroots, nonprofit organization based in Eugene. It addresses the housing and homelessness problem on multiple fronts, seeking solutions at the individual, organizational, and larger systemic levels. Its programs are actively informed by the population it serves. Approximately 31% of CIF employees are un-housed or have personally experienced homelessness.

The organization’s work is designed to reduce suffering by meeting basic needs while developing a sustainable employment model that engages un-housed individuals in working toward their own goals and helping the community.

The genesis of the organization is a 2015 icy rainstorm. CIF founder, Arwen Maas-Despain, put out a call on Facebook for donations from the community to help people on the street survive the night. They distributed three carloads packed with sleeping bags, clothes, tents, tarps and food wherever they could find people out in the cold. The Good Samaritans posted their experience online and unprompted donations continued to flow in. After a year of regular distribution, they decided to create a nonprofit and expand their services.

How to address the growing homeless situation in Cottage Grove continues to be a controversial topic of discussion. When the divided city council approved the plan to use city-owned property on Highway 99 to establish a homeless camp using the 33 pallet shelters it obtained with pandemic funds, the next step was to hire an organization to manage the shelter.

On Sept. 22, CIF was the only responder to the city’s Request for Proposals to operate a homeless shelter. Four days later, the Cottage Grove City Council signed a two-year personal services agreement with CIF. The estimated budget was $153,993 for the nine months remaining in the 2022-23 fiscal year and $204,370 for the 2023-24 budget year. The contract cannot exceed $200,000.

CIF began operating the site on Oct.10 with seven couples. Currently all but three units are filled.

The organization has worked within the Cottage Grove Community on a limited basis for the past 2 years and has a six-year history in serving un-housed people in Lane County. The contract requires 24/7 staff and monitored oversight of the shelter facility for Cottage Grove residents and to prohibit substance abuse and violence at the site.

Each resident in the Highway 99 Shelter receives three meals daily, case management, vocational programming and community support. CIF has an extensive list of partners and organizations in the community and the metro area that provide services to homeless youth and adults. New partnerships will be developed as needed. They have created an impressive network of partners and organizations in the last six years to assist those in the Highway 99 Shelter.

CIF Executive Director Kris McAlister is a Springfield native who has spent most of his life in that community. His homeless experience as a youth inspired his calling as a social justice advocate for disadvantaged people. For the last 20 years, he has served on boards of organizations focused on homelessness issues, medical access, poverty intervention, disability, and youth. He has received numerous community awards for his deep commitment to serving others.

In six years, CIF has evolved into a dynamic, well-networked, solution-based organization. Its “barrier busters” operates three sites and one shelter in Eugene and involves its clients in vocational skill training, building tiny homes and restoring used RVs that can be reassigned when the current residents move into permanent housing.

McAlister said much has been done to get the Highway 99 Shelter up and running. Once the construction of the inside showers is complete the facility will be fully operational. The shower trailer from Community Sharing was temporarily moved to the shelter to meet the hygiene needs there.

This low-barrier style shelter serves individuals who are Cottage Grove residents or those who receive social services locally. There is no drug testing, and each person is asked three questions during the intake assessment: How long have you lived in Cottage Grove? Do you receive community resources in Cottage Grove? Why is Cottage Grove better suited to meet your needs?

“We’ve learned to avoid problems by not putting strangers with strangers and allowing single occupancy of the unit, except for couples,” McAlister said. “We can’t do high-need placements, but remain committed to problem-solving with those we can’t help, and we’ve referred seven people to services in the Eugene/Springfield area. We want to work with those who are good neighbors and abide by the rules.”

The shelter rules are basic: Treat the unit like a bedroom with no going in-and-out of other people’s units. Pick up after yourself and be respectful of others when using shared spaces. Abusing substances on-site is prohibited. City staff remodeled the building to offer a kitchen, pantry, laundry room, showers, two bathrooms, and meeting rooms for group meetings and case management assistance with other organizations.

McAlister describes the Cottage Grove model as unique and organic.

“We have established great local partnerships with city staff, police officers and community groups,” he said. “Once all the construction is done, we can begin working with the churches that have offered to serve hot meals. We are planning to create a meditation garden and a food garden. I believe our clients are being set-up for success.”

To learn more about CIF or to contact its staff, visit