COEUR D’ALENE — For the past three months, Scott Roberts was living out of his old van.
At night, the 55-year-old cuddled up into a small, makeshift bed on the bench seat. During the day, he was never far from his oxygen tank that help him breathe. He had little money and nowhere to go.
On a recent gorgeous, blue-skied afternoon, the homeless veteran sat on a decorative brick wall in his yard, next to the Spokane River. He watched as boats cruised past, some towing inner tubes of laughing kids. The sun warmed his face and for a moment, he looked up and closed his eyes.
Then, Scott Roberts grinned and shook his head in disbelief.
This was his new home - at least for the next three months.
“For being a homeless guy, this is great,” he said. “How can you not like this? I went from a van to this.”
“Gorgeous isn’t it,” added Steve Lyman, another homeless veteran who would be living at this two-story, riverfront home on Harbor Island.
Lyman, who served four years in the Army in the early 1980s, has been living on the streets around North Idaho. Sometimes, when he scraped up with the money, he would get a motel room.
“This is as nice a place I’ve seen,” he said.
Lyman paused, then added, “Everybody is working hard to get this house together.”
None more than Mike Shaw.
He’s the man behind an organization called “Guardians Foundation,” which looks out for disabled and homeless vets.
The staff sergeant started it last year, not long after returning from a tour in Iraq with the Army National Guard.
“I had to do a lot of soul searching about what I wanted to do when I came back to North Idaho,” Shaw said.
Operating the Guardians Foundation became more than he imagined, because the number of homeless veterans was higher than he imagined, as well. He estimates the foundation has assisted a few hundred veterans and family members already.
“I didn’t realize what the need was. That was a big-time eye opener,” the Coeur d’Alene man said Thursday. “I always thought there were places for them to go.”
Earlier this year, Shaw opened a site for homeless vets in a building near Seltice Way and Atlas Road. The idea was nothing extravagant. Just provide direction, hope, somewhere to spend the day, get them off the streets - until more and more veterans found their way to Shaw and had no place else to go.
Guys like Joe Johnson.
The Marine Corps veteran served his country three years in the early 1970s. When he returned to civilian life, he struggled and often found himself without a home.
“You live with friends too long, and soon, you’re not friends,” he said.
Johnson was homeless in North Idaho, so a few months ago, Shaw arranged for him to live in a donated, older camper set up behind the Guardians Foundation main building.
Thursday, Johnson stood under a tarp that extended from the camper door, and praised Shaw’s effort.
“We’d be in a whole lot of trouble if we didn’t have this,” he said.
Mike Baker, CEO of the Dirne Community Health Center that assists low-income residents, said that last year, Dirne worked with around 250 veterans in and out of homelessness.
“We should have services available to help people,” he said.
Baker said the area has more homeless vets than most would think.
Some estimates say nationally there are between 130,000 to 200,000 vets each night without a place of their own. According to another report, veterans make up one in four homeless in the U.S.
“They’re not a group that’s going to ask for help,” Baker said.
Howard Martinson, who serves with Fresh Start, a Coeur d’Alene nonprofit dedicated to the homeless, said “veterans are disproportionately representative of the population.”
“We see a few more than you would expect,” he said.
Al Holm, a veteran who offers counseling to military men and women, said there are many reasons why veterans wind up homeless.
They may suffer from illness such as post traumatic stress disorder, and it can be difficult to readjust to civilian life.
“The military kind of gets them into a macho attitude, and if they ask for help, they’re wimps,” Holm said.
The key to giving vets a hand, Baker believes, is outreach, relationships, and letting them know about resources.
That’s where Shaw stepped in.
“He’s working really hard to fill a niche that’s out there,” Baker said.
When Shaw decided to form the Guardians Foundation, he needed a home base, a building large enough to provide a place for homeless veterans to rest, clean up, eat, or just hang out.
In December, he found a building that fit those needs at Seltice and Atlas, and contacted the owner, Don “Pepper” Smock. The owner of Windermere Coeur d’Alene Realty was happy to do what he could.
“I’m grateful to our veterans for their service to our country,” he said. “It’s my privilege to donate a building to their benefit. My wife and I are pleased to give it to them.”
Smock had been seeking to lease the 7,000-square-foot building on five acres for $2,000 a month.
“He didn’t have $2,000 a month, so I said, ‘OK, you can have it for free,”’ Smock said.
His faith in Shaw has been rewarded.
“There’s a lot of good going on there,” Smock said.
Shaw keeps the foundation open 24/7. Because folks can’t sleep inside the building at night due to fire codes, campers, tents and vans were set up and parked outside. On Thursday, it resembled a small shanty town. There were towels drying on a clothes line. A chair, small night table and carpet were behind one white van. A few veterans wandered about, doing laundry, cleaning up, sitting and chatting.
“At least here, they’re not harassed,” Shaw said. “Stabilization and a safe place are the keys.”
Inside the warehouse section is a large pool, used for therapy. There’s a table with chairs, refrigerators, washer and dryer, shelves with cans of food, pots and pans. A large American flag hangs near from a balcony. A lazy orange tabby cat lounges on a chair.
In some ways, it was the most basic of amenities.
The shower area was separated from view with plywood boards, and vets used buckets of water to clean up, a drain nearby.
Shaw didn’t like it, but said it the best he could do - for now. He and the Dirne center are working on a four-stall, portable shower that will be deployed to serve the homeless of Kootenai County.
Dan Cooley, who served 10 years in the Marines and lost a leg in Vietnam, volunteers daily to take away trash and handle other tasks that need to be done at the site.
“They’re all brothers to me,” he said.
He would like to see more done for homeless veterans.
“Michael here has taken it on his own shoulders to make sure that they are. I don’t see anybody else doing that,” he said.
Because Smock donated the building’s use, Shaw said that freed up $2,000 a month, which is being used to rent two houses, one on Harbor Island, and one in Kootenai.
The Harbor Home will accommodate up to six veterans at a time for a 90-day program. It will have on-site managers.
The Harbor house, Shaw said, is in beautiful setting for a reason. He wants to help homeless veterans regain their self-esteem, to have hope again. It’s on the river, with a dock, a fire pit, a swimming area and a deck.
Veterans will have curfews, rules, expectation and duties. They’ll receive help with appointments and paperwork - the assets needed to achieve their goals. Their progress will be monitored.
“We’ll keep our promise if they keep their promise,” said Shaw, who added his military background, he joined the Army in 1979, gives him the experience and knowledge to assist vets.
“In 90 days, we’ll have them in a position for success.”
While Shaw has a big heart, he’s not one for nonsense.
“If you can’t see this is a good place, then we can’t help you.”
The Kootenai House will be geared for homeless vets “who have their act together a little more,” and just need shelter. It will provide rooms for up to seven veterans, and will be unsupervised, “other than the golden rule if it needs to be done, you do it.”
A solid housing program, he said, will make fundraising easier. His organization is part of a national campaign that will begin later this month to raise money for homeless veterans.
He’s a firm believer that even with limited resources, one can effect great change.
“We’ve been doing this with my unemployment check and sporadic donations here and there. If I can create a program on a $500 weekly budget, there’s absolutely no reason why anyone else can’t do the same thing.”