Weekend Receptionist Rita Tinney Is Still There for First Place Families

“You’re not going to split us up, are you?”

Rita Tinney heard the question countless times during the 12 years she worked the reception desk at St. Vincent de Paul’s First Place Family Center. Sometimes the words tumbled through the open door because those asking would rather stay on the street together than risk security and comfort apart.

Rita’s response was always the same. “We’re not about splitting you up. We’re about keeping you safe.”

Rita Tinney of First Place Family Center

And that’s what she did every weekend, encouraging hesitant newcomers and welcoming regular clients who turned to First Place for everything from a shower to clean laundry to the means to prepare a family meal.

Rita felt the tug of First Place long before she joined St. Vinnie’s staff. She had knitted and delivered so many pairs of socks that a collection of yarn was set aside for her. All Rita had to do was collect it at the Seneca Warehouse.

“You’re not going to split us up, are you?”

As weekend receptionist
at First Place Family Center, Rita Tinney’s answer was always no.

“I went in, and there was a big pile of clothes with a guy on top sorting socks,” she remembered. “I said, ‘Who is that?’ ”

It was her introduction to Terry McDonald, the boss who “wouldn’t give anyone a job he wouldn’t do himself.”

Rita eventually joined SVdP as an onsite property manager for smaller affordable properties. While at the first mobile-home park purchased by St. Vinnie’s, she mowed lawns and handled paperwork, and wished for a more fulfilling role.

That role was revealed on the laundry room wall, spelled out in a job posting for weekend work involving unhoused families receiving day services at First Place Family Center. At the time, the structure more closely resembled its old self –a concrete-block food warehouse no longer needed by the Eugene School District. It was leased to SVdP in 1991 to address a “temporary homeless crisis” that in 2020 has not diminished.

Allowing one person to fill two positions wasn’t typical at St. Vincent de Paul, but Rita’s potential and prospective supervisors at the time decided it was doable.

And for a while it was, as families trickled in for diapers and other supplies. Then, one fateful weekend prior to Mother’s Day, a local photographer made good on an offer to take photographs of First Place families. The turnout of at least 80 people packed the building and pointed up the need for more weekend help.

To qualify under the supervision of William and Diana Wise, a candidate first had to respect the client families. As for the families, they were expected to follow the rules and help with chores when staff was really busy.

Large pile of clothes

When Rita Tinney first visited St. Vincent de Paul’s Seneca Warehouse more than 12 years ago, “a big pile of clothes” was just short of the ceiling.

Not all were so inclined, evoking this pointed line from Rita, “At least you don’t have to clean a whole house.”

It takes a well of patience to work with people who resist or ignore rules to the extent their families pay the price by being asked to leave. “It’s a shame,” Rita said. “First Place is there to help them.”

Rita’s tenure overlapped the Interfaith Night Shelter program and its transition to a single facility called the First Place Annex. In its original form, Night Shelter rotated among local faith communities that provided overnight shelter for one week, sometimes even two weeks or more. Dinner, evening activities, and night watch were included.

But when a former church complex was offered to St. Vincent de Paul for an affordable price, the Night Shelter program got a permanent home and Rita Tinney a wish fulfilled.

“Before, the families had to move every Monday, and the kids never knew where they would be,” she explained. “We really needed something like the Annex.”

As the COVID-19 emergency set in locally, Rita became aware of familiar faces – those of past First Place families who had done everything right and gotten into housing. Now, circumstances had spun out of control again.

“It’s really sad,” she said. Nonetheless, she reminds them they overcame similar hardship before, and they can do it again.

Rita feels the same about herself and First Place, where she exercises the habit of calm, respectful interaction with families that she so admired in William Wise. For now, she works from home, hand-writing cards of care and encouragement to families, and missing the general din of First Place. During the years she worked in concert with William and Diana Wise, their tabulation indicated that 3,441 families – nearly 11,200 individuals – received services through First Place programs.

Rita also credits that guy first spotted at the top of the clothes heap.

“ I just thank Terry,” she said. “He can drive down street, see something, and know what to do with it to make money and help people. “He is an amazing person, doing what he does.”