Six Degrees of Separation: Enmity Against the Growing Number of Houseless, Until It Happens to You

Experts know panhandling and “brother can you spare some change” signs are tips of the iceberg

A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, ‘Get a boat!’ ―Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure

It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”

― Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

Cast Thy First Stone . . . expect a boomerang

It’s so easy for someone on the outside to just blithely say, “Get off your duff, clean up your act, get your resume ready, and go in and apply and get a job.”

People in Spokane, WA (county population of 471,000) working on the front-lines of homelessness are obviously way beyond this simplistic “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” admonition.

No bed, no meals, no shower, no roof over your head, a chronic illness, mental health issues, bills and legal obligations and fines and no credit and a vicious self-loathing generated by society’s mores and false sense of everyone else being so put “together” are just a few of the hurdles Spokane’s homeless face. Add addiction or recovery from substance abuse, no family connections, and the lack of skills, and these homeless citizens have few options and tools to dig themselves out of an ever-quaking quicksand.

Businesses are not knocking down doors of the supported employment and social services organizations and churches and shelters handling the misbegotten, homeless, underemployed and asking for workers.

Many know that poverty, family dysfunction and, worse, a home with addicts and violence all beget young people starting out life with an abhorrent lack of soft-social-people skills. Learning confidence, perseverance, stick-to-it attitudes are best taught in the formative years. Models of strong families, powerfully-connected people, and examples of skills, vocations and professions help young people become thriving adults.

Spokane can count as part of its children base 2,000 students who go to school during the day and end up homeless at night, living in shelters, on couches, in cars, or on the streets.

The services for the homeless, w/o families, w/o addictions, w/o criminal backgrounds, and w/o mental illness, and, finally, with or without a job are threadbare, and have been actively cut over the years as the number of homeless has actually risen.

There are, however, services at the city, non-profit, state, federal and church levels that provide some safety nets. Family Promise is a network of churches working to provide emergency shelter for families, partnering with the Salvation Army. Church buildings are essentially unused for 95 percent of the time, so why not utilize them as shelters for vulnerable families who are homeless. Steve Allen, director, sees a Sunday service taking place as a spiritual anchoring, but then breaking of the bread follows, as meals are served and then quickly the church is transformed into a seven days a week shelter: volunteers come in with bedding and then set up individual Sunday school rooms for each family as a safe, warm nighttime respite. In the daytime, the families are then moved to a day center.

What’s obvious to anyone working with families that end up homeless, Allen reiterates, are deficits few can imagine: many young parents have never learned how to make a budget, how to parent, how to manage the simple things in life like paying bills and following through with financial obligations. As children develop, they too end up in the vicious cycle of inter-generational dysfunction begetting poverty, bad decision-making, possibly criminal activity and then an endless spiral of fines, restitution, fees, levies, payments, garnishments.

The African adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” is apropos for Allen, who admittedly grew up in an upper middle class house in Bellevue, his dad having owned a small successful software business. Steve ended up in Zambia, Africa, working with orphans with HIV/AIDS. In that baptismal of his faith and rectitude, Steve had never seen so much poverty. Like many of us who have lived and worked in so called developing, poor or third world countries, the amount of power and support in a village is astounding, even in the midst of abject poverty and so many people going wanting.

Minister Steve says his “Ignorant Shield” was broken down years ago, and he sees that the poor in this city, in this country, have it much, much worse than those in Africa. “So many poor and homeless have no families. In this country we do not hold dear the power of the community to aid and assist. When a person in a village in Africa needs an operation, the entire village pools their money. You do not see that connection, that shared sacrifice here, and so poor people in Spokane are so much worse off.”

Steve’s a new generation of ministers, calling the church of old myopic about caring for the poor, being so bible oriented but not strongly connected to the messages of love and sharing. He also invokes Gandhi, and his salt march, the Indian’s most famous non-violent protest. It was a 241-mile march to protest the British Salt Tax making it illegal for people to freely collect their own salt from the coasts. That was 86 years ago.

Orange is the New Black … as in private prison profits

“It’s a full-time job being poor,” says Layne Pavey, head of a prison reentry housing program in Spokane, as well as a member of Spokane’s Smart Justice movement.

For the 33 year old Pavey, the mean streets and locked-up life are not something she theoretically knows as a social worker holding a master’s degree. When she was 25, she plead guilty to a first-time, non-violent crime of conspiracy to distribute drugs in Billings, Montana. She faced five to 40 years, but got 20 months. For two of her co-conspirators – a Latino and mixed race Black – they got slapped with seven years in federal prison.

