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

A night out with the Salvation Army’s Street Level program

Roy Garcia with the Salvation Army Street Level Outreach, gives hand warmers to a homeless woman in downtown Spokane on Thursday. The Salvation Army’s Street Level van operates 24/7 connecting with homeless individuals wherever they are in the community.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Roy Garcia pulled into the parking lot of the Salvation Army Spokane headquarters just after 7 p.m. Thursday at the tail-end of a 12-hour shift behind the wheel of a long red van emblazoned with the organization’s insignia.

It’s Garcia’s last shift before a much-needed day off. For the past week and a half, Garcia has worked overtime to help Spokane’s homeless population survive a wicked cold snap of single-digit temperatures followed by heavy snowfall.

“Oh man, it’s getting people from the cold to the shelters all around town, whatever shelter has bed space,” Garcia said. “And we’re busy. Nonstop – the phones are ringing.”

Garcia, 37, has been a driver for the Spokane Corps of the Salvation Army’s Street Level outreach program since it launched last year. The program is aimed at meeting those in need where they are 24/7 by providing food, water, hand warmers and rides to local shelters from the organization’s two new large capacity vans. During severe weather , Cpt. David Cain said the program is more of a crisis response.

The organization’s Trent Avenue shelter flexed from its usual 350 bed capacity to more than 500 during the latest bout of winter weather, Cain said.

“We just see it as an essential piece of our continuum of care, as we work towards addressing some of these really complex issues surrounding homelessness,” Cain said. “I think the idea that we can meet people where they are rather than waiting for them to come to us, is just a no-brainer.”

Cain said many homeless people often face basic barriers when accessing support services, such as not having a ride to local shelters or to agencies where they can obtain identification necessary to enter certain programs or simply not being aware of what resources are available to them.

“These are all solvable things that these kinds of mobile units can really accomplish better than we could if we’re just sitting in our office waiting for folks to call, or come during our limited office hours,” Cain said.

Garcia spends every shift canvassing the city, trying to find people he can help. He’s made for the role, Cain said. Garcia’s warm smile telegraphs his optimism and passion for helping others. He said he never fears for his safety, and his hope to help as many people as he can keeps him going.

It’s hard to imagine he once worked in metal fabrication before joining the Salvation Army almost two years ago.

“At my old job, there was a bunch of homeless people near there and people at work used to complain about them,” Garcia said. “But I used to always go out there and give him extra food and stuff. I just felt like it was a calling from God to come help them.”

Garcia said he felt like he could do more, so he joined his brother who had been working at the Salvation Army’s Trent Avenue shelter at the time.

He became a driver to try to help address a need he noticed while getting to know those who frequented the shelter.

“I felt like I had more to offer if I went out there with Street Level, because I got to know a lot of them,” Garcia said. “They were always complaining. They’re like, ‘Dude, we’re out here alone. No one cares about us. Nobody comes out here to give us anything.’ I’ve been out here since.”

Around 7:30 p.m., Garcia pulled the van into the parking lot of Mission Park, recounting how the day before he spent about an hour there trying to persuade a woman huddled in a thin blanket with visible frostbite on her legs to take him up on his offer for a ride.

“She said she was waiting for her boyfriend, but it had been hours,” Garcia said. “I was like ‘He’s gone. Let’s go. Let’s get you out of this weather.’”

She refused in the end, but Garcia left her with hand warmers and some snacks.

There was no sign of anyone in the park Thursday night. Garcia said he hoped she had found her way to a shelter or found somewhere safe to hunker down.

The Street Level service transports people to whatever shelter they want to go to, but it can be difficult to convince them to take advantage of the service, Garcia said. Some have experienced trauma at a shelter, some say their anxieties make it so they can’t be around other people and others don’t trust Garcia or the idea that there is help available to him. Drug use can also increase paranoia they may have.

“A lot of them have been wronged in their life; I have to build relationships with all of them,” Garcia said. “And it takes a lot of time to build that rapport. It’s not just once or twice, it can be like 15, 20 times. You got to be consistent, and they see that you’re out there, you show them that you care.”

When an individual denies a ride, Garcia tries to offer what he can, whether it be snacks, water bottles, supplies, or even bus passes to get around town. Sometimes that includes performing CPR and administering a lifesaving dose of Narcan, a nasal spray that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, before calling an ambulance.

Garcia said he went through four canisters of Narcan the week before. Based on what he sees on a daily basis, Garcia said substance abuse is getting worse due to the prevalence of fentanyl on the streets.

