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Free Fall 

How the safety net for the homeless in Spokane is being destroyed.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION: CHRIS BOVEY
  • Illustration: Chris Bovey

Jerry Schwab stands in the middle of the House of Charity’s dining hall and raises his voice. It’s early May, and more than 100 homeless people turn to listen: a septuagenarian with long, white hair and pockets bulging with pens and spoons; a 6-foot-6-inch giant wrapped in a half-dozen layers; and, of course, veterans, disabled, young, old and mentally ill men, too.

They’ve all come here, their last refuge from the streets, and now Schwab, the shelter’s acting director, is standing in the middle of the room, announcing that they’re going to have to leave — that starting in July, House of Charity can’t afford to keep the overnight shelters open.

The room goes silent.

One man later tells Schwab that he plans to pass every day at a library until it closes, then sleep in a 24-hour restroom. Another guy — a bear of a man nicknamed Grizz — sifts through city ordinances, trying to figure out how to build a legal tent city on private property. Others, though, are too old, too frail or too mentally ill to handle the streets, Schwab says.

“A lot of these guys, their whole life, they fought and fought,” he says. “They’re too old to keep battling.”

Fortunately, they won’t have to. Since Schwab’s announcement in May, the shelter has received an unexpected flood of corporate and individual donations, and the House of Charity’s overnight program has been saved — at least for the moment. But unless Catholic Charities solves its funding challenge, the shelter’s sleeping program will face the axe again next year.

Indeed, the strain on shelters and homeless services is being felt across the region. During the annual homeless count, workers found 1,273 living in Spokane County. Of those, 274 were from homeless families with children — a 25 percent increase over last year. In Idaho, the homeless population jumped 34 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to a federal report.

SNAP now gets 60 to 70 calls for rental assistance a day — double last year’s rate — but doesn’t have any money left to give. A pile of applications for housing vouchers stands three feet high at the Spokane Housing Authority — 4,000 in all — and only 50 of those will receive help each month.

More people in Spokane County cite “Lost Job” than any other reason for their homelessness, and as the economy continues to hobble along, local families have been draining their savings and exhausting their options.

More weight than ever is being put on the region’s safety net, and that net shows signs of fraying.

And not just at House of Charity. Hope House, Spokane’s only shelter for single women, had to manage with $40,000, or about 10 percent, less this year.

“The problem was more competition,” Hope House Director Rusty Barnett says. “Everybody’s looking for money to survive. Let’s say you write a grant and you had 10 people you were running against. Now you’re running against 20.”

And while private donations saved House of Charity this year, they can’t be taken for granted. “We lost three churches in the last two years that were major supporters,” says Marty McKinney, director of Truth Ministries, a men’s shelter on Sprague Avenue. “We lost way over half of our funding.” Tithing decreased, the churches pulled their support and McKinney had to stand out in the street, holding buckets with his Christian motorcycle club buddies, to make up the difference.

Uncertainty for the shelters’ budgets ripples outward, creating uncertainty for growing numbers of mentally ill as state funding wanes. Uncertainty for homeless families and couples, who are frequently separated from each other because of a scarcity of shelter openings. And uncertainty for the chronically homeless, who often suffer from mental illness or addiction, while also having few resources to keep themselves safe.

“I think it was a shock,” Schwab says of his announcement that House of Charity might have to close its doors. “I think people were speechless to some degree. Re-victimized. Yet another insult, in terms of a series of insults to their life. A rejection. An abandonment.”

Best-Laid Plans

The plan was ambitious. Directed by a new state law, about a hundred politicians, charity representatives and business leaders in Spokane County formed a strategy in 2005 to cut homelessness by 50 percent in 10 years. Instead of just sheltering the homeless, the plan said, they’d find them homes. They’d expand the amount of low-income housing. They’d coordinate their efforts, preventing homelessness before it began.

But that was before the recession, at the height of the real-estate boom. If there was ever a time people could believe homelessness could be beaten, it was then.

The state’s Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act also gave cities an extra tool to fund the fight against homelessness: a new fee on certain real-estate transactions.

