Meet Zelima: One of ShelterCare’s Lead Housing Specialists

When Mr. Rogers was a boy, he said his mother often encouraged him to focus on “the helpers” when he saw scary things happening in the news. “Always look for the people who are helping,” she would tell him. “You will always find someone who is trying to help.” 

Behind every tragic story is an energetic, selfless individual who is helping. Someone who relentlessly gives their all, and does everything they can to make a difference in another person’s life. I know this, because I get to wake up and go to work with 88 of these helpers every day. This season, we want to take you behind the scenes; into the world of a helper named Zelima Dempsey. Zelima is one of the Lead Housing Specialists for ShelterCare’s Permanent Supported Housing Program (PSH)

 Within PSH, Zelima oversees the Sahalie, Birch, and Camas housing projects — which all aim to help our community’s most vulnerable population. Sahalie provides subsidized permanent housing to chronically homeless individuals who are Lane County’s most “frequent utilizers” of hospitals, police services, and other emergency services; Birch provides housing to individuals who have received an “aid and assist” court order, which is given to defendants who are unable to participate in their own legal defense due to mental illness; and Camas provides permanent supported housing to individuals who are living with severe mental and/or physical disabilities. 

“Sahalie and Birch are the high needs programs of PSH,” says Zelima, who deems herself the Queen of Consistency. “They require the most hands-on and consistent amount of attention.” 

For Zelima, consistency means showing up, and keeping her word. Her work days often include phone calls, texts, and home visits with consumers; shopping trips and errand runs; skill building sessions; and de-escalating crises. “Many have no one, so they need to know they can count on someone to look out for them; their safety, well being, and their success.”

Zelima often thinks about a quote that hangs in a consumer’s home. It reads: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” She says the consumer who displays this quote has suffered his entire life. “His story is quite fantastical,” she says. “He has mental health and substance use issues, yet here he is; maintaining stable housing and canning every single day to pay for his necessities.” 

In 2019, our Permanent Supported Housing Program provided housing and support services to 175 adults living with mental illness. The average PSH consumer has spent years on the streets, and has lived their life in survival mode, which commonly stems from poverty, abuse, neglect, and/or trauma. In most cases, ShelterCare’s PSH program is the first place a person has ever felt a sense of “normalcy,” and the first place they feel encouraged to prioritize their well-being. 

A consumer plays guitar during a home visit.

When someone moves into housing after a long period of homelessness, many are out of practice on skills we take for granted; such as maintaining a clean apartment, budgeting, neighborly expectations, and remembering leasing rules. “I think the majority of what I do is skill building,” says Zelima. From cleaning up the house, to learning how to make their own phone calls; we often discuss how to do random things, and how those things can be done without me in the future.” 

Something that helps Zelima build trust among consumers is being team-oriented. “I always present our work from a team aspect; we both do our parts and are accountable to each other for what we do and don’t do,” she says. “It’s never ‘you will lose your housing,’ instead its ‘we will lose our housing.’” Last year, our PSH programs successfully helped 132 out of 175 households maintain their housing for 1+ years. This doesn’t mean we gave up on 43 individuals, sometimes a consumer’s first housing placement is not a good fit. When this happens, our housing specialists, like Zelima, work together with the consumer to find a better housing fit and to identify ways those goals can be reached.

In the photo above, one of Zelima’s clients signs money orders for their bills.

I have arguably some of the hardest consumers, but they are also so incredibly inspirational,” she says. “Knowing their backgrounds and stories sheds light on why they are where they are, but it also demonstrates their strength and resilience in overcoming (barriers) and working towards their goals.”

You are also a helper. Your donations help our consumers obtain the level of independence they need to maintain their homes, prevent housing violations, and avoid homelessness again in the future. Will you consider donating today?

Thank you for always providing support to those who need it most. We see the differences that you make, and we feel incredibly lucky to have a friend like you. 


Michelle Hankes

CEO, ShelterCare

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