COEUR d'ALENE - The homeless problem in Kootenai County is exploding, says Patty McGruder, homeless outreach coordinator with Dirne Community Health Centers. There are 22 tent encampments in the county, double from six months ago, she said. Fresh Start homeless drop-in center has reported serving 22,000, double from this time last year.
"The Coeur d'Alene Food Bank is up 50 percent. Dirne is up over 50 percent in what we see in homeless services. It seems across the board, there is a 50 percent increase in homeless," McGruder said on Thursday, speaking to local nonprofits at a meeting of the Christian Community Coalition at the Kroc Center. "It's not a surprise. We're in the middle of a recession." McGruder, who works with a caseload of 1,500 homeless individuals, has every kind of story.
She gave a long list of the demographics facing homelessness in the county, including children, veterans, elderly and those with chronic medical conditions.There is plenty people can do to help, she said.
"I can give you all knowledge. But knowledge is not enough," said McGruder, who was homeless herself at 14. "One must be willing to do something. It starts with one person at a time." Kootenai County has all kinds of homeless individuals, she said, some living on the street, others couch surfing or in transitional housing.
The more than 20 shelters in the county are filled, she said. "We have eight motels at the end of Sherman Avenue. Almost all eight are filled with people living there," McGruder said.
The challenge is where to put them all, she said. She can guide folks to camp out, she said, but they can't legally pitch tents on state, city, federal or public land.
"If someone has diabetes and needs to reach a soup kitchen for food, I can't put them 10 miles out," she said. Compounding that, she said, there is no longer any state funding to treat drug and alcohol abuse. Yet those are two prominent problems that can cause homelessness and joblessness, she said.
"Unless you pay for it yourself, you can't get it (treatment), unless a judge orders it because of the severity of your crime," she said. "A lot of people are creating those crimes so they can get the help they need." What can help is more clean and sober housing, she said, where individuals are much more likely to stay clean than living in a tent.
She added that folks can sponsor the first month's rent for someone at such a facility. "We can change a person's life in that time," she said.
Carolyn Shewfelt, food bank program manager with the Community Action Partnership, said the organization is experiencing much of what McGruder mentioned. "She is not exaggerating at all about the homeless numbers," Shewfelt said. "I have about 350 on my list who are either homeless, on their way to being homeless, couch surfing or in transitional housing. We're over 100,000 pounds (of food) every month, easy."
Bob Driscoll with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said locals can start by calling any local nonprofit and asking how to help. "Don't ignore your neighbor or that person on the street," Driscoll said. "There are plenty of folks like us who would love to have you call and say, 'What do I have to do?'" McGruder also often sees families displaced because of domestic violence.
They need safe housing, she said, as well as legal and medical assistance, food, clothing and counseling. Individuals can help by volunteering to provide emergency day care, she said, while parents get back on their feet.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of agencies that would benefit from this," McGruder said, adding that a background check is required. There are so many others who need help, she said. Elderly transients incapable of managing their Social Security checks. Families facing foreclosure for the first time who can't cope.
Often homeless veterans don't know that all they need is a ride to the Veterans Affairs in Spokane to obtain two years of housing, PTSD treatment and medical benefits, she said. "Are they going to walk (to Spokane)?" she said, adding that she needs volunteer drivers. "I need help getting them over there."
Folks can help in other ways, too. Most of the 30-odd nonprofits attending were eager for volunteers, like Family Promise, We've Got Stuff furniture donations, New Life Community Church and Community Action Partnership.
Right now, Dirne and other groups like Fresh Start are desperate for sleeping bags, blankets and tents to provide shelter for the homeless, McGruder added. "We've got three weeks before we see the first snow fly," she said. "We need either sleeping bags, or we're going to need caskets."
She directed folks to contact 704-0908 for information on a Saturday donation pickup.