HOMELESS in North Idaho

Man tries to remain upbeat in face of poverty

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Dennis Hardwick mops the floors of Fresh Start in Coeur d'Alene after the facility closed for the day Wednesday. Hardwick, who has been homeless after being laid off from his construction job, volunteers his time at Fresh Start as a way of giving back the organization where he receives assistance.

COEUR d'ALENE - Dennis Hardwick was spending his nights in the woods behind Target, until he lost what little he owned in a fire.

So, he and his girlfriend Vera are staying with a friend for a few days as they search for somewhere else to pitch a tent, and hunker down with sleeping bags, tarps and blankets.

"We're trying to get our own place," he says Wednesday as he sits at Fresh Start, a center that helps the homeless in Coeur d'Alene. "But we have to live pretty much wherever we can find."

The 46-year-old has been homeless since moving to North Idaho five months ago. The construction industry slowed and jobs became scarce.

Despite his circumstances, he tries to remain positive.

"Things could be a lot worse," he says. "We could be out there without Fresh Start. We could be out there without St. Vincent de Paul. We could be huddled under a bridge somewhere freezing."

Still, with winter settling in, he admits it's a scary time to not have a roof over his head.

"I'm more worried for my girlfriend than I am for myself. I don't like it, but I can deal with it," Hardwick says. "I don't want her in the streets. I want her in a nice, warm bed at night. That's my goal."

He believes organizations like Fresh Start are a godsend, and that homelessness is "manageable."

"If you let them help you and you do the right thing, nobody should be homeless. But in today's times, it's reality," he says.

Hardwick, from California, has family in the area, but doesn't stay with them. He says it's his choice.

"This is my problem. This is not their problem," he says. "It's my responsibility. Step up and take care of yourself. I don't want to put a burden on my family."

He speaks of letting himself, and his girlfriend, down, because they're homeless. At times, sure, it's embarrassing and it hurts.

"I'm supposed to be the provider and see to it that we're not in this situation," he says.

The slender, 5-foot-6 Hardwick tries to keep up appearances should a job opportunity arise. Wearing a clean shirt, pants and black shoes, he's hoping to land work, but hasn't since summer, when he was laid off from his last construction job.

"It's been application after application," he says. "The job market is really down. "Right now, I'll take whatever's out there. I don't care. If you want me to dig a ditch, I'll dig a ditch. If you want me to water your flowers, I'll do that. Now is not the time to be picky. A little bit of hard work, you can get off the street."

All he needs to do that, he says, is to earn $150 a week.

Until then, they try to stay warm and dry.

Their day starts around 6:30 a.m., when they wake up. It's always cold these days, so they head to Fresh Start right away for coffee and a bite of whatever food is there. They'll make phone calls, clean up, then head to the library, where they'll read and relax until dinner time.

Then, it's off to the soup kitchen, usually at St. Vincent de Paul.

"Excellent people," he says of the St. Vinny's staff.

After dinner, well, that's when the real challenge starts - where to sleep. It might mean another night in the woods, and as they wander and look, carrying their tent and supplies with them. Their choices are few.

"This is not something I want to do a month from now," Hardwick says. "It's possible I may have to."

One thing he won't do, is says, is leave North Idaho. He's an outsdoorsman, he explains, and likes to fish and hunt when he gets the chance.

"I love it here. I have met so many nice people."

So he'll stay, despite the coming snow and rain and frigid conditions, despite no job, no home, no money.

The toughest part of it all, he says, is keeping his spirits up, staying positive, believing life will be good if he just tries hard enough.

"There are times you just want to throw your hands up and give up. You can't do that," he says. "Tomorrow can be a better day."

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