Health center worker helps the homeless

Outreach worker Patty McGruder has been called a ‘miracle worker’

Jerry Horton and Ed Matt agree, “It will be hard to give up that cherry spot.”

The “cherry spot” is a Coeur d’Alene ballpark dugout where the homeless pair have resided for the last year. The men know that they were lucky to have the dugout, a place with a roof over it.

“When you are homeless you do not have a home, but true homelessness is when you don’t have a place in this world,” says Horton.

The men recently moved into a modest apartment, thanks to the efforts of Patty McGruder, Dirne Health Centers’ first outreach worker.

There isn’t much in the apartment, but Horton and Matt could care less. They seem content to sit on their refurnished sofa. Horton comments that the “fit is perfect.”

“You would have thought that they had won the lottery,” says McGruder about the men when they were told they had home.

“There were tears and hugs all around as other homeless individuals felt hopeful that they, too, would be off the streets one day.”

According to Amanda Miller, Dirne communications director, McGruder has helped more than 300 homeless individuals since she was hired in October 2008. McGruder’s position was made possible with funds secured through a federal grant.

“Patty is a miracle worker,” says Miller. “She travels alone to the warming shelter, soup kitchens, and other places where homeless individuals congregate.”

McGruder helps them access resources for housing, medical and dental needs, and in some cases, Social Security, disability or VA benefits.

McGruder is the daughter of longtime Coeur d’Alene community supporters John and Kay McGruder.

“My parents were great teachers, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now without their influence,” says McGruder.

With more than 19 years experience working with the homeless in Spokane, Seattle and San Francisco, McGruder is a tireless advocate for the homeless, according to Miller.

In all three cities, McGruder started “Project Donut Run.” Walking the streets with a sack of donuts, McGruder found that it was an effective way to begin interaction with the homeless. She would then ask them how she could help.

“Donuts chew easily. I quickly learned that one of the first health problems a homeless individual faces is the loss of their teeth,” says McGruder.

Horton and Matt were the beneficiaries of the efforts of two other previously homeless individuals, Freeman Buckhanan and Kenneth Giffin – as part of the Pay It Forward system.

Pay It Forward means repaying acts of kindness from others by paying it forward, not paying it back. The premise of Pay It Forward is that kindness is good for everybody, whether you are the giver or the receiver.

Buckhanan and Giffin helped Horton and Matt transition into an apartment by working with their new landlord to paint and carpet their apartment before moving in.

The Pay It Forward system, used on the streets of Coeur d’Alene, is helping other homeless people, according to McGruder.

Horton and Matt, receivers of the Pay It Forward system, now are the givers helping a homeless mom find a place to live and a baby crib.

“These stories are incredible. They have nothing but they will give everything to help the next person. Their hospitality is beyond belief,” says McGruder.

Homeless individuals come from all walks of life. Horton is a two tour Vietnam veteran; Matt suffers from physical ailments; Giffin had trouble holding a job because of epilepsy; and Buckhanan is a former veteran and mortician.

According to McGruder there are 56 people sleeping outside and even more sleeping in vehicles within a 10-mile radius of Coeur d’Alene.

“A deposit, first and last month’s rents, all have to be paid before a person can move into an apartment – this creates a hopeless situation for the homeless.”

McGruder’s hope is that everyone will help one other person and Pay It Forward.

“No one should ever have to endure the discomforts of life on the streets.”

McGruder’s cell phone rings, and she receives word that three more families need her help. She smiles and says, “Today, I know I have the best job in the world.”

Contact correspondent Laura Umthun by e-mail at lauraumthun@yahoo.com.

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