Five years ago, Ken Vansant would take his grandkids the long way just to avoid “the bums.” He never expected to find himself in a similar situation.
“I would go an extra block around the corner because I didn’t want them to go by and see the bums,” Vansant said. “When I got here (at the Union Gospel Mission men’s shelter), you get to know these guys really had real jobs, like I did. They’re not bums.”
Many homeless people want to work. They want to pay taxes. They want to eat a burger at Red Robin.
They have hopes, dreams, wants and needs, just like a housed person. And they’re tired. Just ask Dixie Todd, who was homeless for more than 20 years.
“You go through a lot of filters of other people’s perceptions and misconceptions. And by the time you run through all that, it’s worn down your armor,” Todd said. “Your self confidence will wax and wane.
“As opportunities come and go you’ll be just too exhausted to take advantage of something. And so something goes by you, not because you weren’t aware of it, but because you just had nothing left to go do it.”
Even the term “homeless person” is misleading. It implies permanence. But many people fluctuate in and out of homelessness. One day they’re in an apartment, the next they’re on the street. One day they’re in the shelter with every belonging in a single suitcase, the next they’re moving into permanent housing.
And people experiencing homelessness are sharply cognizant of the barriers they face in obtaining housing, even when they’re unable to surmount them.
The city’s new mayor, Nadine Woodward, has pledged to embark on a new approach to homelessness that will begin with the formation of a work group. In anticipation of that community discussion, The Spokesman-Review reached out directly to people who have experienced homelessness in Spokane to hear what challenges they face and what solutions they have to offer.
For every 100 apartments in Spokane County, fewer than two are available to rent.
The tight real estate market in Spokane has become increasingly evident as the city’s population continues to grow and its economy thrives. No population feels the impact of that economic success more than the homeless, who struggle to secure an apartment to rent and can wait months just to hear back from a prospective landlord.
They face roadblocks like a lack of identification, long waitlists for subsidized housing, and trouble making their way through the application process due to bad credit or other red flags in their personal history.
Kelly, who requested her last name be withheld to protect her identity, became homeless after leaving an abusive boyfriend. She soon found Jewels Helping Hands in the city-owned Cannon Street warming center, where she now lives and works.
Saving money for a new apartment is the long-term struggle Kelly faces, but the cost of even searching for an apartment can be prohibitive, she said.
“There’s no place to rent, period. And they want $100 for every application fee, and that’s ridiculous. I can’t afford that. And no, no one else can either,” Kelly said.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs hopes a package of housing-related laws, expected to be introduced in March, will make obtaining – and keeping – an apartment easier. It could include a standardized background check system so that applicants are not paying fees to multiple landlords, he said. Additionally, he hopes the city will implement an already-funded microloan program that would, at a low interest rate, help the financially disadvantaged pay a deposit on a new apartment.
As of fall 2019, the apartment vacancy rate in Spokane County stood at 1.8% overall, and 1% for both one- and two-bedroom apartments. Anything below 5% is generally considered a tight market, according to the University of Washington’s Center for Real Estate Research, which compiles the data.
A lack of affordable housing and evictions were among the most common reasons people cited as the cause of their homelessness, according to a survey included in the city’s annual Point in Time Count in 2019. A lack of a job, a lack of income or a family conflict also were frequently cited.
A past eviction is an immediate deal-breaker for many landlords. Many currently homeless people worry that when filling out an application, their monthslong or yearlong stay at the shelter will be a black mark on their housing record.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher waiting list is closed, and has been for quite some time. The Spokane Housing Authority’s website suggests checking back on the status in March. The process of obtaining a voucher can take a couple of years, according to Michelle Christie, a housing specialist with SNAP, which helps homeless individuals navigate their search for housing.
There are other income-based housing units available in Spokane to which an individual applies directly, but for the most part, those lists are also quite long and fluctuate between six months and two years, Christie said.
Over such a long wait time, it can be difficult for a person experiencing homelessness to track their application.
“If they’ve had a change in phone number or what have you, their name gets skipped off the top of that list,” Christie said.
Despite having a Section 8 voucher, Michelle King struggled to win approval to rent an apartment while temporarily sheltered by Family Promise. Her partner has to pay child support from a previous relationship, and her own credit rating is a nonstarter for landlords.
Their search was further complicated because King’s oldest daughter, 7, requires daily medication for seizures. A limited number of schools have full-time nurses capable of administering the medication, she found. King does not have a car and, given her daughter’s condition, wanted to live close to the school. After an arduous search, they landed at a place near Grant Elementary on the South Hill.
