Voices from The Otis

Stories by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Otis Hotel has loomed above the streets at the western end of downtown Spokane since it opened in 1911, providing cheap, single-room housing for blue-collar workers streaming into Spokane.

Now the aging cube of red brick is at the brink of something new. The Spokane economy is booming again -- just like it was 100 years ago. The Fox Theater is about to reopen after years of restoration. The swells are coming back to the west end of downtown.

And this summer three tenement hotels on West First went on the block. New ownership has new plans to meet the new paradigm -- one that makes little room for ex-felons, the mentally ill or the elderly and poor.

"They think we are a bunch of trash and they can sweep us all away," says a 74-year-old resident of the Otis.

Amid the task forces and press conferences, the people facing eviction have not been heard.

Five share their stories here.

"I'd like to hear that they will walk in the shoes of the people who live here," a 50-year-old tenant says. "I'd like the mayor to live in the building 30 days and say 'Now I understand what this is.'"

Eviction notices were supposed to go out Aug. 1 but have been delayed until Sept. 1, says Chris Batten of RenCorp, who is purchasing the building. He has also sought some of the $250,000 allocated by the City Council to assist in relocation. Thus, the Otis could stay open, he says, as tenants find new housing without eviction.

"I don't think evictions will happen Sept. 1," says City Council President Joe Shogan. He told The Inlander this week the city will make the $250,000 available through SNAP. Batten's proposal, he says, pours money into a temporary fix. "We could go through that money in five months without providing for anybody else."

Shogan is confident that agencies can quickly find housing for Otis tenants. And, he adds, "We are pursuing a good possibility of placing the sex offender population in a separate facility."

Spokane sex crimes Det. Jerry Keller says police are concerned sex offenders could wind up homeless where instability is a leading reason for reoffending.

Places like the Otis, he says, may seem unsavory, "but we have success stories living at the Otis."

Jay Savage age 74

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "E & lt;/span & verybody on the South Hill, everybody who has their own homes, they think this place is hell," says JAY SAVAGE, a former truck driver who's been living in the Otis ever since coming back to Spokane to own up to an altercation involving a knife and gunfire.

As Savage tells it, he came to Spokane in 1982 to visit a fellow POW from the Vietnam War who was dying of exposure to Agent Orange when the two men were drawn into a violent street fight.

A long-haul truck driver, Savage fled to Mexico where he eventually bought a ranch.

He returned to Spokane in 2002 to face his past. A judge issued a light sentence of supervised probation. His age, the act of self-defense and his voluntary return were factors in the minimal sentence, Savage says.

He moved into the Otis nearly four years ago and now it's hard to get him out. "This is my domain," he says, sweeping a hand and inviting a guest to take in his tidy, well-appointed, air-conditioned dwelling.

Savage has an "inside room" on the third floor, but unlike many at the Otis, he has his own kitchen and bath. "The manager," he says, "could see how I live -- clean -- that I take care of a place," and thus he got the good room for $315 a month.

"I got my own private bath, a kitchen. I've even got my own fuse panel ... I don't have to go outside for nothing," Savage says. In four years, he has turned the apartment into a cozy nest with nice carpet and art on the walls. He has a full-sized fridge, a television, a collection of DVDs, a stereo. He keeps his single window closed and covered and sits at a small desk lit by a table lamp and crowded with a telephone, pens, paper and a small fan.

Given his working past, Savage is engaged in the larger community and unafraid to speak up at City Council meetings. He talks to City Hall staffers and resource officers at the neighborhood COP Shop, and gets out in the world and advocates for the Otis.

"We're not all dope fiends. There are nice people in here. They are pushing us out is what they are doing, until there is nobody left but high society," Savage says. "They think we are all a bunch of trash and they can sweep us away."

Savage says he didn't know what to expect his first night in the Otis as he closed his flimsy wooden door behind him and locked it.

