The knock on the door of the family’s one-room apartment came at 6 a.m. – just as it did the day before, just as it would tomorrow. Breakfast in 15 minutes.
Rebecca Gowan had been up for an hour. Moments of privacy are rare at the Salvation Army Family Emergency Center, and a shower room to herself is one of the few luxuries she can afford.
Her long, black hair was still wet and smelled of shampoo. You could not say the same about Gillian. The 2-year-old’s diaper would have to wait. Rebecca had to help Anthony, 7, and Madelynn, 6, into clean jeans and T-shirts for school.
Dale Gowan, already in his tennis shoes, choked down the last of 13 pills – prescription painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers and steroids – he depends on to get him through another day hanging drywall. His lower back ached, and that terrible numbness in his legs had returned.
During the night, the shelter staff rousted the family from their sleep to join the other dozen or so families downstairs. There was a rumor someone was using illegal drugs. Occupants of odd-numbered rooms had to take urine tests on the spot. Even numbers would be tested that evening.
The family was up before February dawn appeared in the single window of the small room with the worn carpet. Two twin beds, two bunk beds and most of what they own pressed in on the five of them. They were together in this refuge, but they were not home.
That would come later, in two weeks, maybe three, the Gowans told their children. They would have their own place to live, with their own rooms and toys. Mommy and Daddy promise.
Had it not been for the subzero cold snap in January, the Gowans would still be living in the small, converted school bus Dale received in payment for a job he did back in Idaho. The minibus had been home to the family since they left Boise in search of work the week before Christmas.
“When my husband had work, we would stay at the KOA,” Rebecca said. “When he didn’t, there was the Wal-Mart parking lot.”
Dale, 38, is a private person. Interaction with strangers makes him uncomfortable. He was afraid an emergency shelter would split up his family. But he could not bear to see his 27-year-old wife and children shiver through another night in the minibus. He had his fill of such nights when he was left to fend for himself at 14 in Colorado.
Rebecca found the Salvation Army family shelter in a Spokane phone book.
Dale started working for a contractor soon after moving into the shelter. His pay depends on how much drywall he can hang in a day, but he hopes he can make $18 to $20 an hour as he did in Boise before the work dried up and the Gowans had to give up their mobile home.
The couple met in Las Vegas in 2000. Rebecca was a single mother with two children. They were married the next year in Loveland, Colo., the town Dale considers home. Since then, they have traveled wherever work led them, to Western towns experiencing construction booms.
There had been hard times, but until late last year, they were never homeless.
“We started out with no money, and you had to pay your workman’s compensation yourself,” Dale said of his time in Idaho. “I was paid once a month, but the first check really comes in 45 days.”
His employers there called themselves a company, but there were only two of them, and they did not have much drywalling experience. Dale was proud of his skill.
“We kept trying to hang in there, thinking if we make enough money, we could be like everyone else,” Rebecca said. “Boise sucked the life out of my family.”
Since arriving at the Spokane shelter, the family has applied for transitional housing at the Salvation Army and Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs. Both programs work basically the same way, and the Gowans said they would take whichever opened up first. They attended SNAP orientation, where they were told about the life skills necessary to keep from falling back into homelessness. SNAP has a waiting list for 15 transitional housing units, and the Gowans were told to check in with the agency twice a week.
Their best hope was with the Salvation Army and its 30 units of transitional housing. A three-bedroom apartment sounded like a dream to the family, and they were willing to submit to the case management and twice-a-month life skills classes required to get in.
They scheduled a Feb. 3 appointment to be interviewed by three Salvation Army caseworkers.
On a Sunday, Dale’s one day off a week, the family drove to Coeur d’Alene for the drugs Dale needs for the bulging vertebra that pressures a nerve in his back and the Crohn’s disease that tears at his intestines and sometimes eats away at his feet. He needed enough medication to last him while he dropped the family’s Medicaid in Idaho and started it in Washington. The Department of Social and Health Services told the Gowans they could start receiving health benefits within six weeks.
The minibus broke down in Coeur d’Alene, and Dale spent the better part of the day fixing it.
“It’s always something,” Rebecca said. She never really liked the minibus.
The next day, she went down to breakfast with the children just as Dale left for work. He is not a breakfast person, preferring to fill up on coffee. He also skipped the sack lunches provided by the shelter.
