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Idaho Voices

Nonprofits fight for holiday cheer

Just a few years ago, a towering tree bordered by presents awaited Jim and Miranda Tso’s young children on Christmas Day.

A construction worker and native of Arizona who moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2002, Jim, 40, lost his job when the housing market crumbled in North Idaho in 2008. With the job loss, the Tso family witnessed a rapid decline in income, spending, finding work and paying the bills.

They are not alone.

“Work was good year-round up until 2008. That winter, it started going down,” said Jim Tso, seated at the small table in a one-bedroom hotel room he shares with his wife, 39-year-old Miranda, and their children, Deidra, 8, Emmett, 5, and Faith, 2. On one side of the room, there’s a queen-size bed and a smaller bed where the kids sleep, while a shelf-size Christmas tree stands almost unadorned in the corner. There are no wrapped presents, and the kids’ clothes are piled tidily around the room. A tiny kitchen takes up the back next to the single bathroom, and a plug-in oil heater provides the only heat.

Jim said he was laid off in February. “It went downhill big time. I’ve been looking for work, driving around from jobsite to jobsite looking for anything. Nobody is hiring,” he said, adding that the $80 weekly unemployment checks barely cover diapers, laundry and gas. Food stamps and donations from the H.E.L.P. Center and Fresh Start have helped the family cope.

Usually during the holidays, the father said, “We have a big tree with presents stacked tall. We’d have a tree that touched the ceiling, but the kids aren’t going to see that this year.”

“There will be no unwrapping gifts this year,” Miranda said softly.

While the holiday season is a time for many families and friends to celebrate what they have and give what they can, for others the season only adds to the worries of daily life. The stresses of putting presents under the tree and even food on the table serve as reminders of the cost-cutting measures taken by families across the country.

A greater need

In Kootenai County, there is a variety of groups working to make the holidays more cheerful for those in need. From the Salvation Army’s Operation Clothe-A-Child to Kootenai County Toys for Tots, and from the various St. Vincent de Paul programs and Coeur d’Alene School District’s winter clothing drive, community groups are trying to answer the call in the run up to Christmas.

In North Idaho, the need has skyrocketed in recent years. Families are short on winter gear, toys for children, and housing situations.

Approximately 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, according to a recent study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and more than 1.5 million children in the U.S. – roughly 1 in 50 – are homeless annually, according to statistics from the National Center on Family Homelessness.

“There are hundreds of people sleeping outside right now, people are quadrupled up in places not meant for human habitation,” said Matt Hutchinson, social services director of St. Vincent de Paul and a member of the North Idaho Coalition to End Homelessness. “We have people that are waiting to just get into shelter. We are turning away dozens of people a month because we don’t have the capacity, the community doesn’t have the capacity. We are trying our hardest to make sure people aren’t sleeping outside right now.”

St. Vincent serves the elderly and homeless throughout North Idaho. Services include donated items, immediate shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing with long-term intensive programs for life skills to prevent a slide into homelessness.

It’s part of the Continuum of Care program created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hutchinson explained.

The need outweighs what is available, Hutchinson said.

“I think the last number that I heard was 1,600 people are homeless in Kootenai County alone, and there are about 15 tent encampments. We’re also getting a very interesting migrant encampment that we have not seen before,” he said. “At St. Vincent’s, we were serving on average about 20 people a night two years ago and it’s doubled since then; we’re serving about 40 people a night, Monday through Friday, and many of these are folks that haven’t used social services before.”

Homeless event scheduled

The organization is offering a Homeless Connect event on Jan. 27. The list of free services available is extensive, including showers, haircuts, food, bicycle repairs, animal checks with a veterinarian and health checks.

St. Vincent’s, like many organizations, is asking for donations of winter gear, a top priority during the cold season. Items can be dropped off at the store on the corner of Government Way and Walnut Avenue, or at the H.E.L.P. Center at 201 Harrison Ave., the former home of the library.

“We are really needing gloves, coats, hats, new sleeping bags, new underwear, and even underwriting a meal for warming shelters or underwriting a month’s worth of a hotel room, gas cards and open-ended bus tickets – those things are tremendously helpful,” Hutchinson said. “If they want to donate new stuffed animals, books, those things are huge, too. But our biggest focus is on making sure there are no people dying because of the weather.”

The Coeur d’Alene School District is also collecting new and gently used boots and other winter weather items for students, while also providing backpacks filled with food for qualifying students to take home on weekends.

The Lake City Food Bank holds the food until the backpacks and bags can be filled and delivered to schools. James Curb, the district’s homeless liaison coordinator, said the partnership between the school district, the Kiwanis Club, the Lake City Food Bank and Super 1 Foods sprang up when some parents decided to organize.

“We were finding at one of our schools that kids were coming to school Monday just famished because they hadn’t eaten all weekend,” Curb explained. The partnership, he said, shows that “people are not only willing but ready to step up and do something today.”

Habitat for Humanity and the school district are also working together to place qualified families in temporary housing. The number of homeless families, even if it’s just a temporary circumstance, has increased around the county since the onset of the recession.

“It’s high. There are a lot of folks out there struggling,” Curb said.

A drop in donations

The Kootenai County Toys for Tots campaign has witnessed a drop in donations.

“We are still short of toys, particularly in toys for 3-year-old to 7-year-old boys. We are hurting for those, and also for older girls, 10 to 12 years old. The donations are lagging behind this year compared to years past, but I’m sure that’s more of an indicator of the economy than anything. But we are going to make it,” said Mike Milligan, county coordinator of the program, which has 160 drop-off locations around the community.

The Kroc Center recently held its first Operation Clothe-A-Child at the Silver Lake Mall. The Salvation Army has been hosting the program in other cities for the last 15 years, and the Kroc Center raised more than $8,600 for 120 students to go on a $100 shopping spree at J.C. Penney last week, enough to cover the cost of a coat, boots or whatever clothing item the kids, grades 1 through 5, needed most. The students were selected by teachers and matched up with one of dozens of volunteers from the community and the Kroc Center.

“We were pretty amazed that we were able to raise that much,” said Kroc Center development director Christy Markham, adding that the center is still accepting donations to cover the program’s estimated $13,000 total cost. “We advertised just within the Kroc Center itself, and all of the donors are just local people that saw the need and wanted to help out.”

Chelsea Jennings, mother of a first-grade student at Rathdrum’s John Brown Elementary, said it was a blessing for her family. The 29-year-old Jennings was recently laid off from her position as a hair stylist and the holidays were looking gloomy for the entire family, which includes 6-year-old Alexis and her 2-year-old brother.

“We’ve been going through some hard times and for Alexis to come here and have some time by herself with some of her peers, it’s great. And she’s never been to J.C. Penney, so she’s pretty excited,” Jennings said. Alexis was looking for a Christmas dress, pants and shoes.

“It’s been a little bit rough for us this year. I cried when I found out about this. Blessings come in disguises all the time and this is a big one for us.”

For the Tso family, the holidays are a time to reflect on what they do have: A healthy family that supports one another. “This is the first time ever like this for us,” Jim Tso said. “Sometimes Emmett will ask, ‘Why don’t we have a house like the other kids?’ I just tell him there are people in worse situations than ours. Way worse.”

With little in the way of job opportunities available, he said the family will make do with some gifts from the Toys for Tots program. Anything for the children, Jim Tso said.

“Sad,” he said when asked how he would summarize their situation. “Sometimes I feel like choking up about it, but I can’t show that to my kids. I have to stay strong for them.”