Editor’s note: S-R staff writer Rachel Alexander spent the night at the House of Charity. Here’s her report.
Lee Goehring-Gleese was all business as he addressed a group of about 10 people sitting in the House of Charity’s chapel.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, here’s how it goes. You take a blanket out, you are banned,” he said.
“I won’t do it again!” one man yelled back, joking, from the shelter’s main room.
It was just after 7 p.m. on a cold Tuesday evening, and Catholic Charities staff were getting ready to house more than 110 homeless men and women on the shelter’s ground floor.
House of Charity has long been a men’s overnight shelter and day center for homeless adults, but with Spokane trying to provide 24/7 shelter services, it’s also taken on the role of a co-ed sleeping center for anyone who needs a roof over their head.
After some back and forth with the city over funding, the shelter resumed providing round-the-clock housing in July. In addition to 105 beds upstairs for men and people recovering from hospitalization, the shelter will let anyone who wants to come inside stay downstairs during the night.
To make that happen, House of Charity closes its doors from 6 to 7 p.m. so staff and resident volunteers can clean the floors, move tables and set out the small blue foam pads that serve as makeshift beds.
The cleaning period is when the shelter appears busiest, as the hundred or so people who intend to sleep there wait outside on the sidewalk. Mats are first-come, first-serve, but no one is turned away for the night.
One man, who appeared to be alone, held up his hands over his mouth and whistled, sounding like a wolf. “Shut the (expletive) up!” another man yelled after a few whistles. Minor squabbles over noises and spots in line are common, as are small gestures of caring: hugs, gifts of snacks or cigarettes.
As staff readied to open the doors, someone ran inside and announced, “Ed’s having a heart attack.” Goehring-Gleese ran outside as someone called an ambulance.
Outside, 68-year-old Ed Jenkins clutched his chest while sitting on the sidewalk.
He’d been hospitalized the week before for a heart attack and told Goehring-Gleese he thought he was having another one. Goehring-Gleese suspected it was just anxiety and tried to help Jenkins get his breathing under control as they waited for an ambulance.
“It feels like something’s sitting on me,” Jenkins said.
Firefighters and ambulances are frequently called to the shelter, and residents are often in poor health. Jenkins would return later that night with a verdict: no heart attack, just anxiety.
Cleaning finished early and Nick Grief, one of the shelter’s staff, started letting the line through in groups of four or five. Each person checked in at the front desk, then left to either choose a mat or wait in the chapel. The room smelled of bleach and chemicals, far cleaner than a college dormitory.
The medical emergency was par for the course, Grief said. A night with only one ambulance call is not unusual, but it qualifies as “quiet.”
“Abnormal is my normal nowadays,” Grief said.
Pieces of paper taped to a wall by the front desk highlight expectations for staff and clients. The staff list is longer and more detailed, starting with an expectation that staff will view each opportunity to interact with clients as a privilege.
Many of the residents had gotten dinner from a free meal program down the street. A few lined up to take showers, which are available in a row of single-locking bathrooms starting at 8 p.m. But most just wanted to go to sleep. Aside from a few outbursts (two women raised voices at each other, ending with one yelling, “You just want me to kill myself, don’t you?”), it was quiet.
The bulk of the shelter’s ground floor is a single open space. Wood partitions, about 4 feet tall, block off the dining room from the front desk and a side area near the arts and crafts room. But there are no walls. Sounds carry.
Men sleep on the floor in the large room that functions as a dining room during the day. Tables had been pushed to the sides to make room for rows of blue mats. Women stay in three smaller areas closer to the entrance, the largest of which is a secluded area next to the enclosed chapel.
At 8 p.m., the shelter doors lock, and anyone who’s signed up for a mat but not in the shelter loses their spot. People can come in later, but the rule is designed to keep people from going in and out of the shelter all night long, something staff had trouble with last winter, when they were open round the clock.
“We’re getting ready to lock the door!” Grief yelled, encouraging people in the courtyard to finish their cigarettes. “If you have a mat, please wander over there.”
Among the stragglers was Jonita Chavez, who goes by Pink, her favorite color. Last winter, she’d camped under an awning near the shelter on a mattress and spent her days picking up needles and other trash left by homeless people in the area. The choice made her one of the few holdouts who didn’t want to live at House of Charity, which she said made her too anxious.
She said being inside is going “OK,” but spent much of the evening out in the shelter courtyard, meticulously sweeping leaves as the time approached midnight. She rarely sits still.
As she paused by the door to talk shortly before lights out, another man greeted her. He played on the old saying “your mother doesn’t work here; clean up after yourself” that’s mainstay in college dorms and office kitchens.
“Your mom doesn’t work here; yeah she does. It’s you!” he said.
People waiting for a mat in the chapel are called by name, women first. A white board at the front desk listed how many mats were still available. Every spot would be full by morning.
Lights went out around 8:30 p.m. In addition to the thin foam, the shelter provides thin white blankets, not much thicker than a robust sheet. Many clients bring their own blankets or pillows. Some stayed awake, looking at phones. One younger woman clutched a teddy bear. A few had dogs in tow.
