by Cara Gardner

For thousands of people in Spokane County, there really is no place like home. Despite promising indicators of economic growth, Spokane County, at 13.7 percent, still has the state's highest number of households living in poverty, according to the 2000 U.S. census. In 2001, the City of Spokane's Human Services Department identified nearly 9,000 homeless individuals in the city alone; about 30 percent of them are children.

"We're housing about 60 families a night city- and county wide," says Bob Peeler, director of the Homeless Program for Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP). Peeler also works with the Spokane Homeless Coalition and says that other area shelters and emergency housing programs are at their limits. "I have about 15 families on the waiting list and about a hundred [families] on the waiting list for the waiting list. Interface, St. Margaret's and Salvation Army are full, too, and we're not even talking about the guys on the streets yet -- these are families with kids. This is the worst we've ever seen."

The Spokane County Housing and Community Development Department counted 204 families and 612 individuals seeking services for homelessness outside the city limits, in Spokane County's rural areas in 2003. As many as half of the individuals seeking services for homelessness suffer from physical or mental disabilities, further complicating their situation.

"We've always had homeless [populations], but in the past they could stay with other families or extended families," says Peeler, "but family units are breaking down. The only place is a shelter. They need services to get back."

Often individuals and/or families can find housing, but the other programs and systems they need in order to get back on their feet (such as mental health, transportation and drug rehab) are too overloaded to support them, and they end up homeless again.

"We're so enmeshed in providing the day-to-day needs to families that we can't do the appropriate planning for programs," says Peeler. "We're all overwhelmed. It's hard to be faced with the choice: go to a meeting or serve two families? We know in the long term the meeting might be more productive, but the family is in the waiting room. Spokane has good systems and we work well together, but we're just surviving and not planning."

That's where the Corporation for Supportive Housing comes in. CSH is a national nonprofit that, in order to end cycles of homelessness, works to link permanent housing with necessary social services. The organization extended a joint grant to Spokane and Seattle for $325,000 to fund a two-year study on how to combine housing options with social services. With their share of about $90,000, the city of Spokane, Spokane County and the Spokane Housing Authority have hired three consultants to put together an action plan that essentially creates more streamlined networks between the various agencies and organizations that help disabled homeless individuals, who are often the most in need.

"The Housing Authority can develop affordable housing, but we don't have access to dollars to bring supportive services to that housing," explains Lucy Lipinski, director of assets and property for the Spokane Housing Authority. "In order to serve this population, we need to mesh these services together. How do you provide medical, mental health, chemical dependency and case management services?"

Matthew Wade Hays lives in temporary housing in Spokane. He suffers from schizophrenia, and without steady assistance on his medication, he isn't sure he'd be able to keep his apartment.

"Theoretically it's fine," Hays says of the grant from CSH. "But if the money isn't stable, if it's not secure, then I don't know."

Hays guesses he knows plenty of homeless people who can't keep their housing because they can't get other social services, but adds that "Homeless people are kind of a statistical anomaly. It's really hard to know what they're doing, 'cause once [they're] in the system they're going everywhere."

Hays explains that he goes through Native Health to see a doctor, Spokane Mental Health for psychiatry and CHAS community clinic to get his prescriptions filled. "They like it if you go to a lot of different places," he says. "It taxes the system less."

Hays, who's college-educated, fell through the proverbial cracks after returning to Spokane from the West Side.

"I was born in the Spokane Valley, but I lived in the Puget Sound area for eight years and graduated from Evergreen State College. I only had a cat, so I gave that to my neighbors and borrowed $10 for gas."

Since he arrived in Spokane last September, Hays has spent a few nights on the streets. But after he stepped on a nail and ended up in Sacred Heart Medical Center, his only support system has been community programs that can assist him with housing and mental health services. "I have temporary housing through Supportive Living and am on the waiting list for the Housing Authority," Hays explains. "I don't need substance abuse counseling -- I dodged that bullet. But I stayed in Sacred Heart for two weeks while they got my meds [for schizophrenia] figured out."

But hospitals aren't the best -- or the most cost-effective -- places for homeless people to wait for other services to kick in.

Lipinski, with the Spokane Housing Authority, explains that when the study is finished in August 2005, the city, county and multiple nonprofit and charitable organizations will have practical solutions for integrating money and social services with supportive housing.

"I'm hoping it brings more resources," says Peeler. "I'm hoping we get our system organized."

Lipinski says that the CSH's grant to Spokane and Seattle will be an example for the rest of the state.

"It's part of a statewide steering committee that the city, county and Housing Authority sits on," she explains. "What we're doing in Spokane will be able to be used in other areas."

But other areas may not have the funding to couple social services with supportive housing. A bill introduced in the Legislature providing state funding for a network between housing and supportive services for homeless families was practically killed; it won't be heard again until next year, if at all. The bill, 2SHB2818, passed the House and was referred to the Ways and Means Committee, where it failed after a March 1 deadline.

Hopefully the Corporation for Supportive Housing grant will help Spokane homeless agencies and organizations coordinate their services so that people like Hays can get the assistance they need.

Hays says he plans to leave Spokane within a year and move to Yakima.

"I have a liberal arts degree, with a focus in education and linguistics," Hays says smiling. "I want to teach grade school kids on the reservation."

Publication date: 03/11/04

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