February 6, 2011 in Opinion

Lifeline needs creative effort

Jamie TobiasNeely
 

Ed McCarron sounded weary on the phone one afternoon last week. He had stayed up all night tending people nesting in the House of Charity’s emergency warming center, and he hadn’t slept since the night before.

When temperatures dip down to 15 degrees, the city authorizes the center to hand out pillows and blankets to extra homeless people. On a typical night, 108 homeless men fill the beds upstairs and 47 more sleep on the main floor.

Last week a Washington state Senate budget proposal also called for eliminating the small monthly cash payments some of Spokane’s poorest residents receive through a program called Disability Lifeline. “It’s truly going to put more people on the streets,” predicted McCarron, the center’s director.

The House of Charity, especially on the cold nights of deep winter, has no vacancy. Demand for meals alone grew by 17 percent last year. Where additional homeless folks will land, McCarron can’t say. But it’s likely to be no place good.

On Monday, Jerry Schwab, the center’s community connections coordinator, sat down with a group of college journalism students and described the homeless men he works with. They share, he says, a common history of trauma, whether from childhood or the military.

The men and women who walk and strut and shuffle into this place make up a curious mix of the city’s most vulnerable and least savory, sometimes both in the same personality. They include those taking medications for major depression, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. They include sex offenders, ex-felons and drug dealers as well as former college professors, basketball players and engineers. They may show up right after taking a hit of meth or slugging a bottle of Jim Beam.

And what to do about them has confounded Washington legislators and governors for decades.

Disability Lifeline used to be called General Assistance-Unemployable, a name that sounds like a throwback to the 1930s. The advocates and the state workers who deal with the program and its permutations use acronyms that resemble a blizzard of airport codes at a counter full of canceled flights. GA-U. GA-U-X. DL. DL-X. Truly, you don’t want to know.

For decades now, these initials have added up to this odd little cash payment of around $300 a month, which along with food stamps, multiple soup kitchens and shelters, medical assistance and the random donated bus pass, has patched together a living for people too mentally or physically disabled to work.

Margie Taylor, the House of Charity’s shelter case manager, says these small checks were recently cut from $339 to $266. Those who managed to pay rent of $250 to $300 can’t keep their apartments. Taylor hears talk of people going back to dealing drugs or selling their medications.

For years, opponents of this state program imagined that the homeless and the destitute might operate rather like a flock of migratory birds. Take away these small monthly checks, which only 18 other states provide anyway, and maybe these people will simply fly away.

The weary staff members at the House of Charity doubt that, and they’re probably right.

But perhaps the state could take a lesson from private industry. Every once in awhile, in the midst of a grisly downsizing or restructuring, not often but not unheard of, some positive transformation happens. An innovation takes place that actually does manage to trim costs and improve service at the same time.

Rare, I know. Like a sighting of a snowy plover. But possible.

The state could use this budget crisis to create a third option, a way to provide homeless people supervised, subsidized housing that’s vastly cheaper than the jail nights, police work and ER visits they otherwise need.

Now, while housing prices are down, the moment could be right.

On Monday, Schwab introduced the journalism students to 70-year-old Matthew Bolar, who was visiting the House of Charity at lunchtime. He’s spent the night there on occasion, but he usually sleeps in his RV.

Bolar describes himself as a former professional musician and the cousin of rhythm and blues singer Sam Cooke. That afternoon Bolar sat down at the piano in the House of Charity chapel, the winter sunlight streaming in the windows over the wooden crucifix, and played one of Cooke’s big hits, “Bring It On Home.” It’s a song of yearning and loss, of regret and wild hope. “If you ever change your mind, about leaving me, leaving me behind,” the lyrics began.

Bolar’s song captured the students much as the House of Charity itself grabs the hearts of many Spokane residents. Amazingly, in the midst of 2010’s grim economic news, Spokane donors gave over $300,000 to the shelter, at least $100,000 more than the year before.

Tough times stir our imagination and make it easier to picture life without a home, to conjure up compassion, and, we can only hope, to inspire some rare bird politicians to choose innovation.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is jamietobiasneely@ comcast.net.

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