The impact seemed immediate. The number of homeless counted in January 2007 dropped by more than 400 from the previous year. (Granted, some of that drop may have been due to increased security for the U.S. Figure Skating competition.)

Simultaneously, Homeless Housing and federal stimulus money began to shift toward the federal government’s “rapid re-housing” strategy.

The idea: House the homeless immediately instead of directing them to shelters, then transitional housing, then permanent housing. Provide support services, teaching those tenants to become responsible renters. In Chicago, such a model — also referred to as Housing First — reduced homelessness by 12 percent in two years. In Norfolk, Va., 25 percent.

Nobody argues that the strategy, coupled with rental assistance and other homeless-prevention efforts, didn’t have an impact.

“In my mind, it had a huge effect, from stopping people from experiencing new homelessness,” Spokane City Human Services Manager George Dahl says, noting that through the city’s rapid re-housing program, 65 formerly homeless individuals now have permanent housing.

But real-estate fees aren’t much use if nobody’s buying real estate. With less money in the Homeless Housing pot, the city had to make tough choices.

“There’s been a shift in the funding priority … away from funding emergency shelters and towards funding permanent housing,” Catholic Charities Director Rob McCann says. “A complete abandonment of emergency shelter is not a good idea. … You want to get people off the streets, but there are people on the streets who are not ready or able to be housed.”

In May, the verdict came down from the city of Spokane: While emergency shelter monies would still go to the House of Charity, the shelter wouldn’t get any more Homeless Housing funds. Luckily, donors stepped in. Among them: Providence Health Care gave $20,000, Safeco donated $10,000 and Barbara and Paul Redmond (a former Avista CEO) donated another $10,000.

“We certainly can’t keep doing this every year, and announce we’re going to close,” McCann says. “It’s too much stress.”

Night Falls

On a recent Friday night, 102 of the 108 beds at House of Charity are lined up like World War II hospital cots. Everything’s dark, the silence interrupted by snoring and the occasional loud, phlegmy cough.

The beds are small, the mattresses thin. But it beats the rain, the cold, the cops. Nearby, the smell of body odor and sanitary chemicals hangs over the showers, where naked men with scraggly hair and long beards towel off.

Some are college graduates. There’s a former Boeing engineer, a former college professor. “We’ve got folks I went to Gonzaga with,” says Schwab, the acting director.

Tom McLaughlin, a pudgy 46-year-old in a straw hat, sits at a table stuffing cigarettes with pipe tobacco. He gives away a few, sells others for pennies. He says he’s a member of the shelter’s “Million Dollar Club” — people who’ve made more than a million dollars in their lifetime. Back in the ’90s, McLaughlin says, he was making $90,000 a year selling real estate. He says he’s responsible for developments in Hillyard and that he once sold a property to John Stockton.

But his business slowed. Developments weren’t moving fast enough. He began selling assets. He was living in hotels — without an electricity bill, they could be cheaper than renting — and then, after a series of evictions, his van.

When that broke down, he came to House of Charity.

“Being needy, it scares the hell out of people that have a normal life. The thought that someone that lived in a brick house by Manito Park [is now homeless] — it puts total fear in them,” McLaughlin says. “They don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to hear about it.”

Aaron Sokolis has stories of his own. A 25-year-old with a black bandana and an Orange County Choppers shirt, Sokolis says he’s been homeless, off and on, since he was 2. The last round lasted seven months.

Sokolis is grateful for the bed tonight, and from memory he recites a poem that he wrote a few weeks ago, while wandering the streets without shelter.

Have any of you ever walked all night?
Not knowing where you’re going, no goal in sight.
Everything you own in a bag on your back
A place to lay down the only thing that you lack

It continues that way, rhyming across a dozen couplets, describing the whole night: being chased away by cops, using an alley as a bathroom and his socks as toilet paper, enduring all manner of pain — blisters, the ache in his chest, his bag’s strap digging into his shoulder, chafing legs — until morning.

