July 19, 2009 in City

The ripple effect: New lease, life

Resources help CdA man overcome homelessness
By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photo

Jerry Horton shows off one of his plants at his apartment in Coeur d’Alene on July 9. When he moved into his own place with the help of a Coeur d’Alene outreach program, he was granted a special wish: houseplants to add life to his new apartment.
(Full-size photo)

The four plants in Jerry Horton’s apartment are nothing to stir a botanist’s heart.

They’re a little droopy. Some leaf tips are turning brown. Horton says he needs to get them some plant food.

But they go a long way toward making his Coeur d’Alene apartment a home, Horton says. For 64-year-old Horton, who lived for months on the streets and who often has had to scrape and scratch for places to live, home is an important concept.

“We’re still trying to find us one for this corner,” he says, pointing to an unused plant hanger between two large windows. “I’m still looking for a fern.”

The plants are a thread between two very different North Idaho homes: Horton’s apartment and the former home of Jerry and Louise Brown. The Browns sold their Post Falls split-level in March to move into a retirement community, donating household items to a local charity through their church. The plants ended up in Horton’s new place in downtown Coeur d’Alene – one tiny piece of the help he received from the community when he made it off the streets earlier this year.

While the plants are worth little financially, they are a commonplace marvel of timing and circumstance, connecting Horton to the Browns as surely as a deed or a cash transaction. Had it not taken the Browns three years to sell their home, the plants might have gone to someone else altogether – or to no one.

Horton and his roommate, Ed Matt, have been on the receiving end of quite a lot of those connections lately – help that’s gotten them off the street, into an apartment with a lease, signed up for food stamps, and the medical care they need.

One recent morning Horton talked about his need for more art to hang on the walls. He opened his refrigerator and showed off shelves full of food.

“Look here,” Horton says. “We’re doing good.”

‘Staggering’ numbers

The recession has been hard on a lot of people, and it’s particularly tough on people who were poor to begin with. Homeless advocates in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are working with hundreds of people who don’t have a place to live – and they say that unemployment, foreclosures and other economic problems are likely to push more people onto the streets.

In the Lake City, homelessness has been more hidden than in larger places like Spokane, said Patty McGruder, an outreach worker who helped Horton and Matt get into their apartment. McGruder, who has worked with the homeless in Spokane, Seattle and San Francisco, came to Coeur d’Alene in September to work with the Dirne Community Health Center, and she has tried to pull together charities, churches and other services to attack the issue.

“It’s taken a long time for people to acknowledge the problem here,” she said. “The numbers here are staggering.”

Accurately counting the homeless is notoriously difficult. McGruder personally works with around 100 homeless people right now, and Dirne provides a range of services for hundreds more. In Spokane, the city’s most recent count found more than 1,200 people living on the street and 424 people “doubled up” – living temporarily with someone else – although those numbers are likely to be low, officials said in their annual report.

Horton’s been fortunate, and he’s now doing better than he has for years. He lives on monthly Social Security checks, along with federal assistance for heat and food. He and Matt are now helping others – providing meals, volunteering at the Fresh Start day shelter, giving back to the programs that helped them.

That’s what McGruder calls the “pay it forward story.”

“That’s the key thing: helping people who are helping other people,” she said.

‘Walking homeless’

A year ago, Horton was living in a one-room apartment in San Francisco with a microwave, a small fridge and a shared bathroom down the hall. Health problems forced him to leave his maintenance position at a job-training facility. Living in one of the rougher quarters of the city had left him eager to find a new home.

“The place was a mess, man – the crime and the mess and the filth and the dirt,” he said. “I just wanted to get away from it as far as I could.”

He came to North Idaho looking for a small town, for seasons, for a nicer style of life. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he had some money in the bank. But he had no references, no place in town to stay, and when he lost his ATM card – which took six weeks to replace, complicated in part by the fact that he didn’t have an address – he became a pretty unappealing tenant to potential landlords.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money to get into a place,” he said. “I couldn’t get anybody to take it.”

By the time winter set in, Horton was living on the street. He’d met Matt at Fresh Start, and the two men became a kind of team. They started sleeping in a dugout at McEuen Field, Coeur d’Alene’s downtown park and sports complex, next to the Coeur d’Alene Resort. The dugout was a prime spot, its roof and benches offering a little shelter from the elements. Horton and Matt slipped into the dugouts at night and snuck out again early in the morning.

“We were basically the walking homeless,” he said. “Two old men with medical problems is basically what it is.”

McGruder met the men last October. She was new on the job as Dirne’s homeless outreach worker. She helped them get medical care and find an apartment. She’s given Horton, a Vietnam veteran, rides to Spokane, where he gets medical treatment at the VA Medical Center.

McGruder says a key to helping people climb out of homelessness is taking a global approach – bringing together all the different kinds of help a person needs, from medical care to heating assistance to plants for a new apartment, rather than just directing them here and there to a patchwork of social services.

Horton and Matt moved into a place in January. By the end of that month, McGruder had helped 24 people find housing.

Now, “we’ve quit counting,” McGruder said. “Which is a good thing. Too many to count – that’s the way we like it.”

Horton has really taken to his new hometown. He has walked all over Coeur d’Alene, taking pictures of seemingly commonplace sights – neighborhood trees, the cemetery, his first snowfall. He feels lucky to live somewhere with seasons, in an apartment with big windows facing every direction.

“Oh, look at this,” he said, showing off a photograph of a downtown tree in a blaze of autumn color. “I love this town. This town is so pretty.”

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