Emptying Beds

Washingtonians reliant on disability money are getting a shock as the state cuts budgets and ends a program.

Emptying Beds
Amy Hunter
State programs for the homeless continue to face cuts. Above, beds at the House of Charity in Spokane.

Corey Patnaud is one of the lucky ones. He doesn’t worry about freezing, because he sleeps indoors. He passes his time cleaning the shelter he lives in. He has a caseworker to work with him on getting re-employed.

But now that the disability checks have stopped, he may only have one place to go: jail.

“Well, I’ve got a court fine,” says Patnaud, 39, who stays at the House of Charity on Pacific Avenue. “That’s the one that worries me, because I’m going to have a warrant.”

Patnaud, who has mobility problems due to a lifelong disability, is on a state assistance program called the Disability Lifeline, which gives cash grants for housing to people who are disabled and can’t be employed.

But that’s over with. Patnaud got his last check at the beginning of the month, and the program ends on Monday.

In its place will be three new programs meant to replace the Disability Lifeline, including one that gives cash to elderly or disabled people and that will provide cash grants to some pregnant women. But the one program geared toward housing — the Housing and Essential Needs program — will be able to provide for only half of the people who now rely on the Disability Lifeline, social service agencies say.

The Salvation Army Spokane is the Housing and Essential Needs provider for Spokane County. Starting this week, it will begin the process of finding 1,000 homeless or nearly homeless people a place to live.

“We are not given enough money to be able to help these people,” says Captain Kyle Smith of the Salvation Army Spokane. “And we don’t know what kind of influx we’re going to have at the first of November.”

They have been allocated $2.3 million to get the job done, which is about half of the money that was available to fund the Disability Lifeline, Smith says.

“When we run out of money, we run out of money,” Smith says. “End of story, there is no more.”

During this year’s legislative session, the Disability Lifeline was almost axed entirely due to the state’s dwindling budget. Supporters, including unions and social-service agencies, rallied for it, at one point even staging a song-and-dance flash mob in the rotunda of the capital building.

The eventual compromise that was struck preserved parts of the program while eliminating cash grants for homeless people.

“They could’ve just axed this benefit altogether,” Smith says. “I’m glad they didn’t.”

The lack of money was the ultimate death knell for the Disability Lifeline, says state Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, but he would have still liked to see it stick around.

“This result is the result of compromise,” Billig says. “I think it’s a good result. It’s not exactly the result I wanted or maybe somebody else wanted, but that’s not quite how legislatures work.”*

Some lawmakers — like state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane — say the Disability Lifeline’s distribution of cash only ended up feeding addiction. Parker says he received many complaints from constituents about the disability checks going towards alcohol.

Breaking the program up was the solution, he says. “Ultimately the effort to split it into those three programs [means] you can target the services more appropriately.”

Jerrie Allard, director of the City of Spokane’s Human Services Department, agrees. “That was, I think, probably the whole impetus for moving it through this type of program, where the assistance will go directly to a landlord,” she says, “and not a cash payment to an individual.”

Bruce Pouttu, who is also staying at the House of Charity, has struggled with alcohol before, and at times used his Disability Lifeline money to feed this addiction. He says he’s trying for the seventh time to get sober.

Pouttu says it’s a tough time for those who lost their benefits and ended up in the shelter. He’s managed to keep his. Others have not.

“There’s a lot of tension. … People out there with homes are probably losing them now. I see a lot of new faces,” says Pouttu, 53, gesturing around House of Charity’s cafeteria.

Stefanie Davis, housing case manager at the shelter, has been noticing the same.

While the Essential Needs portion of the new program is intended to cover bus passes and other necessities that can’t be donated, Davis says the loss of disability checks has rankled many.

She says she’s also felt that the state Department of Social and Health Services has left her clients in the dark as to the details of the new programs.

“Now they’re feeling it just as much as we’re feeling it, and we have nothing to do to soften the blow,” Davis says.

Since Corey Patnaud is part of a program at the shelter that gives rooms and case managers to homeless people who can help out around the building, he still has a place to live for the time being.

But he’s burning through his small savings.

“Man, I felt like pretty much crying when I got that letter,” Patnaud says of receiving a letter from DSHS saying that he would no longer receive disability payments. “It sucks, it just sucks.” 

* A previous version of this story misquoted Andy Billig

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About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.