Searching for hope

Life on the Streets of Spokane
By James Ziegler unpublished

The dark red bricks of crescent court are barely showing through the snow. It's Christmas day and the streets of downtown are abandoned except for two men.

One stands alone by a Starbucks trying to blend in with the invisible crowd that would have been there any normal day and one is a businessman leaving his office. The homeless man takes pride in not appearing so and is surprised when the businessman asks, "Are you OK?"

"Sure" the homeless man says.

“No, are you OK?” the businessman asks again, this time more insistently. “You're homeless aren't you?”

Before the homeless man could reply the businessman tucked a $20 bill into his hand saying, “Merry Christmas,” as he walked away.

It was this single act of kindness, the idea that someone else cared, that pulled George Hawkins away from the edge of despair in 2004.

“I never found out who he was,” Hawkins said. “Who knows what I would have done if he hadn't of done that because I was reaching the low end of the stick.”

Hawkins has been homeless twice since moving to Spokane. He spent, altogether, two years living in abandoned buildings or anywhere he could find shelter.

“You just have a place to camp-out, someplace to stay and that's it,” Hawkins said.

He recalls one exceptionally cold winter in 2006 when, together with a friend, he replaced the windows in the room of an abandoned factory where they were living and built a make-shift fireplace to keep warm.

Living in the streets, Hawkins knew other homeless people but tried to avoid long term friendships. Sometimes people just disappear and there's little way to find out if they've left town, gone into treatment or as Hawkins put it, “gone on to the next world.”

“There's people that do commit suicide because they reach the end of that road and they don't see a way out,” Hawkins said.

Now Hawkins has found housing with the help of Shalom Ministries and a case worker from the Volunteers of America but there are still many on the streets (roughly 2000 at any given time according to Spokane's 10 year homelessness plan) and for them, hope is as important to their survival as food and shelter.

“It's easy for a person to transition into what they call chronic homelessness,” programs director for Shalom Ministries Holly Jean Chilinski said. “They have absolutely no inkling that things will ever work out for them. They think they will die in the street.”

From outside, the House of Charity looks like an erratic group of townhouses. With it's white walls and gray roof, the only thing that gives away the secret of its purpose are the homeless people huddled behind a green metal fence smoking home-rolled cigarettes.

Inside the building there is a grandmotherly old woman who appears to be a volunteer comforting a elderly Native American. Her cloths are clean, her silver hair is neatly combed and pulled back. She doesn't fit the stereotypical appearance of a homeless person.

Jane graduated from Eastern Washington University and pursued two successful careers; 10 years as a geriatric nurse and 20 as a teacher.

When her husband, Bruce, a veteran of three wars, suffered a gunshot wound to the head that nearly killed him in Vietnam, Jane left her careers to care for him. She has now been “living the homeless lifestyle” (She doesn't like to refer to herself directly as homeless) for almost 7 years.

Her and Bruce were forced out of their home when it was damaged during a burglary to such an extent that it was uninhabitable. They didn't have the money to fix it and had to turn to homeless shelters for housing.

Jane prefers to use only her first name because she has been hiding her homeless lifestyle from her extended family all this time, “out of embarrassment,” she said. “And not wanting to burden anyone.”

Since Bruce's death in 2003, Jane has been alone on the streets, trying to salvage hope from helping other homeless people.

“You're only one disaster away from being homeless,” Jane said.

Brad's disaster was loosing his commercial driver's license eight years ago. Losing his CDL robbed Brad of his livelihood. It wasn't long before he was outdoors.

Brad's homelessness was the opposite of the life he once knew. He turned to methamphetamine to deal with the harsh realities of living on the street and petty theft to support his growing habit. While Brad is still homeless, he found hope after he was arrested on September 20, 2007 for theft.

While locked up, Brad kicked his meth habit. He is 14 months sober now and working hard at his two goals: to become employable and to obtain Oxford housing.

“Ever since I got out of jail, every day has been a blessing,” Brad said.

While there have been opportunities for him to get into single room occupancies, what he's aiming for is the accountability that comes with the Oxford housing.

“With Oxford it's all about recovery,” Brad said. “With [single room occupancies], probably 98% of them are filled with people who are using.”

As Jane pointed out, a lot of the people living on Spokane's streets have drug, alcohol or mental problems, but there are also a lot who are simply down on their luck. Among other things, what they need is a little hope and to know that someone cares about them.

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