"I was sleeping 50 feet away from him. I was there," says Freeway Fred.
Like the coming of the ill-omened pale horse -- there, right there under the morning commute -- limned and coiled in the pearl dawn light, Death has taken the soul of the small bearded man known as Johnny Rotten, himself now pale and stiff. He lays face down, the workings of the 20-degree cold during the dark hours before dawn having curled him into a fetal position.
"I was there when the coroners got there. They had to break his legs to get him in the body bag," Freeway Fred says. You may recognize Freeway Fred, a bright-eyed fellow with an inquisitive tilt to his head and a blue knit cap who often earns his daily bread by holding up a piece of cardboard at the end of a freeway off-ramp asking for money.
Flying sign, he calls it. Made $212 once on Veteran's Day. Freeway Fred had hunkered down under I-90 early this month with a hard-core group of chronic homeless who were either too late to claim one of the limited beds at the downtown shelters or who didn't want one in the first place. He was there the morning everyone woke up to find Johnny dead.
John Mace Beavan was the real name of the 53-year-old who was making his life on the streets, bedeviled by addictions and found dead, friends say, after a night of pounding beers under I-90 near Division. He had refused a friend's invitation to line up for a bed at the nearby House of Charity men's shelter on the evening of Jan. 1. He last was seen drinking in the darkness with two men and a woman no one seems to know by name, only to be found curled on the bitter cement with no blanket or sleeping bag at daybreak.
And he is not the only one to die: A homeless person in Spokane has died every week this month. There are three of them.
Two of the deaths, those of 21-year-old Jennifer Bergeron, brutally killed in a Vinegar Flats apartment Jan. 7, and 63-year-old Gary Mason, found dead near the skate park under I-90 at Third and McClellan on Jan. 17, are being investigated as murders.
But neither police reports nor autopsy results contain a tidy check-off box to indicate that Spokane's distinct lack of low-income housing plays a role.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n Thursday, Jan. 24, volunteers will foray through the nooks and crannies of the city on their annual one-day count of the homeless. They are likely to count more this year than the 1,187 from last January. Since then, gentrification has forced 144 residents out of three of the few remaining downtown tenement hotels, a tent city sprang up in protest and was shut down after 46 days under threat of court action, the vacancy rate for low-income housing is effectively at zero, there is a waiting list for transitional housing, emergency shelters have been running full all year and -- even in the worst of weather -- people like John Mace Beavan who can't find beds have been sleeping every night under the freeway.
"It's a risky thing to do. Even the biggest man is as vulnerable as a newborn baby when sleeping on the street," says Mike Cain, assistant director of the House of Charity men's shelter.
And Beavan wasn't a big man. He was 5-foot-7, slight of build but mouthy, Freeway Fred says. "Johnny was all right. He was a little short guy with a big white beard and always raising hell, but nobody took him seriously."
Cain notes the deaths from exposure and homicide and says, "We have had a bad three weeks, but the amazing thing is it isn't happening on a daily basis. Only by the grace of God it has not."
"There are crazy, crazy people on the streets. It's not safe at night," says Bob Lynn, a shelter resident rattled by the death of Gary Mason. In recent weeks, Lynn says, he became acquainted with Mason who he describes as a Vietnam veteran hobbled by severe arthritis -- "His legs were in real bad shape" -- and, at 63, a man who was anticipating Social Security at his next birthday, hoping the monthly income would get him a place of his own.
The death hit him hard, Lynn says.
"This is it for me. When I get my next unemployment check, I'm moving out."
Lynn is a thickly bearded, longtime seasonal worker at Yellowstone National Park who rides out his off seasons on unemployment checks and homeless shelters. He says he and Mason would sometimes talk about the dangers of being homeless downtown.
Such talk is common around the shelters, where people share anecdotes of predators gathering whenever there is the merest sniff of meager Social Security or benefit checks arriving.
Beavan and Mason both, one man at the shelter says, "would flash their money around."
And that, says Vicki Rasmussen, a widow who found herself homeless last year, is an invitation to get robbed if not worse. But all homeless are vulnerable, she says, recounting an episode where four people followed and surrounded her, plucking cash out of her pocket because she had nowhere safe to keep it.
Beavan's death is not considered a homicide, but those who knew him say it's as bad as murder if the people he was drinking with let him pass out uncovered.
Bergeron was a hyper spirit who could keep the Hope House women's shelter laughing, Rasmussen says. But violent outbursts got her temporarily banished from the day rooms at the House of Charity, where there is some level of monitoring and supervised calm. Police say Bergeron was at the transit plaza when she met the man who would invite her to his apartment and kill her.
Mason's body was found last week after friends hadn't seen him for a couple of days. He was wearing only jeans and a shirt and police initially chalked his death up to exposure. But the autopsy revealed indications there may have been foul play.
Without any suspects, detectives are not releasing specifics, a spokeswoman says.
"I see the need for shelter," says City Council President Joe Shogan. "We did a hell of a lot of work relocating people from the Otis. We're tapped out, there's nothing left."
