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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Death is ordinary on the streets’: Spokane, Portland serial killers show need for shelters

The current Volunteers of America-run Hope House exists at 111 W. Third Avenue in Spokane, Washington, as a shelter exclusively for anyone identifying as a woman or nonbinary individual. The building contains 36 shelter beds plus eight respite beds, sharing limited amenities; but a new Hope House is set to open in fall 2020 at Third and Adams with 100 beds and a great deal more bathroom amenities and is set to feature a courtyard plus TV and computer rooms. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Jody Treffry and Marci Crocker have looked evil in the eyes. Talked to it face to face. Been disarmed by it – defused by its unassuming normalcy.

It’s easy to imagine how many women fell victim to the same cruel mediocrity.

For some, he’s known as Spokane serial killer Robert Lee Yates. To others, he’s a source of pure terror and anxiety, especially among the many young women working the streets along Spokane’s infamous East Sprague Avenue in the late 1980s and ’90s.

Yates is known to have murdered at least 13 women sex workers in the Lilac City. And while many had the good fortune of never meeting him, his presence was still an overwhelming threat. A menace that eventually led to the creation of Spokane’s premier homeless shelter for women, Hope House on Third Avenue.

But on this day, in April 2000, after he was finally caught, he looked more like a father than a monster. And he was – a dad to four.

“He was very clean-cut,” said Treffry, who at the time was a pretrial services officer in Spokane County District Court and whose supervisor was Crocker. “He did fit the military profile. He didn’t really make eye contact with either of us. But he did seem like a normal person. An all-American guy.”

It’s a description not unlike the one Portland author Rene Denfeld, who is speaking Wednesday at the Northwest Passages Book Club event in support of her new book, “Butterfly Girl,” uses to describeGary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.

Like the subjects Denfeld often features in her novels – the protagonist of “The Butterfly Girl” is a woman investigating the disappearance of homeless children – she too lived a remarkably hard life on the streets of Portland, getting by however she could, with money from whoever she could. That included a car ride in the early 1980s with a man she assumed was Ridgway, who at the time was believed to have murdered several dozen teenage girls throughout the Pacific Northwest.

She was able to escape, but many girls weren’t so lucky. Including her friend.

“Not long after this, one of my girlfriends went missing,” Denfeld wrote in a story published last week in The Spokesman-Review. “Later her naked body was found dumped in the woods. The police said she was a victim of the Green River Killer. Was that him that night in the truck? It could have been one of many men who preyed on us. Death is ordinary on the streets, just like the men.”

Several hundred miles to the east in Spokane, Yates was doing his own kind of preying. Crocker remembers the bevy of news stories that followed the killings. The hysteria along the streets. The panic.

“They had workers going up and down talking to prostitutes, telling them what was going on,” she said. “Telling them to be careful and got off the streets. Women were dying.”

Around 1999, a group of women had enough.

Heather Thomas-Taylor, who started working at Hope House in 2007, said a group of women and one man came together with a simple goal: get single women without children and who aren’t pregnant off the streets. The solution? A homeless shelter, tailor-fit for a demographic that had so far fallen through the cracks.

What started as a simple shelter eventually became Spokane’s premier service provider for homeless women without children. In 2001 it was purchased by Volunteers of America. And next year it’s set to expand.

“If you didn’t have children in your care, you weren’t really prioritized anywhere,” said Jon Carollo, director of development at Volunteers of America. “They didn’t have any safe place to shelter.”

Whether a shelter sooner would have worked is anyone’s guess. After all, Portland had children’s shelters around the time Ridgway was luring girls into his truck.

And that’s part of the problem, said Bridget Cannon, director of youth services at Volunteers of America, who started volunteering at Crosswalk Teen Shelter in 1994.

Back then, she said, young women, teenagers and children would often wear their homelessness like a badge of honor. An us-versus-them mentality, complete with mohawks and tattered jeans.

“I don’t want to say proud of it,” Cannon said, “but it was very intentional. It was their way of protecting who they were. And it was a warning: ‘I’m a homeless kid, don’t come near me.’ ”

Denfeld said as much in her recounting of her likely meeting with Ridgway, writing, “On the streets, I felt I had a fighting chance – not just to survive, but to define myself.”

That’s the particular trouble of housing teenage girls – and even boys – Cannon said. Not only are they vulnerable, but they can be even harder to find. Especially if they won’t admit they’re homeless, or in need of help in the first place.

“I had one young man who woke in our shelter one morning when he was going off to school,” Cannon said. “I gave him contact for his liaison, I said, ‘You’re going to want to get hooked up with this person. They’re going to want to help you.’ He turned to me and said, ‘I’m not homeless.’ ”

Cannon answered, “Well, you kind of woke up in our shelter. That kind of makes you qualified to get extra resources.”

And for girls especially, there’s a heightened risk for pregnancy and human trafficking, Cannon said, which opens them up to even more predators.

Predators like Yates. A seemingly ordinary man who attended church, joined the Army, wore glasses and had a balding head of hair.

A man so ordinary he had two women perplexed. Two women whose careers in criminal justice meant interviewing murderers, rapists and pedophiles. Two women who’d heard of what he’d done, yet couldn’t help but think he was perfectly average.

“I was nervous about talking to him, but I recalled him being pretty relaxed,” Crocker said. “It was like talking to your next-door neighbor.”