Snapshot reveals homeless realities in North Idaho

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Allen Lee comes in from the cold to warm up and read a book on his iPad Saturday night at the St. Vincent de Paul Warming Center in Post Falls.

POEM: The Medic

Roughly four years ago, Two Feathers and Dr. T.J. Byrne of Heritage Health encountered a man named Steven Marshall living in a homeless encampment, a “tent city” that existed for nine years, until 2014, in the once heavily wooded area behind the Target and Ross stores between U.S. 95 and Government Way.

He was suffering from frostbite and may have frozen to death had the two men not found him.

After Marshall was returned to health, he wrote this poem to show his gratitude for Two Feathers and Dr. Byrne. He now has housing in Washington, according to Two Feathers.

Through the white of snow and eyes blurred by pain, I saw them approach.

It was to me they came.

He asked of me words, as all men do.

The same, the same.

This was not new,

Then, to my wonder, he knelt to see

To see them again

To do more for me.

He looked, he touched.

He asked of my blackened shame.

He asked of me words, words afore had never came.

“Can I wash them please? Can I wash them for you?”

Was it a trick?

Was it evil?

For this I was due.

Could he be real?

Could he be true?

This was not done, as every man knew.

Gently he cleansed them, through stink and death

Lifting away what once held death.

I gazed upon the shadow,

Behind him he stood

Wondered again if rope could bind him for good.

The other stood solid,

Squared with grind hard trim

He had served another,

He had served the grim.

It was said he’d fought man for money and fame

He wore two feathers

His glory, his shame?

Now another he served for life and not death

The medic he brought to bring me a breath

To wonder and glory they both came

They helped the weak, the broken, those covered in shame.

I tell you all this for all need to know

There are still medics who walk through the snow.

— Steven Marshall

On a rainy Thursday, the first night of February, Scott Parker and his wife, Annie, arrived at the St. Vincent de Paul warming center in Post Falls. That night, the couple and two volunteers would attempt to do the impossible — capture a moment in time.

Parker, the 39-year-old outreach coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, was prepared to conduct the annual Point in Time (PIT) count.

The PIT count is a nationwide census of homeless individuals sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered in every region of the country.

The hope is that public officials will gain a deeper understanding of how, why, and in what ways homelessness affects each community.

“It kind of gives the government a snapshot of what our homeless population problems are, and if it’s getting better or worse from the last year,” Parker said.

Annie Parker, also 39, met Scott several years ago when she volunteered to help with the PIT survey.

She said the warming center sees a whole new group of unhoused individuals each year while conducting the count.

“Every year there’s a different population — there’s a different set of people who are homeless that winter,” she said.

Although the visitors may be new, their circumstances and the problems they face are all too familiar.

One woman in her 30s aged out of foster care and has since been a victim of domestic violence.

A man in his 30s, originally from Seattle, has battled substance abuse issues and been hamstrung by his criminal history.

A military veteran in his 40s, who suffers from PTSD, chooses homelessness, believing he’s exhausted all other options.

Scott Parker said there are consistently three top reasons why people find themselves without a home.

“It’s domestic violence, it’s drug addiction, and it’s mental illness,” he said. “Those are the three main components.”

Parker added that those three factors — especially mental illness and substance abuse — often intersect with the veteran population, a group with a high rate of homelessness.

“A lot of them feel abandoned by their community and their government, so they don’t even try to go get any resources,” he said. “Instead, they try to go self-medicate.”

National and statewide numbers back up his anecdotal claims. In the findings for the 2017 PIT count in Idaho, domestic violence, chronic substance abuse and severe mental illness were the top three causes of homelessness, respectively.

After everyone in the shelter has been counted and completed the survey — for which they were compensated with a $5 gift card to either McDonald’s or Dollar Tree — most of the guests have grabbed a mat and a blanket and drifted off to sleep.

But Allen Lee, a man in his 50s and a regular at the warming center, is wide awake.

“I’ve got hypertension, so I won’t sleep much,” he said.

He introduces himself to others by saying, “Hi, my name is Allen and I love Jesus, and he loves you, too.”

Lee said he spent five years in the state penitentiary in Boise, as well as two years in a federal prison. Now, he is voluntarily homeless and appreciates the small luxuries that many people take for granted.

“It’s the simple things,” he said. “I can enjoy a glass of water — some countries don’t have clean drinking water. I can go to the soup kitchen and eat three meals a day, and then I can go somewhere to take a warm shower.”

He has found work in the past at a casino and other places, but Lee said he has no current plans to find a job.

“I’m already in my 50s. What am I going to do — work for $9 an hour and retire when I’m 60?” he said with a smile.

Although that may make it sound like he has given up, make no mistake: Lee is an eternal optimist.

He repeats the phrases “You’ve got to be positive” and “I chose my life” at least a half dozen times during a 30-minute conversation.

While he still keeps in touch with some members of his biological family, Lee said the local homeless community is a family, too.

“I love all those guys,” he said. “We always look out for each other.”

Lee said he was “recruiting” other homeless individuals to come to the warming center — which is open between Nov. 1 and March 1 from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on days when the high temperature is 28 degrees or lower — for the Point in Time count that evening.

According to Two Feathers, the outreach case manager at Heritage Health, the St. Vincent de Paul warming center is the only one of its kind in the area. He added that St. Vincent de Paul operates the lone men’s shelter and women’s shelter for the homeless in Coeur d’Alene.

Two Feathers said Heritage Health focuses primarily on providing medical care to the homeless and underserved populations through referrals to licensed providers and its mobile clinic bus.

At the Heritage Health office, on the mobile clinic bus, and at the warming center, homeless patients receive mental and physical health evaluations and care from Dr. T.J. Byrne.

On an average night, the warming center provides a fresh meal and a place to sleep for about 30 to 35 people, Parker said.

Parker said he would like to be open more often, but funding is limited and entirely based on donations and fundraising money. Last winter, he estimated, the warming center had been open more than 80 nights.

Even so, he said he was proud of how quickly the center has grown and how many individuals it can serve.

“Five years ago,” Parker said, “we never even had a warming center here because there is no government funding.”

In fact, the warming center receives its entire annual budget from three summer fundraisers put on by St. Vincent de Paul, including a live music event called “Party in the Park,” a fashion show, and a soup competition.

Eventually, the Parkers headed home for the evening. They live on-site at a two-year transitional housing facility for veterans, so their work is never truly done.

However, for that one night, they managed to achieve their goal.

Because besides just the surveys, they captured a point in time in the only way possible — by connecting with the people who needed it most.

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