Oregonians with disabilities struggle amid homeless crisis: ‘It was just impossible’

Shawn Strobl had been living on the streets for 8 years when an organization called Corvallis Housing First helped him secure an apartment. He’s pictured here at home on Tues., July 18, 2023. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian)

Eleven years ago in North Dakota, Shawn Strobl had an accident that would change his life.

While working in an oil field there, he ruptured a disc in his neck, causing excruciating nerve pain and numbness in his arms and hands that made it impossible for him to stay at his job.

But both his health insurance and his workers’ compensation denied his claims, leaving Strobl, now 51, unable to pay his rent or medical help.

So he became homeless, living in the woods while dealing with the agony of his chronic condition.

It took him a decade to find another home of his own in Corvallis.

Strobl’s story is one of many as people with disabilities struggle amid a housing crisis that spans state lines.

Homeless advocates in Corvallis say the number of physically disabled people who are experiencing homelessness is growing as the homeless population ages and as more people become chronically homeless.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in 2022 that the number of chronically homeless individuals — those who experience homelessness for long periods of time, often while struggling with a disabling condition — increased by 16% between 2020 and 2022. There was only a .3% increase in the total number of people experiencing homelessness during the same time period.

More than 700 unhoused people live in Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties, according to the 2022 homeless count by the Community Services Consortium, a local network that helps people access resources to overcome poverty. An estimated 30% to 40% of those counted were classified as chronically homeless.

“We are seeing more aging people and elders who are losing their housing and are homeless,” said Allison Hobgood, executive director of the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, which provides resources and a safe space for those experiencing homelessness in Benton County.


People who are disabled are at higher risk for becoming homeless than those who are able-bodied, research shows. The poverty rate for adults with disabilities is more than twice the rate of adults with no disability, according to a report by the National Disability Institute.

Many people with disabilities either work for very low wages or receive disability benefits that aren’t enough to survive on, said Andrea Myhre, executive director of Corvallis Housing First, an organization that provides support and housing to individuals experiencing homelessness. And federal policies limit the amount of income and assets people receiving Social Security benefits can have.

For those newly disabled, it can be difficult to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, Myhre said. And sometimes there are glitches in disability payments.

“The average monthly income that people get from SSDI is around $1,000. But the average rent for a one bedroom apartment, without taking into consideration any features that would make it appropriate for someone with disabilities, is well over $1,000,” Myhre said. “So somebody would have to spend their entire benefits check on rent. And oftentimes, it’s not enough.”

When disabled people become homeless, the challenges are even greater than for those who do not have a disability.

Getting into a homeless shelter is often challenging because shelters aren’t typically built for people with disabilities. Many use bunk beds, Myhre said, and people with disabilities often cannot climb into the top bunk, she said.

Living outdoors isn’t much easier.

“Being homeless, living in a tent and being in a wheelchair, that’s not an uncommon situation and it’s just exceedingly difficult,” Myhre said.

Disabled people who live outside also have trouble accessing public transportation, she added, making it challenging to accomplish simple tasks like paying bills, going grocery shopping and attending appointments with doctors and social service providers.


Strobl was born in Ohio and grew up in foster care. When he became an adult, he was homeless for a short while but got back on his feet, he said.

He came to North Dakota’s oil fields to work for a septic company. His job was pumping out the water and wastewater from the trailer homes set up for the oil rig workers. Part of the job also involved repeatedly lifting and moving a 1,500 gallon water tank, which placed repeated pressure on his neck – until one day, the disc in his neck snapped.

“The surgeon told me it was like an over-cooked kernel of popcorn. It just literally exploded. I actually lost an inch in height,” Strobl said.

His insurance and workers compensation denied his claims, saying that he had a pre-existing condition. And though he tried to apply for Social Security and housing assistance, lack of reliable transportation and the pain and numbness in his hands made sticking with the process difficult.

“It was very challenging because I couldn’t navigate all the appointments and all the paperwork. It was just impossible,” he said. “If you miss one step, you’ve got to start over again.”

He camped outdoors because he felt that the homeless shelters were not safe or comfortable for a person with chronic pain and limited mobility.

“In a shelter, there’s so many people around you. And when you are already injured and not feeling good, it was better for me just to go out and sleep out in the woods,” said Strobl.

He also felt more at risk for violence or discrimination because of his disability.

Living outside put a strain on his body – until he could no longer do the basic things needed to survive.

With a frigid North Dakota winter fast-approaching, Strobl hitchhiked to Oregon – but finding a home there would prove equally complicated.


Helping physically disabled people who are homeless find stable, permanent housing can seem next to impossible, experts in Oregon say.

The limited affordable housing that’s available is tailored to able-bodied people and often does not follow Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, said Hobgood, the drop-in center director.

“If you already have a shortage of affordable housing, you have an even bigger shortage of ADA units,” Hobgood said.

Most older apartment buildings lack elevators, and older homes have stairs, narrow hallways or small doorways that aren’t designed to accommodate people who use walkers, wheelchairs and canes, said Myhre with Corvallis Housing First.

Building new housing that’s designed to serve people with physical disabilities is expensive, and it’s hard to renovate older housing into accessible units, Myhre said.

So her organization tries to look for affordable ground floor apartments or the rare ones with elevators. She arranges for wheeled walkers, crutches, shower chairs, grab bars and other medical equipment to help people get around their homes.

“Most of the time, the spaces that people are moving into are not 100% appropriate for their disability,” Myhre said. “So people have to adapt to a situation that’s not ideal. And once they get into an apartment, it’s hard to find another unit.”

Myhre also works with her disabled clients to ensure they have the income needed to stay in their homes. The best case scenario, she said, is securing a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, a form of government rent assistance that’s available to people with low incomes – but it can take a long time to get the voucher or to find a landlord who’ll accept it.


It took Strobl five years to get Social Security benefits, which came only after a couple at a church in Corvallis helped him fill out the paperwork.

“I prayed to God, I prayed to Jesus. Because physically, I wasn’t able to do it,” Strobl said of continuing to live outside while suffering incredible pain. “I stayed focused all the time on rebuilding my life.”

He also connected with the social service agencies in Corvallis, including the drop-in center and Corvallis Housing First.

Six years ago, Strobl was able to move into the Van Buren House, a group home run by Corvallis Housing First. The house provides a case manager to each of the residents to connect them with resources and services. He lived there for nearly a year, but ultimately moved out and became homeless again.

In April, the drop-in center in Corvallis helped get Strobl into a two-bedroom apartment after he qualified for Section 8. Corvallis Housing First, along with several other agencies, helps him get to to doctor’s appointments, provides household items and moral support, Myhre said.

“I like it very much,” Strobl said of his apartment. “It’s quiet, the neighbors are quiet and I can relax and take care of the medical stuff I’ve got going on.”

But the apartment is on the second floor and isn’t handicap accessible, he said. This could become a problem as Strobl may soon undergo a spinal surgery. It’s a risky procedure, he said, that could leave him paralyzed from his arms down, making it hard to navigate around his home and launching him on yet another long search for an affordable, accessible place to live.

Reporting by McKenzie Andersen, Acellus Academy

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.