Her daughter’s condition is what led King to quit her old job, part of the reason she found herself homeless.
“That wasn’t a smart choice for me, but at the time I was so overwhelmed with all the stuff about my daughter that I just needed to be by her side. We don’t have alcohol or drug abuse problems. We have a really good family dynamic,” King said.
King’s 4-year-old son has been in the shelter system essentially his entire life, and still is learning how to adapt to life in a stable home after years of bouncing between shelters and churches for short stays.
“He keeps asking what church we’re going to now,” King said.
Kristin Juarez was working when she became homeless, but could no longer make ends meet. A new property manager was less flexible, cracking down on late rent payments, and it sparked a “downward spiral” that included temporary stays in motels and campsites at state parks.
When Juarez arrived at the Open Doors shelter, “I didn’t really know what I needed to be doing,” she said. Her long to-do list included meeting with a case manager on a weekly basis and obtaining a Section 8 voucher.
In fact, the life of a homeless person can be excruciatingly busy.
As a single mother of three children, Juarez still was putting herself through school and raising her children, but had the additional burdens of applying for assistance. She filled out logs to prove to Family Promise that she was actively looking for a home.
“It was a lot,” she said.
Juarez found five suitable apartments, but four of them were out of her price range. The one she lives in now was only within her budget because the landlord agreed to lower the advertised rent by $9 per month.
“I searched for six months before I was able to even find anything,” Juarez said.
When Juarez left Spokane, she was paying $650 for a two-bedroom apartment. Two years later, that same apartment is $815. The place she has now is $990 per month, she said.
In the fall of 2019, the average rent for an apartment in Spokane County was $1,019 per month, according to the University of Washington survey. That’s an increase of 57% from 2009, when the average rent here was $651.
Chris Keyser has been homeless since his house in Coeur d’Alene burned down in 2014. After several years on the street in Idaho, Keyser thought he’d have better luck in Spokane, but ended up at the House of Charity, where he is now a resident and employee. Keyser is one of many who believe the lack of affordable housing is the most significant barrier to the homeless.
“When I came over here I knew I’d be homeless for a little while. I expected that. But I didn’t expect it to turn into such a difficult thing to grab and get ahold of (housing),” Keyser said.
Michael Radvanyi has been homeless for about six weeks since losing his apartment, and has been staying at the city’s warming center on South Cannon Street. He’s optimistic because his Social Security payments just kicked in, but it’s been hard to locate a new place for less than $500 a month.
He’s hoping to get back into a place with his old landlord again.
“If this landlord doesn’t work out, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Radvanyi said.
While many people experiencing homelessness laud Spokane for the wide variety of social services it hosts – often a reason why they landed here – they say it’s a struggle to navigate the complex network of providers without easy access to transportation.
The Spokane Resource Center, for example, offers housing assistance, job training and other resources. But it’s 2 1/2 miles away from the city’s warming center on Cannon Street.
Todd, who is now housed but spent more than 20 years homeless in Spokane, said if she could build the system from the ground up she would centralize providers, not have them “at the corners of the earth.”
“Transportation is what holds people back. If you can’t get to appointments, you can’t get out of the rut,” Todd said.
She suggested a small, free bus that runs in a loop between social service providers on a regular schedule to allow people to plan for – and actually make – their appointments. Some providers refuse to continue services to people who fail to appear for an appointment.
“If this bus would pick people up and take them to these places on a regular schedule, then these programs that the politicians and the nonprofits put together would be accessible,” Todd said.
The city applied for and received a 12-passenger van from the Spokane Transit Authority for just that purpose, according to Community, Housing and Human Services Director Tim Sigler. The problem has been finding a way to pay for its operation, including the cost of a driver, gas and insurance. The department is exploring grant opportunities and looking for philanthropic help.
“If we could do that, our plan is to have several dropoff and pick-up sites that we know are going to be most utilized,” Sigler said. “It’s just a matter of finding the funding.”
The Spokane City Council authorized $30,000 for free bus passes to assist the homeless in 2019, and there are still bus passes for 2020. Of that, $5,000 of passes went to Community Court and $25,000 was distributed to homeless service providers. Additionally, each of the agencies that the city funds has its own budget for bus passes, Sigler said.
But those who are camping or are on the streets don’t have access to the bus passes and are struggling the most to get to appointments, he said.
