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Homeless effort draws people from forest and mountains

Joanne Barlow guides hidden homeless to services.

By Kaye Hult

Bonner Homeless Transitions in Sandpoint helps "the hidden homeless" who live in the forests and mountains transition into permanent housing.

People aren't aware of how many homeless people are here, but the hidden homeless include families, children, widowed women, and women fleeing domestic violence, said program manager Joanne Barlow.

Many do not want to participate in a formal program, so the center works with other entities in Sandpoint to help provide for their needs.

Bonner Gospel Mission has a men's shelter. There is no women's shelter in the area.

One restaurant, the Hoot Owl Cafe, serves dinner, and some churches serve meals.

"We give blankets and food that churches donate. The Amish make quilts for us to give. These provisions help people manage," Joanne said.

Donations they don't use, they give to Helping Hands and Healing Hearts.

Bonner Homeless Transitions accepts single women, women with children, men with children and couples with children. If people are accepted and choose to work with the center, they enter a program with expectations and goals, Joanne said.

The center provides housing for 10 adults and 14 children with apartments in two houses.

Residents may stay for up to two years. In exchange, they have to take part in case management geared to their needs and are expected to work at least part time.

Bonner Homeless Transitions helps residents tackle issues, such as mental illness or anxiety. Many are referred to local counselors.

"We require weekly and random drug testing," she said. "Probation and parole officers stop by every week. We work with judges and the police.

"This has to be a safe place for our clients. I have security cameras. I call the police on people who are not supposed to be here," Joanne said.

The center helps clients change their attitudes.

For example, many leave relationships believing they need to jump into a new relationship. The center encourages them first to learn to live on their own, Joanne said.

The center helps clients with other issues, like getting a Social Security card or driver's license. Some are recently out of prison or struggle with substance abuse and are unable to enter subsidized housing.

One woman, who had been in and out of prison and rehab centers for 20 years, came from a drug rehabilitation center. She had no teeth, which limited the jobs she could find, Joanne said.

First, she worked at the local animal hospital, cleaning cages.

"We talked her into getting teeth and paid for them," Joanne said. "One day, she came in, teeth in, hair done up, dressed nicely. We didn't recognize her. She has begun working at the front desk at a prestigious hotel. She's been clean and sober for almost two years. I don't see her going back. She's clean, well-dressed and has beautified her living space. She's reunited with her children and has a new life."

A man, who had been a heroin addict for years, came to the center with three children, ages 10, nine and six, Joanne said. His wife was in prison. 

Younger children seem happy at the center but tend to have difficulties with being there when they start middle school. About 65 percent of homeless children will not graduate from high school, she said.

At first, the man fought the requirements to meet with his case manager weekly and do regular drug testing.

"We involved him in a group in which he became a leader, and he changed overnight," she said. "He took many classes to learn as much as possible. He went to work at a pharmaceutical company, starting at the bottom and progressing to management, making $65,000 per year."

Joanne added that with housing such a major issue, she has had "to learn to think outside the box."

Many make too much money to qualify for subsidized housing, but don't have enough income to afford a home or an apartment, she said. People with rental homes are selling them.  Evicted renters have nowhere to go.

Joanne has written letters of appeal to apartment management companies and the State of Idaho for clients who have been turned down for subsidized housing. She has solicited letters from the community and churches. She has helped settle all but one person in housing.

Someone offered a client a mobile home on contract. She could live in the mobile home park behind her job.

A new program in Idaho is the Housing Preservation Program (HPP). In May, Joanne sent 15 to the resource center in town to apply. HPP pays for three months in a motel at no more than $100 per night, and then pays rent for up to 15 months.

They need some income, such as Social Security. They may apply for subsidized housing or share an apartment with another person.

The center also owns property with four houses, called Trestle Creek, outside the town of Hope. It used to be part of the homeless transitions program and now is a low-income housing community managed by Bonner County Housing Agency.

Bonner Homeless Transitions was founded in 1991 as the Bonner County Homeless Task Force by a group of local women who opened a shelter in 1994. Although it did not last, it was changed to transitional housing, which receives funds through donations and grants. Its new name reflects that it is not part of the county.

Joanne came in 2013 with a background assisting clients in need.  She began working at the Trestle Creek facility. When the center's program manager died, she took on that role.

"I had a 'Leave It to Beaver' childhood growing up in Bellingham, Wash., and going to high school in Kennewick. I attended Western Washington State College."

For about 10 years after marrying, she co-owned two 7-11 stores in Seattle. She taught classes part-time at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, while living in Kirkland.

In Spokane, she worked in human resources for the Dakota Direct call center, then at SL Start in Coeur d'Alene, which acquired the welfare contract for Idaho's Region One, then Region Two.

Joanne was director of the Welfare-to-Work Program for nine offices in Bonners Ferry, Coeur d'Alene, Post Falls and Kellogg, providing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance and food stamps. She retired from that work.

To continue helping others, she took a two-year contract as a job developer with New Mexico's welfare program. 

Eight years ago, Joanne settled in Sandpoint to be near family. She learned about Bonner Homeless Transitions and was hired.

Her part-time assistant, Mary Jo Knutson, was previously a case manager.

She also works with volunteers and a nine-person board.

Bonner Homeless Transitions is funded through grants, donations and two fundraisers: the "Little Black Dress" event in May and "Avenues for Hope" in December, which raises funds for many nonprofits addressing homelessness in Idaho.

Some donate financially and others donate furniture and household goods, which they keep in a storage barn. "When our clients move out, we help them with needs in their new place," Joanne said.

Sandpoint United Methodist Church and Holy Spirit Episcopal Church support them with monthly funds, supplies, activities with children, food, paper products and other needs requested each month.

"I do this work because I like to give and be helpful," she said. "It makes me feel good and useful and worthwhile. I want everyone to feel good and to see there is kindness in the world."

For information, call 208-265-2952, email or visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September 2022