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Finding shelter: A night with the women of Spokane’s Hope House

If there was one thing everyone at Hope House could agree on, it was this: The day was too hot.

With temperatures close to 97 degrees Tuesday evening, everything moved a little slower. Women headed to the showers or lingered outside, smoking in the shade of the neighboring building.

“I’m melting,” said Leona Ovitt, a 64-year-old woman who’s been living at the shelter for about three months. By 7 p.m., she’d already taken two showers to cool off.

For much of her life, Ovitt worked on a cattle ranch in Deer Park with her husband and raised two children, she said. The marriage ended, and she moved in with her adult son about three years ago in a house she helped him buy.

After making the move, she discovered her son was addicted to heroin and hadn’t been paying property taxes or making the mortgage.

“He just changed. He wasn’t the same kid,” Ovitt said.

She wanted to stay and help him get better, so for three years, she stuck it out. He stole her car keys, her wallet and assaulted her repeatedly. After getting a heart infection from a dirty needle, he spent three months in intensive care and almost died five times, she said.

“He got out of there, said, ‘Man, I’m never going to touch that stuff again,’ but he went right back to it,” she said.

Three months ago, he beat her so badly she had three broken ribs. After getting out of the hospital, Ovitt decided enough was enough. The house had been repossessed, so with nowhere else to go, she came to the shelter.

Hope House, run by Volunteers of America, is part of Spokane’s 24/7 network for homeless people, built on the idea that everyone, regardless of age or gender, should have a safe place to be inside at all times. It houses women in a cramped but homey 36-bed shelter on the ground floor of an apartment building filled with formerly homeless tenants.

Bunk beds are nestled into dorm rooms, as well as some smaller spaces originally intended to be staff offices and a living room.

Even in mid-July, after a stretch of days when night temperatures hadn’t fallen below 50 degrees in weeks, the shelter was more than full.

Women gathered at the entrance, off a parking lot behind the building on Third Avenue. Some sat on picnic tables, while others lingered around a wooden shack in the parking lot that serves as a smoking room.

Among those who were willing to talk about their lives, the reasons behind their homelessness were diverse. A few cited mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, with manic periods that lead to unwise spending decisions. Some fled abusive relationships. Others simply weren’t able to pay their rent.

Several had adult children in Spokane, but said they didn’t want to burden them by asking to move in.

Nineteen-year-old Abs Stewart was kicked out by his mother last fall and stayed with friends for months before coming to Hope House.

Stewart is a transgender man, though he hasn’t started physically transitioning. He’s been allowed to stay because he worries about being assaulted at a shelter populated mostly by older men.

“It’s technically safer since I haven’t started my transition,” he said.

Spokane doesn’t have a homeless shelter specifically for young adults or for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Both are groups city staff and social service workers say don’t have good shelter options in the existing system.

Stewart is among the shelter’s resident artists, and draws animals in two notebooks he carries in a backpack. Outside the shelter, he’s drawn a large, multicolored Cheshire Cat in chalk on the sidewalk.

Women who spend the night at the shelter can sign up for a bed in the morning, reducing the uncertainty about finding a place to stay. By 7:50 a.m. Wednesday morning, every bed for the coming night was accounted for. Three names on the list were circled, meaning the women wouldn’t be able to get to the shelter by the 5 p.m. check-in time due to a job or other commitments. It’s a reminder for staff to hold the bed.

Anyone else hoping to get in can sign up after 8 a.m., either for any beds left unclaimed or for the wait list. The shelter’s phone usually starts ringing at 8 with people hoping to get a spot for the coming night.

Dinner is served at 6 p.m. daily. Tuesday’s selection included spaghetti, white bread and iced tea. Stewart sat quietly with several women at the dining room table, watching television news and eating.

When KXLY meteorologist Kris Crocker came on with a weather update and said Wednesday is supposed to be 7 degrees cooler, there were audible sighs of relief.

“Phew,” one woman said.

Heather Thomas-Taylor, the shelter director, said food is usually donated as whole meals from restaurants or churches. The shelter’s kitchen, with a single counter and stove, isn’t set up to cook for 36.

Cindy Shaw, who’s worked at Hope House for 13 years, recalled a few memorable donations.

A decade ago around Christmas, a van pulled up around 2 a.m. with 250 dinners in to-go containers: meat, stuffing, the whole nine yards. The shelter’s fridges were already full.

