Ilze Zarins-Ilgen is the “Angel of Mercy” to the homeless of Spokane.
At least according to Patty Severud, a friend of Zarins-Ilgen.
Severud nominated Zarins-Ilgen for The Spokesman-Review’s Inland Northwest Women of the Year, which honors women from Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Zarins-Ilgen, 70, has helped the homeless as a street outreach community health worker the last 14 years for CHAS’s Denny Murphy Clinic in downtown Spokane. She works to ensure the health and well-being of people who live on the streets, alongside river banks and under the bridges of Spokane.
That’s often more than providing food, water and clothing. Zarins-Ilgen said she also tries to address homeless people’s emotional health. That means making them feel validated, building trust and allowing them to vent their anger.
She said people who are homeless are often overlooked but they deserve dignity and respect.
“How can I help you today?” is a question she often asks. “What’s the best thing I can do to help you?”
In her nomination letter, Severud said Zarins-Ilgen’s knowledge of the plight of the homeless is unmatched.
“She honors this ‘unknown population’ by calling them by name, and she knows them all,” the letter said.
Zarins-Ilgen described helping the homeless as “futile some days and mostly rewarding others.”
“I love doing it because I love humanity,” she said.
Severud said that Zarins-Ilgen has a car full of snacks for both animals and people, some dry clothing and sometimes blankets and eyeglasses.
“You can always count on a warm hug and a concerned conversation from Ilze … she truly cares,” the letter said.
Severud met Zarins-Ilgen 10 years ago when the two were assisting Spokane’s homeless community.
“I didn’t work with her,” Severud said. “I wish I did. Oh, the things I could have learned. Yeah, she’s incredible.”
Severud worked at the Coalition of Responsible Disabled, a social service organization formerly near Kendall Yards in West Central Spokane.
Severud said homeless people often set up camp near the coalition office, so she would interact with Zarins-Ilgen when she came by to offer assistance to those at the camp.
She said she saw Zarins-Ilgen deescalate arguments between Kendall Yards homeowners and homeless people. There were a lot of problems between the two groups when Kendall Yards was being developed, Severud said.
Severud recalled one time when Zarins-Ilgen took aside a homeowner who was arguing with a homeless person. She said even though the homeless person was supposedly in the wrong, Zarins-Ilgen calmed the homeowner down and he later apologized to coalition staff.
“She’s really good at that,” Severud said.
She said Zarins-Ilgen is a good listener and has a nonthreatening demeanor.
Severud said another time Severud and others were trying to move a homeless man’s camp from near the coalition’s office.
She said the man was mentally ill and was getting very upset, so Zarins-Ilgen came by and asked the man to get a beer with her so the others could continue moving the man’s belongings away from the site.
“She just knows what to do,” Severud said.