Lynn expresses frustration. "I know so many places downtown that are vacant and nothing is being done with them."
What used to be the city's low-income housing stock is evolving, as clusters of old hotels and apartments -- lately including the Otis, New Madison, Commercial, Norman, Jefferson and Briggs -- are under remodel or conversion into apartments or condominiums geared for a more affluent crowd.
Little new housing aimed at low-income people has taken its place.
"There really isn't any," says Bob Peeler of Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP).
Cindy Algeo, executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium (SLIHC), is just now putting together data about the availability of rentals for low-income tenants in the last half of 2007.
Survey results from the first half of the year, she says, were grim enough -- and that was just as the Commercial, New Madison and Otis were beginning to close.
Here was the tally: 31 vacancies out of more than 2,000 rentals.
"When you have an overall vacancy rate of 1.5 percent it might as well be zero," Algeo says. "We definitely need to increase the housing stock, and we need to look at ways to do it."
The survey looks at the rentals owned and operated by seven nonprofits that are members of SLIHC. There are another 2,000 to 3,000 subsidized rentals throughout the county under private management, Algeo says.
And the vacancy rates for these are roughly the same, says Lorraine Brooks, director of multifamily housing for Kiemle and Hagood, which manages 780 of the subsidized rentals.
"Some of our properties are 100 percent occupied and continue to stay that way," Brooks says. Plus there may be income or age or other restrictions that come with some units. "We serve different populations of people -- low-income families, people with physical or mental illnesses, people with AIDS or who are HIV-positive and people who are 62 or older."
The homeless are as diverse as any other segment of society and finding shelter is not one size fits all.
What many low-income advocates suggest is mixed-income housing.
"It's been proven that with diversity of housing, people live to the level of where they are at. Put somebody in piece-of-crap housing and they will treat it like crap. Put them in someplace nice, and where other tenants keep their places up, they will treat it nice. Study after study has shown this," Peeler says.
"You've got to get more incentives for nonprofits and [for-]profits to do low-cost housing successfully. We can't count on HUD to come in and provide the means. We need to develop partnerships," he adds. "The city has been supportive. Joe Shogan has been supportive by promoting relocation and low-income housing. The city and developers are talking about the issue."
Steve Cervantes, director of Northeast Washington Housing Solutions, says he has been encouraged recently by what he calls a "trickle of interest" from developers visiting the nonprofit's latest affordable housing project creating 85 "work force" apartments at the old Helena Building.
"Some developers have come through and asked 'How do you guys do this?'" Cervantes says.
"My message is we need to get a mix of housing," says Marty Dickinson, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, of her lobbying trip to Olympia last week with a slew of local business leaders and politicos.
The DSP is business oriented and cheers downtown revitalization -- the very same process that has squeezed out low-income apartments and people.
But as the Otis, New Madison and Commercial were being emptied for upscale renovation last summer, Dickinson was chosen by former Mayor Dennis Hession to lead a crisis task force on affordable housing issues and she took the assignment seriously and tackled it head-on.
The experience has energized her, she says, to advocate for affordable and low-income housing. As the lobbying delegation ticked off items on Spokane's agenda, Dickinson often raised the housing topic, she says.
"I would say we need housing money and [legislators] would say we have rental vouchers," Dickinson said during a phone call on her way back from Olympia last week. "And I would say it doesn't matter if someone has a rental subsidy if there is no place they can rent. What's missing is we don't have the bricks and mortar to put a roof over their head to get the services they need."
At last count, more than 24 bills relating to affordable housing have been introduced. Neil Beaver, aide to Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane), points to two in particular -- 5959, or THOR, and 6335, which shot through the Senate in three days last week and would immediately place $6 million in the Washington Family Fund to help an additional 1,000 homeless families over three years.
THOR, says SLIHC's Algeo, authorizes $7.5 million this year for rental assistance programs to get the homeless into apartments. There is also, she says, "a proposal to make loan money available at very low interest rates to develop affordable housing."
Low-interest loans might be one way to induce developers to build for low-income tenants. As Dickinson and many others say, Spokane needs buildings, but definitions, formulas and rules can be an obstacle.
In the arena of affordable housing, affordability is defined by median family income (MFI) -- and this is where Spokane gets socked. The operable MFI here (from the last census) is roughly $42,000 while the median for the state is roughly $54,000. By rule, housing should cost 30 percent of a tenant's budget.
Eyes glazed yet? We're getting to the payoff.
Low-income is defined as half the median family income, or about $20,000 in Spokane (many homeless earn only a sliver of that). So when you take the 30 percent of the 50 percent, an appropriate rent in Spokane comes out in the low $200 a month range. Few, if any, developers can make that work.
"Because of our low income, it's difficult to charge enough rent for a property to make it pencil out and meet the operating cost," says Ray Rieckers, director of housing opportunities for SNAP. "In Seattle, you can command $500 rents instead of $250 rent to make it meet affordable guidelines."
