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Churches learn about agencies serving homeless people downtown

Lynn Smestad, Susan Tyler Babkirk, Sam Dompier, Jon Carollo and Bob Peeler suggest ways to help homeless people.

To learn how to help downtown neighbors experiencing homelessness, Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ’s education and outreach committees invited people who serve them to speak.

“We knew we needed to do better,” said Westminster’s pastor Andrea (Andy) CastroLang.

They held a panel discussion in October and invited downtown congregations. One member brought 30 nursing/medical students from the Riverpoint campus.

“We care, but often just give money and hope someone else will do something,” Andy said.  “What can we do?  Often we feel we can do nothing, because homelessness seems too big for us.  Just praying is not enough.”

Andy learned to refer to people as “currently homeless,” because most homelessness is temporary, not a lifestyle or choice.  It’s usually the result of a catastrophe.  Few want to stay homeless.

She was heartened to learn of City of Spokane  efforts to change policies that made it hard for homeless people to find housing.

“The panel shared real stories of real people and offered real solutions,” Andy said. “Those who attended learned, and were empowered to be helpful and hopeful so they can make a difference.”

As a congregation open and affirming of the LGBTQ community, members learned agencies “welcome everyone,” whatever their gender identity. Most now have private gender-neutral restrooms and showers at their shelters.

The panelists were Jon Carollo, development director for Volunteers of America (VOA) Vet Housing and Hope House; Lynn Smestad at VOA’s Crosswalk; Susan Tyler Babkirk program director of The Hearth; Sam Dompier, director of House of Charity, and Bob Peeler of Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP).

“Poverty and homelessness can happen to anybody who has no functional address, a 24-year-old or 90-year-old,” said Jon.

Panelists told of their services.

Hope House has 36 shelter beds each night for women, who do not have to be sober, said Lynn. In a year, they serve about 100 unduplicated women but have to turn away more than 300. 

Founded in 1997 as the Downtown Women’s Shelter, it has been run by VOA since 2001.  VOA says there are 1,800 homeless single women in Spokane, many with mental health and chemical dependency issues.

Hope House also has 25 apartments for low-income women who are ready to leave the streets for safe, affordable apartments, and are committed to work on causes of their homelessness.

House of Charity, a shelter of Catholic Charities at 32 W. Pacific, welcomes single people. 

With city funding, it is now open 24 hours a day seven days a week, said Sam, but more housing and shelter beds are needed. 

Once a men’s shelter, it shelters both men and women. Its capacity is 215 a night.  In the six months as a 24/7 shelter, it has served 2,200 men and more than 500 women.

Case management addresses mental health and substance abuse, so the shelter can be a pipeline to housing.

It serves breakfast and lunch every day and dinners two days a week.  It has showers, restrooms and a laundry.  About 1,200 people use it as their mailing address to receive documents they need. 

There are a few beds for people just released from a hospital.

The Hearth is Transitions’ downtown day-time women’s drop-in center at 920 W. Second.

“We are a community center where women come for case management, community and peer support,” said Susan. “It’s a low-key place to connect through activities, groups and classes, or form community as they crochet or knit. Many of the 1,400 women we serve each year have experienced trauma and find it hard to trust.”

When they are ready, women ask for help to fill out forms for housing or services they need.

The Hearth has showers; a respite room with three cots for women out of the hospital; a hygiene closet with pads, deodorant and soap; a food bank on Thursdays, and emergency clothes and underwear.

Crosswalk helps youth ages seven to 17 with case management, a clothing bank, a 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. drop-in center and a 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. shelter with showers.  Its GED program educates some. Staff urge teens to go to school.

“We offer kids hope,” Lynn said. “We are a place of infinite chances with safety guidelines.”

Its program includes expecting youth to do chores—clean windows, wipe tables, plan meals, shop, cook and do dishes.

Some teens are homeless because they came out to their families, or because adoptions or foster care did not work, she said.

Staff help teens build resumes. 

SNAP is the lead entry agency for homeless singles, assessing individuals experiencing homelessness and connecting them with housing resources. It provides transitional housing and rapid re-housing for young adults—18 to 24—and individuals without dependent children.

Bob does homeless outreach and talks with people on the streets, He is aware it takes time to earn trust and respects their resourcefulness and survival skills.

He said safety, cleanliness and health are issues at camps under the freeway. When he comes on Mondays, he often learns who was beaten up over the weekend.

Other  SNAP services include low-income households energy assistance, home weatherization, home ownership programs, small business loans and development, and 377 affordable housing units.  

VOA and Catholic Charities have each built 50 housing first units downtown. More are planned,

VOA rents apartments for homeless people as the official tenant, so it is responsible for damage, said Jon. Then VOA writes recommendations for them.

He said landlords who want to be part of solutions can contact SNAP, Transitions or VOA.  

Jon, who has worked with VOA’s veterans’ housing, said, “Vets may not want to be in a program with a caseworker telling them how or where to live.  Many do better in rapid rehousing.”

Jon told of health care options.

• Providence has a free, volunteer-run clinic two days a week at House of Charity.

• The Hearth brings Gonzaga/WSU health care students to do foot care while giving pedicures.

Asked about people with signs on street corners, Bob said, “Some are not homeless. In Spokane, if people ask for help, food, shelter and resources, they are available.

“We are concerned that panhandlers may hurt the perception of homeless people,” Sam said.

The service providers suggested some ways to help.

• Susan invited people to share resources—a bar of soap, deodorant, food or funds to pay for case managers and housing projects.

• Hope House needs coats, hats and boots.

• With private and government funding down, financial gifts help.

• People can be “homeless champions,” inviting friends to cook and eat meals with youth at Crosswalk, join Mardi Gras with the Hearth and VOA, and tour shelters.

• Sam urged people to advocate for policies locally to nationally.

Aware they cannot help everyone, they collaborate, which includes referring people to colleague agencies that can help.

“The social service community in Spokane knows and likes each other,” Susan said, “We cooperate because we want to make the world a better place.”

“If we compete,” Sam said, “the losers are the people we serve.”

About 30 meet with the Spokane Homeless Coalition at 9 a.m., first Thursdays at 733 W. Garland to discuss programs, clients, policies and resources.

For information, call 624-1366, 624-2378 for VOA, 624-7821 for House of Charity, 455-4299 the Hearth, or 456-7111 for SNAP.

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