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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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For poor, Christmas Bureau aid makes big difference

Adrian Rogers The Spokesman-Review

Once she’s done with radiation and chemotherapy, Tricia Stannard hopes to study business. That way she can team up with her husband, who takes auto mechanics classes, to form a company and make a living.

In the meantime, the couple and three of their children live mostly on government assistance, monthly allotments she knows precisely: “Cash I get $790; food stamps I get $714,” she told an intake volunteer at the Christmas Bureau last week.

Stannard’s family’s income is higher than the average household income reported by bureau recipients as of Saturday: $1,064 a month, counting all households, no matter the size. But her family’s income falls about $650 a month below the federal poverty level for a family of five. Recipients are asked to give their income for bureau records; there’s no “poorness” requirement to receive the grocery-store vouchers and children’s toys and books distributed by the annual charity, paid for by donations from newspaper readers. But it’s the poor who show up, waiting as long as three hours to receive the Christmas gifts.

And when the bureau recipients rattle off answers to queries about income, they tend to be precise. When your monthly income is $1,200 or $997 or $341, each of those dollars is precious.

“I don’t know how they do it,” intake volunteer Joye Gill said last week. “There were these people in before, they had six people in their house, and their monthly income was like $1,000. They must be better money handlers than I am.”

Stannard, 28, does it with a little help here and a little there. Her brother lives with her family, contributing to the rent. Her husband does odd jobs while going to school. They’re trying to get disability assistance for their 5-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

Their youngest, a 1-year-old girl, also has a condition on the autism spectrum: PDD-NOS, which stands for pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified. The couple have a 3-year-old, too, and Tricia Stannard has an 8-year-old who lives with them part time.

Stannard also has Hodgkin’s disease – cancer in her lymph nodes.

Poverty or no, it’s a lot to handle. “I’m gonna live, but it’s just like, ‘Man,’ ” Stannard said last week at the bureau.

Besides government assistance, Stannard and her husband get occasional child care help and small loans – like for gas – from family members. Working together, they scrape by.

That hodgepodge approach is typical among families in poverty served by the bureau, said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, which puts on the bureau with The Spokesman-Review and Volunteers of America.

“The poor are extremely resilient and extremely creative and extremely durable,” McCann said.

They survive by adaptation, he added.

They lose one low-wage job, they hang on somehow until they get another one. Many share resources with new boyfriends and girlfriends.

“Who takes care of the poor? The poor,” said VOA President and CEO Marilee Roloff. “The poor take care of each other.”

She recently overheard teenagers at Crosswalk teen shelter in downtown Spokane educate one another about how to get the power turned back on in a home.

The poor often provide shelter for one another, Roloff and McCann said, offering spare bedrooms or couches – necessary in cases in which families, facing insurmountable rent or utility bills, leave their homes, debts unpaid.

“The working poor and very-low-income folks have learned to set the reset button a lot in their lives,” McCann said. “They move all the time.”

A poor rental history leads the next landlord to turn them away, which leads to the couch surfing. The lack of stability is traumatizing for children who are carried along, McCann said.

“They rarely have Christmas in the same home one year to the next,” he said, not to mention school in one building from one year to the next.

On a daily basis, many bureau recipients survive by doing without: cell phones, cable, transportation.

Social service agencies can help with some things. Volunteers of America has received more calls this year for bus passes and utility assistance. Catholic Charities has distributed 30 percent more diapers this year than last year through its Childbirth and Parenting Assistance program.

But even as those agencies face bigger demands, harder times may loom ahead. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget, announced last week, would eliminate the Basic Health Plan, the Children’s Health Program and two state programs that provide assistance to people with disabilities.

Already, the Christmas Bureau is serving more new people, Roloff said – people showing up unprepared with the proper ID because, they say, they’ve never sought the charity before.

For Stannard, who said she’s used the bureau for seven years, family is key to daily survival. Besides the practical assistance, her husband’s five sisters offer emotional support, as does her father, whom she called her hero. Her parents divorced when she was 9. She, her brother and her father moved in with an aunt. Her father worked two jobs.

“I learned from him that all you need is love,” Stannard said in an e-mail, after leaving the bureau.

This weekend Stannard’s father is at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. He fell earlier this month and injured his shoulder, but didn’t go to a doctor, she wrote. On Thursday, he fell again, this time at a gas station, and went to the hospital. That’s where he learned he has a brain tumor. And lung cancer.

“They don’t know what kind of treatment he will be receiving yet, but when the biopsy comes back Monday they will start chemo,” Stannard wrote. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost him.”

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