Sheltering the Family, Creating the Hearth: Spokane’s Soldiers for the Poor Fight Back

One half of us are dying in our precarity

And it was interesting, because afterwards, there was a party, and there were couples who were arguing. Basically, the men, in general, didn’t like the movie. They were like, ‘I had hard times, he should have gotten a job, he should have pulled himself together, he had a kid.’ They were very tough with him. And the women were, ‘No, you don’t understand, he had mental illness, he was broken, he lost his wife.’ They were much more understanding toward him. I just stood back and thought, look at this.”

— An after-screening party at the Sarasota Film Festival: writer-director Oren Moverman referencing his Richard Gere-staring movie, Time Out of Mind, about a homeless 65-year-old

It’s the Economy . . . it’s the community . . . it’s us, from the top down, stupid

The reality of homelessness is it largely is caused by an uncaring society, from the head CEO on down, and facilitated by systems that eat at the family, that put people in work that is low pay, meaningless, dangerous, and spiritually and physically destructive.

Many advocates, case workers, and in-the-trenches folk reiterate this, and while we have a difficult time convincing people – we call, “in polite company” – that systems of economics, public commons, housing, education, labor, banking, medicine, community are failing, that fact is newer and newer groups of people, from the retired graying population to young just graduated college students, are faced with one-or-two paychecks away from losing EVERYTHING.

Once homeless, an individual feels any number of tsunamis and earthquakes unleashed: “Then there’s paperwork in general,” said Connie Nelson with Shalom Ministries. “If you’re homeless, where do you keep your important papers?”

Caseworker as Bearing Witness

As a caseworker going on five years, coming from a journalism background and almost three decades teaching for colleges, alternative high schools, prisons, and PK12 programs, I have seen it all. But the reality is working with homeless-recovering addicts-re-entry felons, I have seen the results of what many call “rampant learning disabilities.” Connie Nelson reiterates: “As a former Special Ed teacher I am amazed at the coping skills developed by so many of them who cannot decode the English language.” Nelson is now with a homeless meal program within Shalom Ministries in Spokane.

Navigating Byzantine and competing systems of bureaucracies and “paperwork generators” is sapping. She calls it a nightmare, and points out the application for the Rapid Rehousing Program to get homeless into Spokane’s limited housing is an inch thick and filled with “bureaucratese that is difficult to understand.”

This is my day, too – helping homeless clients with expungement clinics, getting food handler cards, finding old warrants in other states where they might have lived a life on the streets, inebriated or in their words, as tweakers (methamphetamine intravenous use). Landing my clients dentures, steel-toed boots, trainings, certifications, all of this plus the soft skills and report writing, part and parcel my job in the heart of Chinatown.

Living on the streets means possessions get confiscated by police or stolen, and that includes birth certificates, driver’s license or state ID cards, and social security cards and birth certificates. “If you’re on the streets, it’s almost a given that your possessions will be stolen at least once, and it always seems to include documentation,” Connie said.

I am a homeless advocate, case worker, in Portland, which is a city that has dozens of major services to assist the homeless. The film with Pretty Woman’s Richard Gere I watched, and while it is still quirky superficial Hollywood, the undertones of this main character’s street life, confusion and dysfunction are real.

But the narratives of the homeless are much more profoundly destructive, demented and not for Hollywood or New York Times consumption. If you have seen Requiem for a Dream, you might have a glimpse of what addiction is like.

It’s not a blockbuster flick, though.

Broken Families, Broken Systems – Then There are the Children

Many of the people I serve who have addiction issues were brought to that place at a very young age – at age 10 or 12, both boys and girls were exposed and forced to consume heavy drugs, booze and pot. Many – most of my 35- to 65-year-old clients – were also sexually abused/assaulted/raped in their formative years.

This is not some choice, some celebrity rags to riches scenario. We’re talking about young brains at vital developmental stages way before 10 years of age exposed to violence, hate, flailing parents, no reading time, forced to watch violent and sexualized films and people, where truancy, lashing out and substance abuse were the only options.

When I asked Steven Allen, minister and head of Spokane’s Family Promise program cited in the first part of this series (September 2016, “Six Degrees of Separation”), what keeps these almost universally down and out families going is something I too hear frequently:

“Children. I have seen some of the most addicted and broken women and men saved by their child. Many wanted to give to their child what they didn’t have: a stable, healthy, predictable home,” Steve said. “One young women was strung out on drugs after losing her husband and realized she had to give her child a better future, left it all to move to Spokane to live with a friend and ended up homeless. She is a fighter. For her child and a better future.”

Some of the most spiritually-sapping stories are those of my clients who are into six months of successful heroin or meth recovery (even forty years clean, once an addict, always an addict), just off probation, looking 15 years older than their chronological age, but in a series of programs and moving ahead. All good, right?

Not when it comes to children: My clients are lost souls when it comes to sons and daughters who are running the streets, full-fledged drug abusers, and lost inside the same abusive-addictive-adrenaline rush as their parents once had been.

Day after day, homeless people I work with have dozens of stories each detailing why they are in the places they find themselves in. My job is to educate, coach, connect and re-skill so they can get jobs. The home – stability – is the first place they must secure to even consider starting a life of recovery.

Life on the Streets WITH Dignity – Re-parenting is Re-tooling

Connie Nelson is just one of hundreds of advocates in Spokane working to lift up the world one meal at a time. She is program manager for Shalom Ministries’ Dining With Dignity, a 4,000-a-month meal program that serves predominantly homeless and very low income dwellers in downtown Spokane.