“We couldn’t have fit a slice of bologna in there,” she said.

Shaw put the food in cardboard boxes and walked upstairs, banging on the doors of apartment residents. Most of them forgave her the intrusion after they saw the food. Then she went outside.

“I was walking up and down the alley yelling at anyone. ‘No, grab your girlfriend, your boyfriend. Grab the dog, too,’ ” Shaw said. When people came asking for blankets, she told them they had to take food too, whether they were hungry or not.

“I was really proud of myself because by 8:30 I only had to throw away 25 of them,” she said.

Another time, she got a call from a couple that had leftovers from their wedding reception. When a van pulled up, Shaw was expecting family or members of the wedding party, but the bride and groom got out of the van, still in a tux, dress and heels.

“I’m looking at her like, ‘Girlfriend, you’re in your wedding dress, what are you doing?’ ” she said. The bride responded, “We wanted to do it.”

The shelter had dinners for two weeks: prime rib and shrimp.

Shelter residents affectionately call Shaw “Mama Bear.” Social work was a mid-life career change for her after more than two decades working as a bartender. The two jobs are similar in many ways, she said: graveyard shifts, playing counselor to people talking about their problems.

“I figure if you’re already a bartender, you’ve got half the social work stuff down,” she said, laughing.

With such a small community, friendships form between many of the women.

Johnett Shafer, 61, was having a rough time in the evening heat, breathing heavily and complaining of stomach pain. She’d been to urgent care for heat stroke earlier in the day.

Her friend, a younger woman wearing scrubs and a hijab, stopped by her bed to tell her about all the fast food deals she missed out on. She took Shafer’s hand and held it.

“We missed you this morning,” she said, before going off to get Shafer something to drink.

Thomas-Taylor and other staff make a point of knowing names, and often joke with residents. The director poked her head into Shafer’s dorm room.

“I’m just making sure you’re still alive,” she said.

“I’m imitating death pretty well,” Shafer said.

“No, you’re not. You’re breathing. Up your game!” she said. Throughout the evening, she encouraged Shafer to eat and drink and helped her get medication to calm her stomach.

Shafer has been at the shelter almost three years, making her among the facility’s longest residents. She became homeless after her husband of 39 years died of heart disease and she couldn’t keep the apartment.

“I wasn’t ready for any of it. I didn’t know what to do or where to go,” she said.

The door is supposed to close at 9 p.m., but with the sun going down, it’s still cooler outside than in. Staff sit out back with clients, smoking and talking, until the door is actually closed around 10:15 p.m. A few gather in the parking lot, debating whether a bright light in the sky is a UFO.

Lights go out at 11, though a few stragglers stay up.

Shaw stays busy until her shift ends at 5 a.m.: doing laundry, serving leftover food to men who ring the shelter’s buzzer at 11 p.m., when they know they can get a meal.

The early morning crowd begins rising just as Shaw gets off work. Anyone still sleeping is woken up at 7. Some women eat cereal while watching “Good Morning Northwest.” Others chat, asking friends how they slept, or start mopping floors.

The hustle and bustle of women getting ready is interrupted by what sounds like loud screaming from the bathroom. Inside, a resident is in tears after finding out she got a housing voucher. She hugged Tina Patterson, the morning shelter staff worker, and thanked her for all her support over the three months she’s stayed at the shelter.

Hope House is slated to move to a larger space in 2020, thanks to a grant from Premera Blue Cross to fund construction.

Staff are excited for a larger space: the chance to serve more women and maybe have staff offices again. But they worry about losing the care and intimacy that the smaller shelter provides, one where staff members know every client’s name and at least a little about who she is.

“We’re excited about not having to say, ‘No, you can’t come in,’ ” Thomas-Taylor said. “But how do you replicate this when you’re tripling the number?”

Many women spoke of future plans: a stable apartment, going back to school, regaining custody of their children.

Ovitt hopes to get into senior housing, she said, but in the short term, she’s excited about getting a new walker: one with brakes, a larger basket and a seat. Her doctor has ordered it for her, and she wants to outfit it with a bike bell. She demonstrates with her thumb and an imaginary bell.

“Ring, ring, ring! I’m right behind you,” she said.

She never expected to become homeless, and still struggles with not being able to help her son with his addiction. But she’s grateful for the community she’s found at Hope House.

“These girls have been my family,” she said. “Each one of them has something to give.”


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