After breakfast, Rebecca and Gillian walked Anthony and Madelynn, who attend Holmes Elementary School, to the bus stop. The weather was good for February, so the mother and daughter played outside in the tiny, well-used playground surrounded by cyclone fencing just outside the shelter’s back door. The mother spent the rest of the morning caring for Gillian, cleaning and doing laundry. Lunch was at 11:45.
At 12:10, Rebecca and Gillian met Madelynn at the bus stop after her half-day of kindergarten. The three of them played outside for a while before Gillian’s nap time. Rebecca sat at one of the four little round tables in the shelter’s dining hall as she does most days, stuck there until she can swing child care. It is against the shelter rules to allow other guests to watch her children.
The family needs child care. It is only a matter of time before Dale’s back gives out. Rebecca knows she must go to work, but her only experience is in telemarketing before her children were born.
“I have no experience,” she said. “Nothing that says ‘hire me.’ “
A doctor told Dale he cannot continue to work. He needs back surgery and a year to recuperate. Dale has been told he could be eligible for Social Security Income, but he does not want to admit he is disabled.
“Once they see his MRIs, there will be no doubt that what he does he can no longer do,” Rebecca said. “He’s a man. He wants to work for his family, but he’s so hurt right now he can’t.”
Ready for change
On the day of their transitional housing interview, the Gowans left 45 minutes early. Dale took the time off from work. They arranged child care because children are not allowed at the meeting, but they were given bad directions in an unfamiliar town. They could not find the child-care provider and called the Salvation Army 15 minutes after their appointment was to begin.
They were given another appointment in two weeks.
Dale has become agitated living at the shelter. He has trouble handling the communal life and routine at the shelter, where homeless families sleep in 55 beds in 15 rooms. He cannot bear to see other fathers lie around the shelter all day.
He has received penalty points for breaking the rules. Four points and you are asked to leave. He worked late one night and missed dinner. That cost him a point. He went out for a sandwich and brought it back to the shelter to eat. Another point. There were points for not doing chores, points for missing curfews, points for parents not having their children with them at all times.
The shelter director, Laurie Meloy, dismissed most of the Gowans’ points. She said the Gowans have a better chance of pulling themselves out of poverty than most because they are a stable family with a working parent. She has steered them toward available social services. But the Gowans were becoming frustrated with the wait and began to think it would be better to try to find a place on their own.
The housing they could afford on their own in Spokane would not be good. Gowan is limited by his back injury and has made as little as $420 a week and as much as $750.
According to the National Low Income Housing Alliance, a family would need to make $16.21 an hour to afford a three-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate – about $650 a week. To put it another way, a family earning Washington’s minimum wage of $7.16 an hour would have to work 91 hours a week to afford such a home in Spokane.
A step forward
On Feb. 17, Dale and Rebecca were interviewed by the Salvation Army.
The questions were personal. How did they become homeless? What are their goals? Where do they see themselves in the future?
“We are looking for families that are ready to make changes and improve their circumstances,” said one of the Gowans’ interviewers, Dawn Kilmer, of the Salvation Army transitional housing program. “There are a lot of families that are just looking for a cheap program. We try to screen out these.”
The interview went well. The Gowans did not become homeless because of an unwillingness to work. They want their own home and are willing to accept the Salvation Army rules to achieve it. They like Spokane and hope to settle here.
“They were very impressed with Dale, a man who actually works,” Rebecca said of her interviewers.
Recently, the Gowans received a letter from DSHS, approving them for Medicaid. Now Dale can get a local doctor to whom he can transfer his medical records so he can be referred to a specialist. The Gowans also received their income tax refund from the IRS, which they spent on reliable transportation.
Dale would like to keep the minibus, just in case things do not work out for his family in Spokane.
On Feb. 22, the Gowans learned they were approved for the Salvation Army’s transitional housing program. They would have liked to move that very day, but the IRS check was spent. They decided to sell the minibus to come up with $700 for a deposit and first month’s rent, but the car dealer who said he would buy it backed out at the last minute. The family had to wait for payday, which was Friday.
This weekend, the Gowans moved into their new home on the fourth floor of the Salvation Army apartments, three bedrooms, no furniture, no carpet in the living room. The communal laundry room is on the first floor.
The Gowans have reached a turning point in their lives. They have secured a place to live thanks to a faith-based charity. They have obtained government-run medical care. Society’s safety net has caught them for now. It helped that they are a two-parent household with a skilled wage earner.
But soon Dale will have to make a decision. He can continue working at the risk of a permanent disabling injury to his back, or he can stop working and obtain the surgery he needs.
“I need to get better if I have any chance,” Dale said.