Some people sleep in street clothes and heavy jackets, but others changed into pajamas: shorts, baggier shirts. A few brushed their teeth.
The dark triggered a flurry of whispered well-wishes, and a few jokes, between the women.
“Hey, sweet dreams,” one said.
“Yeah, you too.”
The pair laid down, covering themselves with thick blankets.
“I always have sweet dreams. They’re dirty ones, though,” a third woman chimed in, laughing.
Before 9 p.m., most of the guests were asleep. It wasn’t exactly quiet: a cough seemed to be going around, and people moved and shifted on the mats. Loud snores reverberated across the room. Even with lights out, an orange glow from street lights filtered in through the glass doors and windows.
“The first night is the hardest,” said Rachel Canner, one of the graveyard staff, in the morning. It’s easy to toss and turn if you’re not used to the thin mat and the chorus of snores, twitches and coughs. But by the second night, most people are tired enough that they fall asleep quickly.
A handful of people stayed awake: the front desk staff and a few clients, though the line between the two isn’t always a bright one. Clients like Goehring-Gleese operate more like staff members, greeting people by name and laying down rules.
Goehring-Gleese has been homeless on and off for several years, and sober for 11 1/2.
Most recently, he had an apartment in a building on East Mission Avenue, but lost it in April because of a conflict with the landlord, he said. He’s a resident custodian, which means he helps clean, does chores and explains rules to other clients. He has a guaranteed bed upstairs in return, but chose to sleep on a mat that night.
As most residents settled onto their mats for the night, Goehring-Gleese stayed awake. When the front door buzzed after it was locked, he went to answer it.
“Desiree! What’s up, Desiree?” he said to the woman walking in.
“I think I’ve only seen you sleep once,” a security guard teased Goering-Gleese.
Some staff, like Grief, are former clients.
Grief lived at the House of Charity working as a volunteer for two-and-a-half years before he was hired part-time. Eventually, the shelter brought him on full-time. He got “cabin fever” staying with so many people and moved to West Central, which he described as “Stepford wives meets South Central.”
“I live on the South Central side,” he clarified.
When he lived at the House of Charity, the shelter was a different kind of place. Only men stayed overnight in beds upstairs.
“The basement used to be a ghost town,” he said.
The first effort last winter to open overflow sleeping had hiccups, most notably a norovirus outbreak that closed the shelter and some challenges with funding from the city.
“It didn’t seem like it was going to work at first, but they’re savvy businesswomen,” Grief said of director Sam Dompier and assistant director Heather Schleigh.
Two couples stayed awake later into the night. Because sleeping areas are separated by gender, men and women can’t spent the night together. But staff are usually tolerant of people sitting up quietly, so long as they’re not disturbing others.
One younger couple sat by the bathroom with their dog, Oreo, whispering and kissing.
Jenkins, the man who thought he was having a heart attack, returned to the shelter around 9:50 p.m. He said he was feeling much better after some anxiety medication, and sat just inside the door, quietly sipping a can of Rolling Rock with his wife, who did not want to give her name. The two kept the beer, which was technically not allowed inside, out of view of staff.
The pair had just been married the Friday before, they said.
The two spoke about their lives for roughly an hour, sharing hope, anger, excitement and sadness.
Jenkins, a Vietnam War veteran, served two tours in the Army, where he was stationed in Vietnam and Korea. He remembered returning home to Fort Carson, Colorado, where a group of returning soldiers were yelled at and had things thrown at them by hippies protesting the war.
“They were people my age, our peers,” he said.
He’s had post-traumatic stress disorder since the war, both because of the deaths he caused and witnessed, and the treatment he and other veterans received returning home.
“Every night I have nightmares,” he said.
He gets buy on a social security payment, which he said should be rising to $2,000 a month soon. The following morning was payday, and he had big plans to rent them a motel room for the night to celebrate.
His wife sat next to him, breaking into tears periodically before Jenkins reassured her. She’s 50 and worked as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines for decades, she said, but spent through much of her savings in a contentious divorce. Now, her family won’t speak to her and call her an embarrassment. She rarely stays at the shelter unless she has no other option.
The pair described themselves as “old hippies” but said it was frustrating to see how easy it is for people to ignore them now that they’ve fallen on “hard times.”
“The refugees that come into the United States are treated better than our own people,” Jenkins said while talking the following morning as his wife nodded in agreement. But he’s more often philosophical than angry.
“God is teaching me a lesson in humility, patience and understanding,” he said.
Until 2 a.m., the shelter has another pair of residents: contracted security guards who work for a private company. The two patrol around the neighborhood periodically and try to keep the things neighboring businesses complain about at bay: trash, people sleeping in doorways.
David Remsen, one of the guards, speaks with the authority of a police officer. He wears a black beanie and carries a thick flashlight, peppering his speech with phrases like “things of that nature.”
Remsen views part of his job is to keep homeless people safe. Where people are sleeping out of the way, in front of abandoned businesses, he lets them be. He woke up one man camped in front of the door of an unused office building a block away from the shelter to check for signs of life.
