First of two parts
Spokane doesn’t have huge housing projects or sprawling inner-city ghettos, but its urban core is so pocked with poverty it gets more public assistance than anywhere else in the state.
Most of the city’s poor live in small, hidden slums scattered throughout the 3rd Legislative District, where more than four out of 10 people get tax-dollar help for rent, food, health care and other necessities.
The 3rd, covering much of the city, relies on more public aid than any of the state’s 49 legislative districts. More than Seattle’s Rainier area. More than Tacoma’s gang-laced Hilltop. More than Yakima’s migrant farm worker hub.
The $150 million that supports Spokane’s poor core is enough cash to build three flashy arenas like the one sprouting near the Spokane River.
The 3rd District tops the state for tax dollars received for elderly care, prescription drugs and food stamps. It’s also first in welfare, spreading $30 million to about 20,000 people every year.
This patchwork of social programs is under siege, criticized as an unwieldy, easily looted bureaucracy. A growing number of state and federal lawmakers want to hack spending and wean citizens off public dollars.
The outcome is unpredictable, but any welfare over-haul will hit Spokane harder than anywhere in Washington. It could also jolt the regional economy.
Public assistance is a largely invisible, but powerful factor in Spokane’s commerce. The programs provide about 3,000 jobs, and bring more money into the county than the wages from either the construction or retail industries.
Little of the assistance is saved by the poor. Most passes through their hands to landlords, doctors and grocers. Some grocery stores rely on food stamps for more than 35 percent of their business.
And while reforms and spending cuts are debated, poverty spreads. Families double up up in dilapidated houses to split the rent. At some elementary schools, four of every five students are poor enough to get free lunches.
John Hentze recently discovered Spokane poverty. He’s lived in the city for 20 years, but didn’t really see its poor side until he took over the state’s welfare office near East Central.
“I didn’t have a clue,” he says. “When you think of the poor you tend to think of ghettos. You don’t have to travel through Spokane’s poor. You can take the freeways. … It’s all pretty well hidden.”
‘Get a job’
The 3rd District is a central wedge of city real estate. To picture it, peel away most of the city’s South Hill and northwest Spokane and what remains is the 3rd.
The district is home to 102,500 people. A fourth of its residents are 18 years old or younger. Another 16 percent are senior citizens. Nine out of 10 are white.
These demographics are similar to Spokane’s more affluent 6th Legislative District. But the poverty rate is almost three times higher.
The poor are found along the trailer parks and dirt roads in Hillyard, in the socalled “felony flats” along the city’s West Central fringe, and within earshot of Interstate 90, between Havana and Division.
In poor Spokane, some houses are so tiny and worn it appears a swift kick could topple them. Some badly need paint. Others are wrapped in blankets, tarps and newspapers as if trying to keep warm.
Depending on household income, the poor qualify for a long menu of programs. A family of four can get a monthly welfare check of about $640, and about $300 in food stamps. With the welfare comes health insurance. Children are eligible for free school meals, and possibly day care.
As these programs are debated, state Sen. John Moyer often has to remind colleagues he represents some of the poorest people in Washington.
He says the senators somehow can’t quite picture Spokane being that strapped.
Moyer, the first Republican to represent the 3rd District in 65 years, worries about his constituents, but believes the reforms should help. “The whole thrust is, ‘get a job. We’re not interested in taking care of you forever.”’
‘Twirling in his grave’
Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods straddle Interstate 90 between Sprague and the lower South Hill. Many of the families have been on welfare for generations.
At Fifth and Fiske, Horseman’s Grocery lines are jammed when food stamps are passed out at the beginning of the month. More than 35 percent of the store’s business comes from the stamps at times.
Around the corner from Horseman’s, porches sag beneath rotting couches. Old American cars sit out front on blocks, or with for sale signs. “BAD DOG” signs are posted near front doors. Laundry hangs on lines in the back yards.
Farther east, near Liberty Park, much of the siding has fallen off a house, exposing wooden ribs. Junk is piled high beside the front door. Windows are broken. The address is spray-painted on a porch pole.
A block away, at Crestline and Fifth, Alan Gnehm, his wife, and two kids are getting used to the new neighborhood.
Gnehm doesn’t let his kids out after dark. He doesn’t feel comfortable walking his dog, Goldie, around Liberty Park in the daylight.
The family survives on about $1,000 a month between welfare, food stamps and Gnehm’s part-time job at Target.
But life is getting better. Their new home is a two-bedroom house built by Habitat for Humanity - a dream home compared to the “paper-thin” dive they rented on Indiana Avenue.
Gnehm has a third child in Spokane, not living with him. She’s a 16-year-old who had a baby last year. She’s on welfare, too.
Gnehm wants to get his family off the dole, but can’t find a job that would do it, and worries about losing his family’s health coverage. “I’m always in fear of that.”