It’s not easy to get a bus pass, and the justifications for getting one are often restricted by providers, according to several people experiencing homelessness.
When the bus isn’t available, the only option is to walk.
Keyser entered Catholic Charities in respite care due to severe blisters on his feet – not a position he thought he’d be in at 60 years old.
“I went to the hospital and they said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to get off your feet.’ They were waterlogged and everything. I had to get off my feet and dry them out,” Keyser said. “What was there to do but walk around and try to find resources? I would get so tired of it.”
Jose Chavez, a patron at the Cannon Street warming center, expects the entire process of finding an apartment to take about eight months. As with many other homeless people, the first major barrier to rehousing Chavez faces is obtaining a valid form of identification.
When you’re homeless it’s easy to lose your identification, or just as likely, it will be stolen, Chavez said. Formerly in the construction industry in Montana, Chavez was laid off, starting a “snowball effect.” En route to California, Chavez ran out of money and landed in Spokane.
Just getting to the licensing office was a small miracle, given Chavez’s lack of access to transportation. Once there, he learned he needed to list a permanent address. Unsheltered at the time, his efforts stalled. Now, Chavez has listed the Cannon Street facility as his address and is eagerly awaiting a new ID in the mail.
“After I get my license, then I have to try housing. Then you gotta wait two to three months just for that, for you to get accepted and all that stuff, and then you’ve got to start looking, and that takes a while,” Chavez said.
Staying nourished can be a constant struggle for people experiencing homelessness. Crystal Julian receives Social Security, but her income quickly dissipated every month when she was homeless.
“A lot of my check was going out to eat, I couldn’t stomach the foods that were at the churches,” Julian said.
Woodward made addressing homelessness the central issue of her successful campaign for mayor in 2019, and her calls for a “tough love” approach resonated with her supporters. In addition to offering a “jail or treatment” approach, Woodward also criticized low-barrier shelters.
“We can no longer continue to warehouse people and hand out sandwiches,” Woodward said last year.
But some experiencing homelessness bristle at the assertion that handouts enable the homeless to continue living such a lifestyle.
“A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is still a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It still provides a quick, nutritious meal,” Todd said. “Why are you giving it to your kids if it’s such a bad thing?”
When he was unsheltered, Keyser absolutely wanted a sandwich, and it didn’t deter his search for housing – it enabled it.
“I didn’t want to go out searching for resources hungry,” Keyser said. “Giving someone a sandwich or a bowl of soup, I think that’s a great idea. I don’t think it enables them.”
Before moving to Washington last year, King couldn’t live with Justin, her partner of eight years, at the homeless shelter in Montana because they were not legally married at the time.
Homelessness can be especially straining on couples with or without children because shelters often are segregated by gender.
Check-in at the shelter Chavez stayed in was two hours before the shelter his ex-wife stayed in, he said.
“You’re inat 6 (p.m.) worrying about what your wife’s doing for two hours,” Chavez said. Homelessness “is already stressful for a relationship.”
Chavez is worried that Jewels Helping Hands’ temporary contract with the city to operate the shelter on Cannon Street will expire before he is able to find housing.
“When they take this place, it’s going to suck for all of us to go back in the trees and sleep with the roaches,” Chavez said.
Sigler said the city is continuing to collaborate with regional partners, including Spokane County and Spokane Valley, to secure the funding necessary to open a continuous-stay emergency shelter for single adults later this year.
“That’s going to be our biggest need,” Sigler said. “There is a plan, we just have to find that additional funding.”
People experiencing homelessness are acutely aware of the contempt some businesses hold for them, in ways that manifest themselves as policies against bathroom use for nonpaying customers and the use of high-pitched sound machines to deter loitering.
Spokane can be judgmental, Talbert said.
“It’s kind of like ‘Bring your money, but don’t you stay,’ ” Talbert said.
Clifford Moore, who has been homeless on and off for two years and now works at Jewels Helping Hands, suggested that business owners pop their heads into the warming center and get to know the patrons personally.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these local business owners deal with the homeless problem. And that tends to put a spotlight on … the very few who are actually causing the problems,” Moore said. “Right now they see what a few people do and put us all in the same category.”
Moore, 47, suggested the city consider tax incentives for businesses that hire homeless people.
Another hangup for the homeless, Moore said, is the assumption that businesses won’t hire people with felony records. That’s not always the case, he said.
