The historic hobo camps along the Spokane River’s railroad tracks are mostly gone.
But on occasion, transients still manage to establish a makeshift camp in the trees near downtown Coeur d’Alene. Mostly they go unnoticed, except for when they clean up in public bathrooms at the nearby Harbor Center offices.
They are perhaps the most visible of North Idaho homeless, who by most recent counts number about 275 – a figure that social workers say is low. And that doesn’t count those who drift from friend to friend, or relative to relative, with no permanent home.
“It’s not obvious like in Seattle,” said Matt Hutchinson, director of transitional housing for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Coeur d’Alene. “The majority of our homeless are couch surfing, living in cars or women in domestic violence situations, afraid to leave their abusers.”
More typical, too, are people like Rindie Burgess, who lived with her husband and six children in a tent in North Idaho until they managed to get a temporary apartment at St. Vincent de Paul’s Transitional Housing Center a year ago.
They were lucky – the wait to get into one of St. Vincent de Paul’s 41 transitional units is about a year, Hutchinson said.
Burgess, 30, told her story recently to about 50 Coeur d’Alene High School students who slept outside on the high school football field to better understand what it’s like to be homeless.
Burgess didn’t stay overnight with them. She has no desire to camp again.
The family moved to North Idaho from Arizona to be near relatives, but their family is so large no one would take them in, Burgess said.
While living in a campground near the Flying J gas station in the summer of 2005, “we had that big rainfall,” Burgess said. “Our tent was full of water. It may not sound bad to other people, but for a parent living with six kids in a tent, it was hell.”
Burgess’ husband was working while she cared for the children, but they couldn’t find an affordable place to rent that would accept their large family.
“There were times when I wanted to give my kids up because it was so hard to take care of them,” she said.
While substance abuse, mental illness and joblessness often play a role in homelessness, the biggest problem is lack of affordable housing, advocates for the homeless say.
Nowhere in the nation can a person earning minimum wage rent a one- or two-bedroom home or apartment at fair market value, according to the National Council on Homelessness.
“Rent is so expensive and income so low,” said Hutchinson. “Most everybody here just can’t afford an apartment.”
Even low income housing, if it’s available, is out of reach for most homeless, said Linda Brown, assistant director of the Bonner County Homeless Task Force, which manages shelters and transitional housing in Bonner County.
“All the low income housing run credit checks, and none of these people have good credit,” Brown said. “That one drives me crazy. It’s like, come on! They expect them to have A1 credit ratings and they don’t.”
While families have it tough, teenagers often have no place to go except a friend’s couch. Sometimes they wind up at the juvenile detention center just to have a warm, safe place to sleep.
The Coeur d’Alene School District counted 105 homeless children among its student body last year, said Linda Brown, the district’s Title 1 director.
“That’s low,” she said. Accurate numbers for the high schools are hard to get. Still, the numbers they have increase gradually each year, and she fears the number of families on the cusp of losing housing is growing, too.
“It’s becoming really pretty chronic in our area,” she said.
Brown knows of children who walk from Hayden to Coeur d’Alene to get a warm meal at Project Safe Place, a resource for troubled teens based out of Anchor House on Government Way. The meals used to be provided daily, but because of funding problems they are now offered only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Project Safe Place, a program of Volunteers of America, links kids to community resources, but emergency shelter is extremely limited. One of the biggest challenges in helping homeless teens is that the community is largely unaware of the problem, said Beth Barclay, the project’s director.
“To some degree, it’s invisible,” she said.
“We don’t see the kids sleeping behind buildings and alleys, in abandoned latte stands. … That’s not consistent with our image.”
It’s hard to place a number on homeless teens, she said.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” she said. “We know there are lots more out there that are couch surfing, staying with a friend until a mom kicks them out.”