“Oh, is that you, George?” he said. George, it turned out, was banned from the House of Charity for starting a fight. After making sure he was OK, Remsen let him be.
“That’s probably the best place for him,” he said. If people are welcome in the shelter, he’ll try to get them to come inside.
On his walking route, he shines his light into a few places where he said he’ll wake people up: a stairwell full of trash, needles and some sort of sludge coating the bottom, a loading dock with human feces, more needles and mouse traps.
“Those aren’t for show,” he said. If he finds someone sleeping in one of those spots, he’ll wake them up and tells them, “You will get a disease” and suggests other places they can go: ideally a shelter, but if not, a spot to camp that’s not littered with waste.
All the staff would rather people didn’t sleep outside. But most are sympathetic to the many reasons homeless people may not want to come in.
“It’s bad for people with PTSD, anxiety,” said social worker Molly Kenoyer, who staffed the front desk for swing shift. And the city needs a shelter for younger adults who don’t feel comfortable surrounded by one hundred older adults.
By midnight, the last stragglers have mostly settled onto mats. It was relatively quiet until about 3 a.m., when a woman began twitching and kicking on her mat.
“She’s having a seizure!” one woman yelled as staff ran over. After a minute, the shaking subsided, and the woman said she was alright. Around 5 a.m., she had a second seizure. Some of the 20 or so women in the room slept through both as others looked on and yelled, “Oh my god!”
People began stirring around 5:45 a.m., and a small crowd started to gather outside the shelter on the sidewalk. House of Charity closes for morning cleaning between 7 and 7:30 a.m., then serves breakfast. People can spend the entire day at the shelter if they choose, and many do, especially as the weather cools off.
Lights went on around 6:15 a.m., and before long, a line had formed for the nine single-locking bathrooms. A few people get going, donning coats. Some seemed well-rested. Others grouchy.
“Good morning, sunshine!” a staff member said to one woman.
“I wish,” she replied.
“Did you have a nice sleep, hon?” one man asked his partner. “I’ll wait for you out here, baby.”
A man toting his belongings walked past the front desk toward the door, muttering to himself.
“Rotten (expletive),” he said.
“Good morning, Charlie,” a staff member called over.
Brenda, a client who did not give her last name, is running around with a bottle of body fluid cleaner spraying down floors and benches as her dog, a 2-year-old Chihuahua named Dakota, follows her around. He’s a seizure alert dog who can summon help for her if she has a seizure.
“The cleaning and stuff, I love it because it gives me something to do,” she said.
House of Charity began allowing pets in the shelter when it opened 24 hours a day in hopes that would lower the barrier for some people seeking a place to stay. Half a dozen dogs had spent the night, and all were quiet and well-behaved.
Schleigh, the assistant director, said staff were worried about pets, but said they’ve had almost no problems. Most people have dogs, but they’ve had a few cats, an iguana, and one woman who showed up with about 10 ducks, she said. Staff told her she could only have two.
“She came back through again with different ducks,” Schleigh said.
The twice-daily cleaning of the shelter has been beefed up since last winter’s norovirus outbreak. Brenda said she tried to disinfect every surface people have touched with body fluid cleaner. Some residents are incontinent or have wounds or other issues, she said.
Brenda is 52 and has been homeless for a few years. She had a job, a house and even volunteered helping homeless people before.
One day, she was shopping in Idaho when a security guard tackled her, thinking she was shoplifting, which she denied. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and started having seizures. Her medical problems spiraled, and she couldn’t pay bills for her house. Her water was shut off. Eventually, she ended up on the streets.
She’d been staying at House of Charity for about three months, ever since they reopened their doors to women in July, she said.
It hasn’t been easy: Most of her family doesn’t know she’s homeless, and she said she won’t take help from her father because she doesn’t want to worry him. She tried meth a few times earlier in the year because someone offered it to her for free and she was starving.
“Couldn’t stand the taste, but guess what? I wasn’t hungry,” she said. But she’s stopped now. She doesn’t want to go down that road.
“Sometimes I get overlooked because I come off OK when I’m not,” she said. She should be getting a settlement for her injuries soon and is hopeful she can find housing then, she said.
She remembered watching a “60 Minutes” documentary about seven years ago, she said, about how many Americans are just one mishap away from being homeless like her.
“If you only have one income and you lose that income, you’re screwed,” she said.
Goehring-Gleese, the resident custodian, was excited Wednesday morning because he had a meeting with a social worker to talk about housing. He’s eager to move on with his life, and isn’t looking for a spot in the new Catholic Charities permanent supportive housing building going up across the street.
“I want to live far away from here!” he said, to approval from the staff.
Jenkins, the Vietnam veteran, was back sitting by the door with his wife. His hobby is collecting model airplanes, and he played with his favorite: a B-17 bomber developed in the 1930s.
“My dad flew one of these when he was in the war and I’ve kind of been partial to them ever since,” he said. He was planning to pick up some more paint at the White Elephant store to finish another model.
“It’s the cheapest place in town,” he said.
His wife leaned against Jenkins’ shoulder, calmer than the night before.
“I love seeing him do this. It’s relaxing,” she said.