But Union Gospel Mission resident Christopher Hovdesven worried that, as he watches the news and sees companies bringing hundreds of jobs into Spokane, they aren’t open to a person like him.
“Are they going to be hiring people like us who are felons? What population are they really providing these jobs for?” Hovdesven asked. For some employers, “I don’t care if you come out with a master’s degree and you’ve been clean and sober and haven’t committed a crime in 20 years, they will not hire a felon.”
What also frustrates the homeless is how they are perceived by the housed.
Not all homeless people are addicts. Not all struggle with mental health issues. And, most of all, they aren’t lazy and want to work.
“There’s a lot of people that want to change and just don’t have that opportunity. A lot of these people are compassionate, they do care,” Kelly said.
Several people with experience being homeless highlighted the value of a smile, a wave, or a “Hi, how are you?”
“We want help, we need help, we just need people to treat us better,” said Kelly, who has gotten sober since coming to Jewels about four months ago. “Say ‘Hi,’ you know? If someone’s hungry, give him some food.”
People who haven’t had much contact with the homeless can be fearful, Talbert said.
“They don’t understand that we’re not out to go, ‘Oh, I want to kill her tonight,’ or ‘Look at the ring she’s wearing, I’ll cut her finger off,’ ” Talbert said.
Michael Burke said he has 18 months until he can collect his full Social Security. In the meantime, he wants to work.
“At my age. It’s hard to find work,” Burke said.
Burke worked at a local home improvement store, but because his employer wouldn’t offer him full-time hours, he lived in a tent for three years.
“You don’t let them know you’re homeless,” Burke said. “That’s a hard stigma to get away with.”
Services and treatment
After 13 months in jail, Vansant was supposed to be enrolled in a re-entry program. He never found it.
Vansant entered treatment with Frontier Behavioral Health for his mental health issues that stem from childhood, leading him to “crash and burn” despite a successful career and strong work ethic.
Vansant is stuck in a cycle – he can’t hold a job and make an income until he addresses his mental health. But he can’t find an apartment until he has an income. Thus, he is living at the men’s shelter at Union Gospel Mission.
“I finally came to the conclusion that what the problem is, I need to deal with it now. And now I can go out and be a productive person in society,” Vansant said.
Hovdesven was an EMT for about six years in Seattle, but has lived with anxiety and depression, as well as addiction. He’s been chronically homeless since 2006. He now lives at Union Gospel Mission and receives treatment at American Behavioral Health Systems.
A safe place is critical for the homeless, Hovdesven said, even if it’s only a day room.
“It’s really nice to have that cushion … and be inspired by people around you that want to lift you up,” Hovdesven said.
“As for what we need? We need places that will help with the mental health issues,” Burke said.
There are services in Spokane for emergency mental health crises operated by community organizations as well as in partnerships with law enforcement agencies. Access to services for non-emergent mental health care, however, remains a challenge for some.
Austin Luhn, 25, remembers having sex education in high school. But there was no drug and alcohol education. There was no mental health education, he said. Such classes would give people “an opportunity at a younger age to address mental health issues that they have,” Luhn suggested.
Luhn began abusing substances during his senior year of high school, and it wasn’t until he checked into Union Gospel Mission three months ago that he delved into his past.
“Had I had the ability in high school to have some sort of deeper counseling and education on what mental health actually is and on top of that, drugs and addiction, you know, I might not be here today,” Luhn said.
Sigler said the city’s next major investment in combating homelessness should be in behavioral health treatment. When someone is ready to get help, even a two-week wait can “completely derail” their recovery, he said.
“Would really like to see bigger investments in behavioral health, because we know that’s a huge, huge barrier,” Sigler said.
Many who experience homelessness see the need for more addiction treatment and behavioral health services.
Eastern Washington 211 markets itself as a one-stop directory for social services and resources. Call takers are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but the service responds to text messages 24/7. Still, some providers and individuals experiencing homelessness are skeptical that its information is up to date.
Talbert wishes there was a comprehensive list of all the resources available in the area. Without it, homeless people are left to run to one service provider to see what it offers, then to others to see what they offer. In between, transportation is a challenge. At one point, Talbert broke her foot, and “it was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ ”
“A lot of times, a program will pop up and you have to hear about it by word of mouth,” Talbert said.
Juarez benefited, in a way, from her experience with homelessness as a child, on and off for about three years while her mother navigated an abusive relationship with her father.
“A lot of people that I ran into when I was homeless just lacked education on the resources,” she said.