"Back then, there were some crazies here. I had two people -- people no longer here -- pull weapons on me."

And even then, it's not exactly what you might think. "The last one, he pulled scissors on me because he thought I was a dope dealer. He thought I was the bad guy," Savage says with a chuckle.

His size, his robust attitude and the fact he has a cell phone and immediately called police ended each confrontation quickly.

Savage echoes other tenants who note the Otis has cleaned up considerably in recent years. "I want the truth known that this Chris Batten [of RenCorp] does not care about anybody in this building. He is in it for himself. There are people here who have mental problems. There are people here with physical disabilities," Savage says.

"If I was a multi-millionaire, I'd buy this building and keep the people here."

Norman Violette age 37

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "L & lt;/span & ucifer... uh, would be my name. I'm still good friends with God. I see Jesus Christ all the time -- he's a dear friend of mine and we visit," says NORMAN VIOLETTE. "I don't know... you probably can't put that in an article but... there's some other history. I am a registered saint..."

Two visitors had been sitting on the floor in Violette's small, third-floor room at the Otis for about a half-hour. He had the one chair. The shade in the single window was mostly drawn, blocking the August sun. A small box fan was racketing away, not only stirring the air but channeling the noise of construction, traffic and trains. We'd been talking about everything from north-side high schools to rock 'n' roll to making bagels in a bakery before dawn when, without even the merest twitch or eye-blink that the subject was about to change, the subject changed abruptly.

Violette ushered his guests out a few minutes later.

He had mentioned it, early on: "I've had mental trouble. I'm on state assistance." Yet he was lucid, thoughtful, funny. At the likelihood of low-income residents being moved so trendier, wealthier people can enjoy a downtown arts district, Violette wryly says, "Any time you guys can move me up to that other class, I'm ready to go."

Violette has been in Spokane since his early teens. His family came north from L.A. in the '80s, he says, looking for work. They settled in the Shadle district and, it seems, had some slice of that prototypical Spokane lifestyle with a modest house in a modest neighborhood.

He didn't do well in school, Violette says, but he earned his GED and found a couple of what he calls "halfway decent jobs."

Then came some crushers. In the following years, "my dad shot himself in the head in Los Angeles and my stepdad, he was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor and died in the house," Violette says.

The deaths -- one coming on the heels of the other -- sent him into a spiral. Violette seems to have been especially close to his stepdad: "I was pretty traumatized. I started messing with alcohol. I had the mental breakdowns and got involved with Washington State Mental Health."

He had major depression. He lost jobs and wound up on the streets. Eventually, by his mid-20s, he wound up in the Otis -- the collector of many downward spirals.

That was in the mid-'90s, when the West First neighborhood was a wild nexus of drugs and sex. For Violette, though, the Otis was a haven. Asked to characterize his first night in the notorious hotel, Violette answered without hesitation. "It was pretty pleasant -- my first night in my first apartment. For the price, you had a place to hang your hat. I kind of felt at home, coming off the street ... I had a place to throw my stuff."

That was his first stint at the Otis, on the topmost floor in what is known as an "inside room." If you look down on the Otis from the sky, the building resembles the capital letter E with an extra rung. All the apartments above the first floor are in shallow rectangles separated by narrow, open spaces. It's as if there are four apartment buildings instead of just the one.

Inside rooms are rooms where the single window opens onto these narrow ventilation chasms, filled with gray light and pigeon crap. The only view is of brick or of the window in the room opposite.

Tenants in the inside rooms, it seems, keep their windows covered and closed, lighting their apartments by lamp no matter what the season or the hour.

When Violette moved from his mother's house nine months ago for a third stint at the Otis, he says he ponied up an extra $10 a month for an outside room. He's now on the third floor overlooking Madison Street.

"I like to see the city and the cars and that. And at night the city lights," he says. "In those back rooms, you don't see nothing at night except a bird may fly in."

