On most Fridays, Elsa Leiva can be found filling a grocery bag full of fresh produce - onions, tomatoes, broccoli and bagged salad. She chooses carefully from the stack of apples, checking for bruises and punctures.
"I was cleaning the house," she says shyly, putting her hand instinctively up to her hair, which is held in a knit cap. "And I rushed here to get some food." She rummages through a cardboard box of potatoes. "A lot of people don't like to waste food, because food is important," she says, almost to herself, as she sorts and chooses. Leiva explains that while she is the mother of seven, four are still in her care. She works part time and goes to school - Apollo College - full time. Leiva says sometimes she's too tired to eat, let alone cook for her whole family. When she has gathered enough produce, Leiva picks up several pre-cooked gourmet meals and her grocery bag, about a $65 purchase, and leaves without paying.
Leiva, like many of the women around her filling their grocery bags, benefits from the Women's and Children's Free Restaurant, which not only offers homemade meals cooked fresh in a restaurant setting twice a week but also provides an abundance of healthy foods to take home every Friday. Nestled in the basement of the St. Paul Methodist Church on North Monroe Street, the Women's and Children's Free Restaurant began in 1988 as a soup kitchen run by low-income women. Now it's a full-blown eating establishment, operating under the same health and safety codes as any other restaurant. Its current director, Marlene Alford, is a former caterer and gourmet chef. "We serve true restaurant style to the ladies on Tuesdays and Thursdays," she says, adding that the women who come to dinner are not asked to show proof of hardship. "The diners don't come through a line -- they are served, and the volunteers eat with the diners. A lot of the time, it's the only pampering they ever get." The restaurant has candles, tablecloths and decorative centerpieces.
"This is not institution food," Alford says with pride. "We cook from scratch. The women spice and season and taste. Food: that's what we do here. It's our big thing."
It is a big thing. The restaurant served more than 1,400 meals last month, up from just 650 during October 2003. Alford says as many as 80 women will show up for dinner during the week.
The restaurant is in West Central, the lowest-income neighborhood in Spokane. (As an illustration, 92 percent of the students at Holmes Elementary School qualify for free or reduced lunch.) Most of the food the Free Restaurant receives comes from Second Harvest, which recently released its 18th annual Client Survey, revealing that more than 16,000 people receive food from one of Second Harvest's 21 food outlets each month. Almost half are children. Emergency food agencies have seen an 11 percent increase just since July.
"We're seeing more working poor," Alford says, referring to the women she watches each week, shopping for groceries or sitting down with their children for dinner. "We're seeing moms who never, ever thought they'd be taking assistance."
Shelter From the Cold
Just next door to St. Paul's is Myra Lee's Bookstore. Inside is an assortment of new and used books, partly assembled mannequins, artwork, sound equipment and piles of paper stacked on the floor.
The bookstore houses the new office of People4People, a homeless rights advocacy group. Dave Bilsland, who is homeless himself, runs the organization and is best known for leading last summer's protest against the city's newly adopted Transient Shelter Ordinance, widely referred to as the "no-camping ban." He galvanized a crew of about 30 homeless people to camp on a Riverside Avenue median, across from the Spokane Club and the Inlander office and within sight of the Foley Federal Building. The protest ended without incident, and the camping ban went into effect despite Bilsland's best efforts to appeal. He hasn't given up on his anti-ban efforts; it's a project he's still working on.
But Bilsland helped the community focus on the plight of homelessness, giving many men and women a voice. Unfortunately, when the protest ended, many of the homeless disappeared again behind a veil of hardship, once again absent from the community's collective attention. Recently Bilsland organized a gear drive to collect tents, sleeping bags, warm coats and accessories for those who will face the elements this winter. More than 8,000 people sought services for homelessness in 2003 in the city of Spokane alone.
"The fact of the matter is even people out on the street need shelter," Bilsland says. He believes that no matter what services are available, there will always be people who end up sleeping outside. A wide variety of reasons contribute to the problem. Therefore, he says, it's inhumane to make it illegal for people to erect temporary shelters for themselves. "To take shelter away is the worst crime a city can commit against its citizens," Bilsland declares.
Both Mayor Jim West and the Police Department have said they don't intend to arrest people caught camping on public property. As far as Bilsland knows, the police haven't written any tickets yet, which leads to an obvious question: What's the point of the camping ban? For many homeless people, getting arrested on a freezing night means taking a shower, getting a hot meal and a warm bed; it's not much worse than some of the shelters, they say, and they aren't required to go to church, get lectured, or deal with other homeless people, who are often mentally ill. But jails are overcrowded and sending a homeless person there for a night is taxing to the system - kind of like having an uninsured person with an ear infection go to the emergency room.
"The police aren't interested in taking people's [shelters] away, and the only time they bother people is when [those in the shelters] are bothering others," Bilsland says, making the point that the ban is mostly symbolic. The ban represents the shove many poor people feel as downtown transforms itself from a diverse urban habitat into an upper-class retail haven.
In another symbolic move, Mayor West commissioned an emergency transition taskforce after signing the no-camping ban, asking a group of social service experts to recommend short-term remedies to the effects of the ban. The group he commissioned, which included Monica Walters, executive director of the Spokane YWCA, filed a report recommending year-round support for the House of Charity at a cost of about $125,000. It also recommended that existing service sites become day care centers; this would cost about $100,000.