Sokolis says he’s slept in parks, in bushes, in backyards, under bridges. He tried Riverside State Park — but at $21 a night, he couldn’t afford it.

When it rains, he tries to build an overhang with his tarp. But since 2004, when Spokane passed an anti-camping ordinance in response to a tent city along Riverside Avenue, that’s been illegal. In the city of Spokane, the homeless are not only banned from sleeping in parks, the sidewalks downtown or near no-trespassing signs — they can’t even sleep in a cardboard box.

“I’m unaware of any legal place to sleep outside in the city of Spokane, unless you own the property, or the property owner has given you permission to use their bathrooms,” civil rights lawyer Breean Beggs says.

That only adds to the challenge: Where do you sleep where it’s safe, free from rain, and the cops can’t find you?

Squatter's Camp

Plywood covers the windows and white paint peels off the siding at a house on the east side of the city. The door’s locked. But in the back, about three feet off the ground, someone’s opened a hole just big enough to crawl through. Inside, a square of light barely reveals a roll of asphalt roofing, scattered broken glass, a torn-out ad from a skin magazine and a blue sleeping bag.

Slowly, a man in the sleeping bag sits up. He says his name is Thurman Thomas, that he’s from Texas.

Thomas bristles at the rules the shelters impose. House of Charity’s bedtime is too early, Union Gospel Mission is too obsessed with breathalyzers. Unwilling to stay at shelters, Thomas and others squat in houses like this one — abandoned, without heat or electricity, and completely dark. But it’s raining outside, and at least Thomas has a roof.

He says he doesn’t care who knows his name or what laws stop him from squatting.

“I’m really so far down they can’t push me any further. They can’t take any more away from me,” Thomas says. “If you ran across a cave in the wilderness, you’re not going to say, ‘Whose cave is this?’ You’re not going to turn down a place free of the rain and the wind because of some stupid law.”

Here, sleeping in front of the house’s only usable entrance, Thomas says he feels safe. But he knows Spokane can be dangerous for homeless men.

Consider a few recent cases: In May 2009, Peter Krueger was set on fire by a 16-year-old boy after he took the boy’s money without buying him beer. In April 2010, Douglas Klages was beaten to death by another transient in Dishman Hills. Just a month later, a 47-year-old homeless man had his throat slit when he walked into another man’s transient camp in Spokane Valley.

To be sure, keeping shelters open isn’t just about warmth. It’s about protection. A decade ago, Volunteers of America opened Hope House for single women after a number of women on the streets were murdered by serial killer Robert Yates.

“You run into these guys that are hanging around underneath bridges and stuff and there’s drinking and everything. You try to avoid those areas,” says Tammy Smith, who’s staying at women’s shelter. “And I feel safe here at Hope House. They don’t let nobody mess with you.”

At the abandoned house, Thomas adds that he’s sometimes slept with “booby traps” — cans on strings to warn him of anyone approaching.

‘The No. 1 Cause’

An estimated 80 percent of the people at House of Charity suffer from some sort mental illness, mood disorder or personality disorder.

“In the last years in Spokane, we’ve seen an increase in the No. 1 cause of homelessness: mental illness,” Catholic Charities’ McCann says.

Even as reports of mental illness increase, statewide funding for mental health has been cut, trimmed by $57 million in the latest budget. Eastern State Hospital lost 29 jobs. The Spokane County Regional Support Network had its community mental-health funding cut by 25 percent.

David Dickinson, director of DSHS’s Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery, expects more homelessness as a consequence.

“When you cut the budget for mental health services and people have reduced access to the services they need — crisis stabilization, evaluation of treatment — it destabilizes their personal life,” Dickinson says. Instead of being able to hold down a job or pay rent, they end up on the streets, with their family torn apart in the process.

At Truth Ministries, David Tripp talks about working at CompUSA and Mac Odyssey, until they went out of business. He pulls out a half-dozen photos from a blue bin under his bunk. The photos are wrinkled and stuck together from water damage. He peels them apart, carefully, showing wedding pictures of him and his wife, a pretty redhead. Both are smiling.