Violette's room, like most in the Otis, has a tiny ceramic sink in one corner. And at $245 a month, that about covers the amenities. Every floor has several communal kitchens and baths. The baths are Spartan shower-sink-toilet affairs.

The kitchen Violette showed to his visitors was little more than a stove in a bare room. There was a table jammed into a corner and a single chair jammed into the table. They looked like the loneliest table and chair in the universe.

Most tenants, Violette explains, have hot plates or microwaves, toasters and coffee pots. They cook and eat in their rooms.

"I consider this neighborhood the ghetto of Spokane," Violette says. He's upset that he hasn't heard anything from management about the possible evictions. Notices were supposed to go out Aug. 1 but have been delayed to Sept. 1 -- and possibly beyond.

The only info he ever got, Violette says, was a notice from the Center for Justice alerting tenants who were worried about eviction that there are agencies offering help. "I heard more from the residents that I talk to that they really wish the building would stay open," he says.

"In my personal opinion, they need to remodel it and if it turns out that it would still be low-income housing, that would be good for the people," he says. "That would be a pretty generous man to come and remodel it and then rent it at 250 bucks an apartment for a brand-new place.

"... I know other miracles have happened."

Geary, age 50

Virgina, age 50

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "A & lt;/span & n offender like me, I've hurt it for a lot of people. I've hurt it for myself. I've hurt it for other people," says GEARY, a 50-year-old Level III sex offender who, without self-pity, speaks about putting together a life as one of society's most reviled figures.

Geary asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his job. He works 40 hours a week as a cabinet maker, attends a variety of faith-based 12-step and counseling programs and has lived in what residents humorously call the Otis' "penthouse suite" with his wife, VIRGINIA, for the last six years.

The couple has several of the small rooms joined into one apartment on the fifth floor, with a view of the elevated railroad tracks and the steady stream of freight trains gliding through downtown.

While in prison at the turn of the millennium, "There came a time I found I just had to pull my head out of my butt, and I decided I would either make it or break it because I was carrying her along with me," Geary says. "And I got my act together by the time I got here to the Otis. An offender like me doesn't have a lot of options."

Virginia says the two met 30 years ago as students at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. For much of their marriage, it seems, Geary was in prison after various convictions. Virginia moved to the Otis in June 2001 to prepare an apartment as Geary was about to be released to the hotel. He had served two years in prison for sexual assault and has admitted molesting more than a hundred young boys. He is considered a "sexual psychopath."

"The Department of Corrections sets up with buildings like the New Washington or the Otis to rent to offenders," Geary says. "But because we are in here, we're locked in," he says.

He is one of roughly two dozen Level III sex offenders at the Otis -- a group of tenants who will be hard to place, social workers and police worry, as evictions loom.

"This is hard for people who live in the building who are offenders and who need a place to go but may have no place to go," Geary says, citing a clash between the requirements of the state that registered sex offenders have an address against the reluctance of landlords to rent to sex offenders.

"Now there's a possibility of being homeless and there are a lot of people who haven't quit their addictions or don't have a real handle on it. I don't know how they are going to do it," he says.

"I have a handle on mine, and it's hard enough for me. I'm married. I have a good woman. I have people that I counsel with. I have a 12-step that I'm in. I'm really working in my life and have people around me. If I didn't have that, I don't know if I'd make it."

As he speaks, he looks at Virginia and talks about what she's brought to his life. They reach across the table and clasp hands.

When they met in college, "I had no clue what it was to be in love," he says. "I knew about dating. I knew about having a girlfriend ... I had my addictions but I didn't have any connection about being serious."

But Virginia loved him.

"She stayed with me. She just stayed loving and she stayed with me," he says, still with a hint of astonishment in his voice. While in prison, he asked her to marry him but then had doubts. "With our religious differences, I thought this was not going to work so I talked her into dumping me. I figured if she dumped me it wouldn't hurt her so bad. I loved the daylights out of her and I didn't want to hurt her, but I knew we couldn't be married."

