For most of his life, Caine O’Brien admits he wouldn’t have considered himself much of a nonprofit “giver.”
While engaged in a successful technology sector career — first with microprocessors in the 1970s and 1980s and then software since the 1990s — social service support wasn’t a high priority.
“I never really thought about social needs. I thought that was more a responsibility for the government,” he said. While he would support church-related activities and showed generosity in other ways, he admits he was skeptical of giving to the nonprofit sector. “What kept me from giving was cynicism about how much money went to overhead in some organizations.”
As a resident of Lane County since 2008 after moving from Portland, he also felt frustration about the level of visible homelessness on the streets in Eugene. “I was as annoyed by panhandlers as anyone in Eugene could be.”
And then, last year, a turning point: someone he cared about was diagnosed with mental illness and was living on the street. The shaking of his voice and the tears welling in his eyes as he told this story made it clear — he had a new and visceral understanding of how good people can end up homeless. This time, “someone else’s problem,” as O’Brien put it, hit home.
“It made me look at every one of those people I saw on the street differently,” he said. “It changed my perspective of who the homeless are and who they have the potential to be.”
Armed with a new appreciation for the challenges faced by some community members, O’Brien decided to invest in the local social service network in a systematic way.
“I set out to identify services that to me minimized the waste that nonprofits can sometimes carry, as well as organizations that weren’t overrun with corporate influence,” he said. “And I wanted my donation to produce concrete and tangible results, and not get lost in the bureaucratic pot.”
Devoting time, energy and research to the effort, he determined ShelterCare fit this bill. Soon after, he designated his donation to the agency’s Shankle Residence, which provides a safe environment (housing, food, clothing and clinical support) for adults with psychiatric disabilities who are chronically homeless.
“If you just start thinking about basic rights and basic things that people should have in their lives, it’s pretty hard to argue with food and shelter,” O’Brien said. "You can't really expect people struggling to meet their survival needs to be worried about much else.”
Now semi-retired, O’Brien is ready to do something different. While this may include hobbies such as mountain biking, travel, working in the garden and playing music (piano), he is also hoping to help build a stronger community.
“I’m as much of a ‘pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps’ guy as I know,” he says. “I've created most of what I have, and I give thanks for that. And I do expect that of others. But now I know firsthand from someone dear to me that homelessness is not always their fault. This experience brought a level of compassion and understanding that I didn’t have before. Now I wonder how we can help more people.”