“When you come up to them, you’ll see it and you’ll smell it,” Garcia said. “The smell of it – you’ll never forget the smell. It’s like burnt popcorn. It’ll hit your sinuses, and it hurts, so you’re just quick to put your nose to your elbow, hold your breath. Then try to help.”

Garcia said he’s never come across someone who’s died during his rounds, and he “prays to God” he never does.

Addiction is just one factor of the challenges the unhoused can face, and the myriad ways one can end up homeless, Cain said.

“When you think about homelessness, people want to blame it on drugs, but it’s so many broken systems, you know?” Cain said. “Take the cost of housing. If you think about it, when our parents were buying homes, it was like double your annual income for a home and now it’s like six times.”

Mental illness is another overused assumption or stereotype, Cain said. There are a lot of traumas one can experience in that living situation that compound on another and push someone to act in a way that they normally wouldn’t.

“If you spent a month not knowing if you were going to get beat up every night, that you were safe where you were sleeping, if you didn’t know if you would have food, if there were days where you didn’t have a right shoe, you probably would lose it a little bit also,” Cain said. “I think we like to blame mental illness as the root cause, but it also begins to compound on folks the longer they’re on the streets. I mean, that is the level of trauma these people are experiencing.”

Garcia stopped the van near Division Street and Second Avenue around 7:45 p.m. and hopped out with a handful of snacks and hand warmers to help break the ice with a group of people congregating by a nearby gas station.

Some started approaching the van before it rolled to a stop.

Cain pointed out that word is spreading about the program, and people recognize the red vans are resources meeting them where they’re at.

There are fewer people out and about due largely to the work the Salvation Army and other organizations did in the first few days of the brutal weather to ensure people had shelter, Cain said.

Garcia does his best to convince some of them to take a ride to the shelter and get out of the cold. They lethargically say no but ask for extra hand warmers before Garcia and Cain head out. Cain said it is likely they were intoxicated, since the area is a hot spot for drug deals.

Around the corner, two men and a woman in their 20s flagged down Garcia as he was about to leave. Garcia asked if they wanted a ride, and after some initial hesitation, they climbed into the van. They told him they already have beds waiting at the Cannon Street shelter that was reopened solely for the past few days of winter weather.

As they climbed into the car, one of the men turned to the woman and said, “See babe, our prayers have been answered.”

As Garcia started driving west, Cain struck up a conversation with the two of them, Marquis and his girlfriend Mary, who identified themselves only by their first names. Marquis, 28, said he had been living on the streets for about 10 years, cycling between shelters, his mom’s house and friends’ houses.

Marquis said he is ready for a change in his life but felt stuck and didn’t know where to start.

“When the services and resources come to us, that makes such a difference,” Marquis said. “A lot of us homeless people don’t know how to get those resources, or how to start and get the ball rolling. It gets more people willing to get help.”

Cain empathized with his feeling of wanting to make a change, and shared with Marquis that he was the same age Cain was when he got sober and into stable housing. Cain spent 15 years on the streets and began using drugs like meth and heroin when he was 12 years old.

It was a Salvation Army rehabilitation program that helped Cain years ago, which is why he is so passionate about the organization and its mission today, he said. His wife Kelly Cain, who serves as co-captain of the Spokane Corps of the Salvation Army, also escaped homelessness and addiction by receiving assistance from the organization.

“Our lives were totally desperate for help and hope,” Cain said. “We actually met years later. We had both been served by the Salvation Army, and, in turn, began to attend the Salvation Army church, and later became employees and really progressed in the organization since.”

Cain, Garcia and the group of three prayed together before they headed into the Cannon Street shelter, where a line of around 30 people were waiting in the lobby to be let in. As he pulled out of the cul-de-sac, Garcia rolled down his window to distribute some more hand warmers.

Garcia’s shift came to a close at 8 p.m., so he headed back to the Salvation Army offices in the Logan neighborhood where another driver would take over the van.

Garcia has been married for 11 years and has a young son and daughter. He said he looked forward to spending his day off with his family.

Garcia acknowledged that it can be a hard job, but he said he loves it. The hope that he can make a difference is what keeps him coming back.

“I look at everybody and I just think I can help them,” Garcia said.

“And the ones that I can’t help, I put it in my head that when I come back next time, they’re gonna tell me yes. They’re gonna want my help. So even if they told me no, it’s OK, because I keep coming back and coming back. There’s one day they’re going to tell me yes, or one day they’re going to need something that I have.”