They broke up, but that only lasted six months.

"I came to Spokane and I attended all of the single events I could find looking for a lady," Geary says. "Square dancing, barbecues -- you name it. I was looking for someone to fill the void and she was the only one I could think about ... so I ended up going back to Moses Lake."

"We've been married 15 years now," Virginia says.

She also is 50. Virginia is a diabetic and has knee problems that limit her mobility. Her medications and health issues can run into the thousands of dollars -- an amount which, for now, is tenuously covered by the federal SSI program.

June was a three-paycheck month at the plant where Geary works, she says, and the extra paycheck prompted SSI to cut her benefits this month. It's the sort of bind many working poor find themselves in -- not enough money to make it on their own, but too much money to obtain help.

An offender like Geary faces other issues as well. A state program that helped businesses hire ex-convicts helped him get his job, but the factory eventually dropped the program and Geary says he may be the last offender working there. Not all co-workers know his past and he'd like to keep it that way to avoid hassles, he says.

When he first started, Geary says, he worked side-by-side with a former inmate who made the job a daily misery. "He was not a sex offender but made it clear he knew about me and my background. It's easy to harass people and not get busted for it," Gary says. "People can make life hard for me if they want to and I just have to step up to the plate."

He was on a tightrope where someone could harass him but where his reactions were limited by the prospect of going back to prison. For two years, he dreaded getting on the bus to go to work, knowing what awaited him. Eventually the co-worker was moved to another position.

Geary worries that if the Otis tenants are evicted, he won't be able to find a place because of his past -- and that he and Virginia will have to separate.

"She can't be homeless," he says. "I could probably live under a bridge and I could make it. But she can't be homeless.

"What I really worry about is how it's going to work out for her ... that's my biggest concern," he says.

He nets about $600 a paycheck, but after paying the $425 monthly rent, groceries and paring down a $2,000 medical bill from a recent health crisis, "the money's pretty much gone," Geary says.

Still, he says he and Virginia are trying to put some money from every check into savings to eventually buy a place of their own and get out of the sex offender rental squeeze.

"I went to SNAP and got an application, and they say right there they don't rent to Level II or Level III sex offenders. I've been to other places that state that, or they'll do a background check and then turn people down," Geary says. "Society isn't geared to helping people like me, yet there are people like me in society.

"It's hard but I understand that ... Typically, I tend to be a worker where others are not. I want a roof over my head and I want to earn my own way."

In the meantime, they wait. The Otis is rife with rumors about what the future will bring, but little in the way of solid news.

"We just have to be patient," Geary says.

"What RenCorp is doing is not right. They are just getting rid of poor people," Virginia adds. She says she doesn't know why more people aren't alarmed. With the Otis, sex offenders are downtown. Without it, they could be in the neighborhoods, she says.

"They talk about risk to the community, but if they put everybody out on the street, those people would be unaccountable," Geary says. "I prefer to live downtown because it's close to my support system and her medical needs.

"It's hard for people who are really working to better themselves. It's sad, but it's my bed...."

Big John age 34

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & e doesn't want his last name published, he served four years in prison for a crime he won't discuss and has trouble keeping jobs, but otherwise BIG JOHN is a pleasant and voluble 34-year old with a shaved head, small hoop earrings and a body that verifies his nickname.

Currently, Big John subsists on $155 worth of food stamps a month and whatever cash he earns from errands and odd jobs.

"Oh, it's enough for one person," he says, especially when he rides the bus to a north-side Wal-Mart to shop for himself and another tenant, as he did a week ago, spending $40 for three weeks worth of groceries. "I can get a package of 12 (cup of) noodles for $1.44 -- that'll last me six meals. And macaroni-and-cheese, the cheapest is 33 cents -- buy 10 of those and that's 10 meals."