A dozen poverty-laced blocks east of Gnehm lives Florence Hackman, who has spent most of her 75 years in the same Ralph Street home.
Punching Interstate 90 through in the late 1950s started the neighborhood’s decline, she says. Hackman recalls a community of mill and railroad workers, “a hard-working neighborhood with nice yards.”
Now, most of her neighbors are renters on public assistance, and many homes and properties are decaying, she says.
“My father, he’d be twirling in his grave if he could see this right now. We had a lovely neighborhood.”
From 1980 to 1990, the number of people in Spokane living in poverty grew 10 times faster than the city’s population. The city’s poverty rate almost doubled the state’s increase during that decade.
The last census report indicated about 30,000 city residents live in poverty. For one person, that means an income of $6,972 a year or less. For a family of four, $14,352.
Large stretches of the city are now poor zones. More than 70 percent of residents in some neighborhoods live in poverty.
The result is that Spokane risks losing one of its most valuable characteristics - mixed-income neighborhoods, says Gonzaga sociology professor Ed Vacha.
Families are sharing homes and rents along Boone, Dean and other streets in West Central. In the center of the neighborhood is Holmes Elementary School where more than 80 percent of the children qualify for free lunches, the highest rate in the city.
“When I drove down here I saw stuff I never thought I’d see in Spokane,” says Don Higgins, manager of the West Central Community Center.
Broadway Foods, a small grocery near West Central’s poorest stretch, gets as much as 65 percent of its business from food stamps at times.
The number of people on welfare in Spokane hasn’t changed much in the past five years. But food stamps have doubled in use since 1990 as wages haven’t kept pace with rocketing housing costs.
Down and out?
More than 7,000 individuals or families receive food stamps in Spokane County. The monthly bill totals more than $1 million.
By 8:15 a.m., on the first of the month, the food stamp line backed up to the door at a low-slung state building near Costco off Second Avenue. East Central and Valley residents packed the room to ask for help, to collect a check, or to pick up their food stamps.
The line had a lot of “trackers,” as social workers call the homeless who in the past dwelled near the railroad tracks. Some looked like they had fallen asleep in the sun. One man with a long goatee and a bad limp looked drunk at 8:15 a.m., smoking a cigarette beneath a No Smoking sign.
Others didn’t fit the down-and-out cliche. A tall Sharon-Stone look-alike who drives a BMW, waited to talk to someone about assistance. A strapping young man waited in new, $120 hiking boots. Four mothers and their well-dressed babies wouldn’t have looked out of place at Cyrus O’Leary’s.
After collecting their food stamps, two seemingly fit, unshaven men in their early 40s stepped outside. “I always say if you ever lose somebody first of the month, you know where to find them,” said the one with a puppy peeking from his coat, chuckling at the sight of two familiar men strolling their way.
The four men exchanged jail tales. The newcomers said they did time for assault. The puppy owner said he and his pal got nailed for burglary. One asks another if he has a joint. They grumble about a Russian man playing ethnic music on his car stereo. “This is (expletive) America,” one of them reminds the immigrant.
‘Maybe I should’ve gotten fixed’
Ironically, many of the people with the most at stake in the welfare debate didn’t bother to vote in the last election. The turnout in the 6th District, covering most of the South Hill and northwest Spokane, was half again as high as the 3rd.
Linda, who lives on welfare with three of her seven children in a Hillyard trailer park, didn’t vote, and doesn’t much follow the issue. She just knows her way of life is in jeopardy.
“There’s always the threat of being cut off,” she says, explaining why she wants to remain anonymous. “I don’t want them looking at me if I can help it. I do nothing to draw attention to myself.”
She’s collected welfare for five years. She gets food stamps, too. Sometimes her father in California helps her out.
“As far as the system goes, it keeps you from being hungry. It keeps you from being cold. It doesn’t make you high on the hog.”
Linda, 44, doesn’t smoke, drink or use drugs. She survives on $842 a month between welfare and food stamps.
She says she wants to work again, but estimates she’d have to make $12 an hour to cover the bills. She was recently, briefly, a 900-number telephone psychic. “But try being psychic with kids hanging all over you.”
Linda doesn’t have a high school diploma. She had her seven children with three different husbands and three boyfriends.
“I never wanted a big family. Sometimes I feel trapped. Do I blame myself? No. Do I blame anyone else? No. Maybe I should’ve gotten fixed.
“What’s going to happen to me? I don’t know if I’m going to be knocked into the dirt. I try to keep my dignity about me. If you talk to my kids they think they’re rich. I make them think that way.”
One Map: Spokane’s highest poverty areas One Graphics: 3rd District’s public assistance cost
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Coming up Monday: How some recipients make the most of the system.
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