His wife, he explains, has struggled with mental health, with heroin addiction. Earlier this year, she robbed a Huckleberry’s and pled guilty to second-degree robbery. With his wife as the lease-holder, Tripp lost their subsidized apartment.

But he’s still wearing his wedding ring, still sticking with her, waiting for her to get out of treatment next March.

“I feel like a very lucky man to be with the woman I’m with,” Tripp says. “This is what I can’t stand, how easily people give up on others.”

Family Ties

Tripp’s looking for a job, any job. Because if he’s still homeless when his wife gets out, she can’t stay with him at Truth Ministries, the Union Gospel Mission or House of Charity. He can’t stay with her at Hope House, or St. Margaret’s Shelter, or the female Union Gospel Mission shelter. Because they don’t have kids, they can’t stay in the Interfaith Hospitality Network’s church basements or at SNAP’s emergency shelter.

Salvation Army is the only organization that will shelter couples without children, and the only organization that will shelter single fathers with children.

But here’s the problem: The wait for the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter is two months. And even then, families can stay for only 90 days.

Nationally and locally, it’s a massive concern. Entire families, now more than ever, have become homeless.

“That traces back to September of 2008 and the recession,” McCann says. “They’ve lost their homes, they’ve been evicted from their apartments. We run into more and more families who are living in their cars at the Walmart parking lot.”

Last year, 156 homeless families were identified during Spokane’s one-day count. This year, that number was 274. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, even as the numbers of chronically homeless decreased slightly from 2007 to 2010, the numbers of homeless families have increased by 20 percent.

The pressure is tighter than ever. Technically, families had always been limited to only 60 months of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families support. But last February, Washington state actually started to enforce that rule. In one swoop, 550 families in Spokane County, already over the limit, stopped receiving those funds. And in every month since, anywhere from five to 20 families have lost that assistance.

SNAP reports many families on the edge, doubling up with other family members. Many evicted families, without being able to afford deposits or pass credit checks when applying for apartments, burn through what little money they have in motels. SNAP ran out of money to help pay for those motels in February.

At St. Margaret’s shelter, Brandy Skinner sits on a couch with her 6-year-old daughter, Jezariah. The girl stops singing her ABCs to ask, through missing front teeth, “How do you spell dog? … Oh yeah, D-O-G.”

For Skinner, St. Margaret’s allowed her to concentrate on straightening out her life — to maintain sobriety while giving Jezariah a stable environment. But Jezariah’s father, Dene Bicknell, a former truck driver, can’t stay there. He’s at Truth Ministries instead.

“It wasn’t too bad until it started getting cold. They didn’t want to come out when it was cold out,” Bicknell says of his visits to St. Margaret’s. “Got to the point where I felt like I was the dog tied up in the backyard. Staring out the window at them. They’d come out and pat me on the head, throw me some food, and they’d go back in … Hopefully we’ll be back together as a family soon.”

What Now?

Increasingly, in Spokane, that original goal for slashing homelessness looks more and more unattainable.

“It’s frustrating because I’m more result–oriented,” says Dahl, the city’s human services manager. “It’s frustrating to want these results, this 50 percent reduction, when a lot of it is way out of your hands.

“I hate to use the ‘economy tanked’ cliché. But at the same time I think it has something to do with it.”

It’s not that the strategies — agency collaboration, rapid re-housing, homeless prevention, job training — haven’t been effective. They have. They’re just not enough to keep up with the increased need. And even as Spokane’s Homeless Coalition regroups, putting more focus into rapid re-housing, and discussing how to deal with the upcoming loss of stimulus funds, the limitations of the solutions become clear. Some of the people in shelters may never be able to live in permanent housing.

But the goals continue: Last year, President Obama issued his own 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“If you ask anybody who works in human services, that idea is kinda silly,” McCann says. “That may have made great fodder for a speech by a politician trying to get elected, but it’s not reality. You’re not going to end homelessness in 10 years.”

Comments? Send them totheeditor@inlander.com.

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