Big John is approaching his eight-year anniversary at the Otis, living in a couple different "inside rooms," where the view out the single window -- for $235 a month -- is into an interior ventilation space. One of the biggest tenants in the Otis has one of the smallest rooms.

Big John grew up in the Longview-Kelso area of southwestern Washington and was in prison by the time he was 20. His application to be paroled back to his hometown was denied, he says, and a guy he met in the penitentiary in Walla Walla suggested he seek to be paroled to the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane.

He was accepted and has been here for nearly 11 years, most of the first year "at the UGM," as he calls it. "Until they booted me out for allegedly intimidating people," Big John says. "I'm a big guy. Everybody was smaller than me ... but I didn't want to go back to the joint so I figured I'd keep my nose clean."

He found both work and a room at City Gate downtown, moving into the Otis in 1999 when rooms at City Gate were being renovated.

He says he hadn't heard much about the old hotel.

"Mainly all I heard was it was basically the cheapest place and that they would allow me to move in," despite a felony conviction, Big John says. "Jim and Faye Delegans were the owners at the time ... They told me what rooms were available and took me to 520, 420, 320 and 220. So I took 520."

He stayed on the top floor until last summer when he moved briefly back to Longview to try and live with his dad. Tensions with a sister and brother-in-law prompted a return to the Otis, he says, where he now lives one floor below his old room. "I don't like nobody above me is why I took (520) and so far nobody's moved into it because they need to do some repairs. It's still empty ... which I enjoy," he says.

Lack of steady work has kept him at the Otis.

"It's hard to find a job if you have a felony conviction," he says. "People will say they can't hire you or that they're looking for somebody better. I applied at the Conoco here at Third and Maple and the guy said they couldn't hire me because of my past -- and he's an EOE guy, an equal opportunity employer."

The jobs he's found in Spokane tend to be minimum wage and minimal future. He's worked in discount stores and as a dishwasher in a north-side restaurant.

His spotty job history itself hurts his chances, he says, and he has never had a driver's license. "My family was a poor family so I never took Driver's Ed in high school."

Shortly after high school he was in prison. Since then he's been scrambling to meet rent and food, living on an edge where a cheap car could as easily be a millstone as an asset.

So, when Big John worked at a restaurant on Division and Francis, "I would have to walk home or call a cab because the buses don't run that late. I would get out at 1 o'clock or 1:30 and walk back here by 3:30 in the morning," he says.

Despite his dire financial straits, Big John's a guy who's not shy about striking up conversations and is something of a fixture in the Otis lobby, chatting people up and analyzing the news of the day with other tenants.

He makes small amounts of cash every month by running errands for tenants who can't get around -- going for groceries or making medication runs to pharmacies. He also helps unload freight once a week at a nearby market for a little bit of cash. As Big John describes these odd jobs it's clear they are as much a social connection as work.

On a recent lazy Sunday, the lobby filled with early evening light, Big John talked about the uncertain future of the Otis as other tenants listened to the radio and played games around a nearby wooden table.

"What I would tell Spokane is... how can I put this?... Us poor people are just like you but without the money. We're not rich snobs like you are but we are rich in friendships with the people who live here. People who buy condos... they look at us like we don't exist," he says.

"With RenCorp coming in they will split us up throughout the town and out in the Valley and none of our relationships are going to be like they were before. We won't know where everybody is at that you've been friends with, and you will be all alone again."

Legends of the Otis

1. The Otis opened as the Willard Hotel in 1911. Built by early Spokane resident Dr. William Gandy, the hotel was designed as cheap housing for the wave of workers who hit Spokane as the city's economy took off after rebuilding from the 1889 fire.

2. The hotel was renamed the Atlantic in 1921, the Milner in 1941, the Earle in 1948 and the Otis in 1956.

3. The building was named for Otis Brodwater, an early municipal engineer.

4. It has been listed on the National Historic Register since 1998.

5. Bing Crosby, before he became famous, once kept a room at the Otis.