“If I could wave my magic wand, I’d build more affordable housing, even if they are single room occupancy,” Connie said. “To move forward, you HAVE to have a place to stand that is safe, quiet and allows you to keep your personal effects close. Otherwise, you pull your world with you wherever you go and just hope that this week you’ll find a place to shower and wash clothes so you are acceptable to society. Showers, laundry and a safe place to store your personal items are like the holy grail for those that are homeless.”

In Portland and dozens of other cities, tent cities or camps are being removed because citizens who don’t understand the realities of homelessness tied to addiction and tied to criminal backgrounds and then mental illness aggressive force their NIMBY sensibilities (not in my backyard) onto politicians and police.

The discussion the Hollywood director of Time Out of Mind cited above as he recalled (from a fancy cocktail party) this general attitude (male dominated, but not exclusively male) that “those bums are lazy and just could get a job anywhere if they wanted,” points to a collective delusional consciousness in America, at the least, and really misanthropic way of thinking, at the worst.

For parenting and child rearing issues tied to transitional housing, that is, getting homeless women with children solid services, we have programs like the 30-year-old Transitions non-profit. Mary Nelson is the program director and is clear on what has to happen to bring children home and out of dangerous conditions tied to homelessness – they need their mothers to be healed or healing, confronting the hell of trauma, PTSD, and other mental health barriers.

So, counseling, medical help, therapy, respite care, and rapid permanent housing are part of a holistic approach to helping redirect cycles of homelessness and children at risk into new beginnings. The mission is clear – to end poverty and homelessness for women and children in Spokane. This non-profit runs five key programs: Women’s Hearth, Transitional Living Center, EduCare, Miryam’s House and New Leaf Bakery Cafe.

Parenting children while one is homeless if fraught with dozens of hurdles, and Child Protective Services (CPS) is not thrilled with the conditions children are forced to endure in a state of houselessness, Mary says. Many children are taken away, put into foster care, and then the mothers have to navigate even more systems of bureaucratic despair.

The idea is to give people gestation, to get their lives turned around – mothers need nine months just to understand the trauma, so Transitions offers sessions dealing with child trauma. There are education services, vocational programs, occupational therapies, soft skills training. Mary Nelson knows that when people are dealing with all that trauma, abuse and unimaginable family and street histories, getting into the workforce is virtually impossible.

“We really need to nurture people, and if we don’t help that parent in crisis, the next generation then falls into the same pattern and carried-over trauma,” Mary told me. The axiom, “it’s a two-way street,” has to be modified, and while Mary sees the landlords’ point of view and bottom line, we have not only mothers and children needing housing, but in so many cases, service animals. Those renting places rarely take on pets, service animals or not.

When You Think You Are Ahead, Another Series of Crises Unfold in Spokane

When I approached Connie of Shalom Ministries, 518 W 3rd Ave, about the first part of this series published last month, I got one part kudo and three parts crisis in an email:

Loved your article! This article is SO timely!  We have lost out building space unexpectedly and it looks like Shalom will have to close unless we can find a new spot to serve our 4000 meals a month.  We’ve been paying $1200 a month for roughly 6000 sf with a kitchen in downtown Spokane, so for us to go down, will be felt big time by the other providers.

I think we need to raise around $650,000 to get the space, locale and equipment we need.  Shalom’s been downtown for 22 years, so it just seems criminal that we might not be there anymore.

The reality of America for 80 percent of us is that we are all struggling to make ends meet, to hold families together, and raising families with divorced parents in the mix. For mother Mary Nelson, she is “so grateful that her older daughter knows how to keep a job, knows how to drive, and knows how to work.”

We are talking about people, children and adult mothers who can’t have conversations with adults, and they just don’t know how to interact; people who don’t know how to dress in clean clothes or keep kempt hair. This is what family dysfunction and lack of “being there” do to the next generation. Mary’s daughter is a single mom, is holding down a full-time job, and goes to school. For the people Mary Nelson serves, that combination is almost impossible to imagine, let alone achieve.

Again, jail-time is common for someone who is an alcoholic or drug user. Things fall apart, and street life turns into sometimes violent drama. For Layne Pavey, a social worker who once served time in jail, it’s a lot about Spokane reducing both the jail population and reforming who should be sent to jail (or even get charges in the first place).

She’s got some active credentials – Master’s in Social Work; Director, I Did the Time; Program Director, Revive Reentry Services; JustLeadershipUSA 2016 Cohort Member; Executive Committee Member, Smart Justice Spokane.

This all adds up to Layne being a steeled advocate for Spokane’s jail population, and African Americans especially, who face a “system of racial disparity.” Not many want to admit it, but statistically, Spokane County, Layne points out, is “the worse county jail in the state.” There are over 970 inmates locked in a jail constructed for 300. Over 65 percent of the inmates are awaiting trials — up to a month or more.

Spokane County will receive funds from MacArthur Foundation in the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative to rethink how America uses its jails. The grant totals $1.75 million – looking at and rectifying racial and ethnic disparities among its jail population. In addition, the City and County are committing $1.2 million to match these funds.

Homeless ex-felons, as any of these advocates will say, face the biggest battle to reintegrate into society. Yet, in some sense, many of us, two or three paychecks away from losing our home, could face disturbing and life-shattering lives as houseless people.

It takes more than a village to help stop this from happening: it takes systems change.

Note: For information about saving Dining with Dignity, contact: Shalom     Ministries. PO BOX 4684. Spokane, WA 99220 509-455-9019, Executive Director, Tim Swartout

To appear in Spokane Living Magazine, October 2016 issue!

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.