Let's say it costs roughly the same to build an apartment complex in the first place, and it's easy to see how developer incentive can vanish in Spokane.
"If you try to provide housing for people of very, very low incomes, it will be difficult to operate in the black," Algeo says.
The process of obtaining state subsidies can be convoluted, time-consuming, come with strings and the money may show up three months late. These are cited as other disincentives.
On the other hand, there is a nearly universal sense in the social services and nonprofit crowd that Spokane has been all-carrot/no-stick as it tries to get developers interested in taking on low-income or affordable housing projects, though almost no one was willing to be quoted on this score.
An exception was Cervantes of Northeast Washington Housing Solutions, the new guy in town. He comes from an area where it is required for developers to provide low-income components to housing projects, or pay into a fund with the same goal. "You come to a city like this that is developer driven and it's hard because you get a lot of resistance about why they can't build. Finally, when you implement a policy requiring them to do it, you find they can build."
The all-carrot approach may change. The City Council is considering an ordinance that would require developers of condo conversions, for instance, to pay to help relocate displaced tenants.
The relocation funds are not complete solutions, Cervantes and others say, if there is no affordable housing stock out there.
Like Dickinson and many others, "We should be talking about mixed-use and mixed-income" housing projects, Cervantes says, where high-end buyers help the project pencil out, more affordable units keep the working class in the city and low-income units help avoid the stigma of a building turning into a slum.
On the incentive side, there is talk of adjusting permit fees for builders who agree to add low-income components to a project, and exploration of a housing levy, modeled on one in Seattle.
The levy, always a tough sell to voters here, would create a fund that would allow the city to better leverage state and federal assistance for low-income and affordable housing starts.
"Right now, the city devotes no general funds to build affordable housing," says SLIHC's Algeo.
"Usually the first money into a project is local -- you have to have local money to qualify for state money," says SNAP's Rieckers. "Spokane is hurt to some degree because we don't have any other source of local support other than HUD money. Seattle has a levy that gives them the edge to leverage more money into their community."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the meantime, it's tough to find shelter. Robert Vargas and his wife Machelle exemplify the cautionary tale of being one paycheck away from homelessness. They each had decent jobs in Galveston, Texas -- she in retail and he an electrician -- and had the house, the car, the toys, the loans, the credit that are part of the Great American Balancing Act.
Last fall Machelle Vargas came to Spokane to be with a daughter who had become pregnant in difficult circumstances. She had lived here previously and remembered just walking into J.J. Newberry to ask for a job -- and being hired on the spot.
Today, however, at 48 and with a 10-year-old drug conviction, Machelle Vargas has been unable to find work and quickly wound up in a women's shelter.
Scared and lonely, she called Robert, and eventually he made the trek north, riding the 'Hound into Spokane near midnight Dec. 8.
Unable to even step inside the fence at the women's shelter, he spent that first night walking with Machelle downtown.
"I have never seen so many mentally ill people out on the streets. I have never seen that many homeless," he says.
In Galveston, a tourist town, this is the off-season and construction is booming. Robert's company has bids on five different casino or hotel projects, he says.
It was a shock to him to discover construction slows to a crawl here during winter months. His out-of-state union card wasn't an asset, either, and he also has a felony conviction even though it is nearly 30 years old.
He wound up at the Union Gospel Mission.
They both haunt various job-training and job-seeking programs at places like Goodwill Industries, and are on the waiting list for one of the transitional housing units run by the Salvation Army where they can finally live like a married couple again with their own bath and kitchen.
Without a car, without a phone, it's been harsh, they say. They walk or take the bus to various appointments. "It really slows us down," Machelle says. She has had to refuse at least one job offer because the shift conflicted with curfew hours at the shelter.
"The system is not amenable to helping a person become self-sufficient," says Jack Lilienthal, program manager at Goodwill Industries.
"It's confusing," adds Patty Norton of Women's Hearth. And it can be uncaring, they say.
Lack of proper identification is often an issue for the homeless. Their ID can be easily stolen because they live with little privacy. Trying to get ID without ID would be comical if it weren't so frustrating.
"To get a Social Security card you have to have so many pieces of ID. It's a Catch-22," says Chrystal Alderman of Spokane Mental Health's Homeless Outreach Team.
The outreach team is almost always cruising the streets or the shelters to check on people, deliver messages about appointments, hook people up to needed services -- everything from bus passes to housing.
Alderman echoes Norton, "The process is very confusing -- and it can be difficult for us, even, to navigate the system."
And the system doesn't care if someone walked to the north side, or if they had to find a friend with a car that would start, and missed an appointment by 10 minutes. You reschedule and walk back.
"It can take hours and hours to accomplish simple things," Alderman says. "People give up -- not because they want to be homeless but because they don't want to deal with the stress on top of it."
So they are out there, elbowing each other in lines for the limited shelter beds, wrapping themselves in the dim light under freeways and bridges.