Of course, by that time Mayor West had already announced a budget shortfall of record proportions. Spokane is in the painful process of cutting about $12 million from its budget, and no one really thought there'd be money to add to social services. Indeed, there isn't.
"He announced that there is no additional money," Walters says. "It'll be interesting to see if we'll be able to implement any of our [recommendations]. Clearly, it requires resources."
Bilsland, along with many people who struggle with homelessness, believe the no-camping ban makes an already invisible community even more powerless. Ultimately, this invisibility perpetuates the cycles of poverty and homelessness - the lack of will, the desperation, the lost dignity. According to surveys conducted by city service sites during 2003, the top three reasons for Spokane area homelessness are mental illness, drug/alcohol abuse and domestic violence. In fact, almost 70 percent of homeless adults with children have a combination of both mental illness and substance abuse, mainly from attempting to self-medicate. Since shelters require a person to be sober before receiving services, that policy immediately eliminates a large portion of those in need.
Bilsland says that while the city is busy gentrifying the downtown core, its leaders are ignoring simple facts that continue to stagnate Spokane's efforts at upward mobility. And he's not alone in his thinking. According to the city of Spokane's 2004 Continuum of Care Plan for the Homeless, prepared by the Human Services Department and the Homeless Coalition, city leadership isn't doing its part.
"Although the homeless agencies continue to make great strides in collaboration, the reality in the Spokane community continues to be the inability of business and local government leadership to accept and acknowledge both the level of chronic homelessness ... and the impact of chronic homelessness on our community," the report reads. "While conversations have been initiated with local leadership the issue of homelessness has yet to be articulated in a manner that is either productive or supportive."
Alford, the director of the Free Restaurant, received the following testimonial from Elsa Leiva:
"I am a parent who is going to college to get an education to better the future of my family," Leiva wrote. "And I am a single parent, so only I am responsible to provide the most important necessities in life for my children. With the help from the Free Restaurant, I am able to stretch out the $508 I have every month...there are things in life that can wait; for example, nice clothes, a nice house, toys and a vacation, but hunger cannot wait. My children do not understand why we eat the same thing over and over. Why do we not order pizza like everybody else? Or why do we go to the store and buy nothing, but get a free cookie? When children are hungry, they ask the parent first for food and it is very hard for a parent not to be able to provide enough food to eat.... I am very thankful to have this special program for me and my children and all the others who are in need in our area." n
The Women's and Children's Free Restaurant, 1620 N. Monroe St., is open Tuesday and Thursday evenings for free gourmet meals. Women can receive groceries each Friday, in addition to take-home meals for their family. Call 324-1995.
To donate clothing, camping gear or other cold-weather support materials to the homeless, drop them by Myra Lee's Bookstore, 1606 N. Monroe St.
How You Can Help
Here are a few of the opportunities for citizens to help this season. Please contact your religious institutions, community centers and neighborhood schools to find out other ways you can assist those in need.
Second Harvest Brown Bag Thursday, Dec. 16, from 8-10 am. Volunteers are needed to help load grocery bags of food for drivers who will deliver them to those in need. To volunteer or donate to Second Harvest, 1234 E. Front Ave., visit www.2-harvest.org or call 534-6678.
Tom's Turkey Drive Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19-20, from noon-7 pm both days. Volunteers are needed in two-hour shifts to collect donations and turkeys at area Rosauers.
Q6 Food Drive Saturday, Dec. 4, from 7 am-7 pm. Volunteers are needed in two-hour shifts to collect food and donations at area Tidyman's.
Catholic Charities Thanksgiving Tuesday, Nov. 23, the House of Charity, 32 W. Pacific Ave., will serve meals to 250-300 very low-income and homeless people at 11 am. For information about donations and volunteering, call 624-7821.
To find out more about the variety of ways you can volunteer or donate to one of the programs from Catholic Charities, call volunteer coordinator Karen Orlando at 358-4254 or visit www.catholiccharitiesspokane.org.
YWCA For a comprehensive guide to how you can contribute to the YWCA, call volunteer coordinator Sheri Barnard at 326-1190, ext. 132, or the coordinator for homeless children's services, Sheri Hart, at ext. 152.
Central United Methodist Church On Thanksgiving Day, dinner will be served from 1-3 pm. Free and open to the public. Call 838-1431.
City Gate On Wednesday, Nov. 24, dinner will be served from 4-7 pm. Free and open to the public. Call 455-9670.
Zion Lutheran Church Thanksgiving boxes will be distributed to those in need; contact the church prior to Thanksgiving week. Call 276-8224.
Gonzaga University On Thanksgiving Day, the Sodexho Campus Services, Gonzaga University and St. Aloysius Catholic Church will sponsor a free community dinner, served from noon-1:30 pm. To reserve transportation to the dinner, call 323-7004.
Goodwill On Sunday, Nov. 21, Thanksgiving dinner will be served to guests from 11:30 am-1:30 pm. Call for reservations at 838-4246; give your name and number of guests.
OMEGA From Nov. 20 - 23, Thanksgiving baskets will be distributed to residents in need. To find out how you can contribute, call 325-1839.