Her role is finding people services – a roof over their head, first – who end up released, homeless and stuck in a system awash in paperwork, hurdles, and mind-numbing Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

She reiterates what a lot of professionals know – most of our visible homeless (not the couch surfers or doubling up folk, necessarily) have criminal records – 85 percent or more – a byproduct of a country that has the highest incarceration rate of any other society, and one that puts people in jail for missing payments on traffic fines or parking tickets. Public intoxication, loitering, trespassing, and possession charges add up to felonies.

“The criminal justice system is a symptom of society’s issues,” Layne says. “We have to fundamentally change how we intervene. No one is curious as to why they broke the law. We need as a society to look at the conditions people are living in.” Layne’s curiosity crosses so many philosophical and intellectual planes – trauma, pain, mental illness, epigentics, society’s meting out of justice in the form of injustice, and poverty as a force of profits for a few privileged.

Both of us call these conditions “systems of structural violence,” and that includes not only marginalization of people of color, but also poor societal conditions around serving mental health and general health needs of a community; jobs that don’t pay squat so parents can’t stay in the home as caregivers; and a pernicious system of piling fine after payment onto people who are barely surviving with a $10 an hour heavy labor warehouse job and odd work under the table.

Layne points out that when she was released at age 25, she had a place to stay (her parents’ basement), and she landed a job, albeit at a fast-food chain, because of who her parents knew. While she had all those supports in place and went on to get a graduate degree, Layne points out the daily reality of her work – a black gentleman just released after 32 years of incarceration, at age 58 and looking to find work before the 90-day housing voucher runs out. No community ties, no family to help, no cultural connections to Spokane, felonies in his past, and a huge gap between jobs, to say the least.

In fact, the amount of one’s institutionalization in prison, especially solitary confinement, is now part of a push to garner disability status through SSI, and even at $780 a month, if they qualify, this amount represents some stability for those severely institutionalized who are incapable of reintegration since one gets into intractable prison habits tied to PTSD, hyper vigilance, a shoot or be shot mentality, deep fear of public situations, always watching one’s back, even scarfing food down quickly.

Part of the push in Spokane and elsewhere is convincing businesses to consider released/rehabilitated/proactive former inmates as worthy – qualified – employees. According to Layne, 360 businesses in Spokane are on board. “We need programs around work force development, job skills training, soft and social skills.”

The goal for many is to end the private prison complex, which is set up to pay investors – hedge funds many times throw into prison portfolios. Empty prisons do not pay investors profits. “As a clinical social worker I know that we have to stick to why we organize. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

The gauntlet is powerful against stopping homelessness:

  • Washington State stopped parole in 1996
  • mandatory minimum sentences even judges turn their noses up to
  • up to one-third of Americans have some legal-criminal charge in their past
    there are over 30 million felons
  • rents are criminally high
  • good paying jobs are fewer and farther between
  • diagnosed and undiagnosed developmental disabilities challenge the individuals and families

Steve Allen, minister, director of Family Promise of Spokane:

We focus on helping families. There is a huge spectrum of homeless. We work with those stuck in the system . . . not enough boxes check. They aren’t homeless enough. Rapid Rehousing program according to HUD standards has to take the most impacted. The families in our program are not facing addiction, or joblessness. They fall through the cracks. Just this last Monday a family came to our door. A mother with three children. One has sickle cell anemia. The other one with sleep apnea. They came to us and asked, ‘Can you help us, we have no other options.

Connie Nelson, Shalom Ministries:

What I can tell you is that there is a disproportionate number of them that have a criminal history, which is a MAJOR barrier to both housing and employment. Their records often/usually include an LFO, legal financial obligation that they cannot pay, often ever due to its size and accruing interest. One of my clients owes $108,000, and this for a man with no high school diploma or formalized training. That’s the price of a house and he’ll never pay it off. Many of us that are involved in this field are advocating to changes in the legal system that do not penalize people for being poor.

Layne Pavey, Director of I Did the Time and program director, Revive Reentry Services:

To get people to understand what the people I work with [face one has to imagine today, you have no house, no income, no identification, can’t afford a bus pass. You just woke up on a street downtown. How soon could you get a job, housing and all the essential identifications? We don’t even kick our 18-year-olds out of the house, yet these people have 90 days to get it all together with no connections to Spokane, no family, no network.

Note: As always, these urban problems of social injustice, pathological capitalism, punishment bureaucracy, vicious nanny-gatekeeping coming from a small town like Spokane are microcosms of a world that is metastasizing through the kleptomania of the Ruling Moneyed Elites.

Part Two is coming up October 2016 – Sheltering the Family, Creating the Hearth: Spokane’s Soldiers for the Poor Fight Back

First appeared in Spokane Living Magazine, starting on page 72.

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. A forthcoming book (Dec. 15, 2016), Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber, looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice, and before, to bring defiance to the world that is now lobotomizing at a rate never before seen in history. Read his autobiography, weekly chapter installments, at LA Progressive. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.