The idea to house homeless veterans in old, refurbished RVs didn’t come to David Strahan overnight. In fact, he says, it felt more like the summation of his life’s work; every unique skill he’s learned coming together to form what’s essentially a one-man band — a band called Hope on Wheels.
Hope on Wheels is a local nonprofit created by Strahan that takes old RVs and campers and turns them into homes for the unhoused. Sometimes he finds cheap RVs at local auctions and buys them himself. Other times they’re donated. This is the case for his 15th project, which he calls “Full Circle,” that finished this month.
“The RV was originally given to Hope on Wheels by the parents of a deceased veteran,” Strahan says. “Last week it was given to a 74-year-old disabled veteran. That’s why it’s called Full Circle.”
The seed for Hope on Wheels was planted in 2004 after the death of Strahan’s stepson, 20-year-old Kenny Leisten. In 2004, Leisten was a specialist in the United States Army National Guard when the Humvee he was travelling in hit a roadside bomb.
“It’s a very tragic story how my wife found out,” Strahan says. “She saw her son’s name scroll across the TV. That was her notification.”
Strahan began to notice homeless veterans sleeping in the brush alongside the Willamette River while he was volunteering for river cleanup crews. He got the idea to refurbish RVs while at a local auction.
“I saw RVs on sale for a couple hundred dollars that could be perfect for somebody, with just a little bit of work,” Strahan says. “I come from a long line of tinkerers, and I knew it was well within my scope to repair these RVs.”
A little more than a year ago, Strahan bought a totaled RV and refurbished it, selling it for a profit and using the money to get Hope on Wheels its official nonprofit status. He does his own outreach, repairs and fundraising — from the moment he finds his next project, until he’s handing someone a new set of keys. And while he sometimes has volunteers help with the process, Strahan is mostly just a one-man shop.
One of those volunteers is Peter Reidell, who has the rare honor of having both worked with Strahan and lived in an RV through Hope on Wheels. Reidell met Strahan while both were volunteering for the Egan Warming Center, about nine years ago.
Strahan “puts his heart and soul into these trailers,” Reidell says. “Just to help someone else. He even let me stay in one he was refurbishing for eight months when I needed it.”
Reidell now has housing, but says he would have had a much tougher transition without the help of Strahan during those eight months. Strahan has since expanded Hope on Wheels to service not only unhoused veterans, but anyone who’s in need.
Hope on Wheels has also worked closely with other nonprofits in Lane County, including Carry It Forward, a group dedicated to providing resources of all kinds to the unhoused. Even before Kris McAlister became the assistant director of Carry It Forward, he had already worked closely with Strahan at the Egan Warming Center, where both volunteer.
“From troubleshooting existing units, to providing shelter through donated units, to sustaining support through loaned units; we have found Hope on Wheels to be a strong partner,” McAlister says. “His units are that bridging gap until something better is accessed, or a long-term space for folks who would not otherwise be sheltered.”
For Strahan, the hustle and bustle of being a one-man nonprofit doesn’t even feel like work most of the time. It’s become something he has to do; not just for others — but for himself.
“I’m trying to fill a hole in my heart,” Strahan says. “A guilt-filled hole; at first that seemed to be the prime motivation behind this. There’s no better feeling than handing someone keys to their new home when they didn’t know where they’d be living before. If I could share that feeling with everyone out there, they would all be volunteering.”
Hope on Wheels is currently accepting volunteers for future projects — search Hope on Wheels on Facebook.