The Seen Unseen – Not what you Expect

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Dan looked like an Army sergeant. Denise looked like a Vogue model. If you had crossed paths with them in downtown Port Townsend in the summer of 2018, that might have been what you had thought of them. Dan wore Army fatigues and said ‘Yes, Ma’am” to almost every question asked, but he had never been in the military. Denise had the hairstyle and panache of a model, but on the inside she was in emotional distress.

Both were homeless that summer. And they were two of my first customers as a new homeless service provider for Olympic Community Action Programs. It’s one of the things you think you won’t do – judge people by appearance. But it’s one of the first things people seem to do when the word “homeless” is used.

It is, sadly, true that there are people who appear as the stereotypical homeless person — the scruffy bearded guy sitting on the side of the road flying a sign that reads “Homeless. Anything Will Help. God Bless.”

I know someone who matches that description, and he calls me routinely to check in and see where his housing applications are. But there are far more Dans and Denises out there who are experiencing the societal ailment we know as homelessness.

So, who are they? They look like you or me or any of your friends.  They could be anyone.

A high-powered attorney who tried a famous case and lost it all in a divorce.  He’s homeless. A woman with a PhD in archeology who gives all her money to her son and lives in a trailer with no water. Homeless. A doctor in his 70s who thinks he can take a few more classes and go back into private practice. Homeless. A woman with developmental disabilities who rides the bus between five counties and says she never stays in the same place every night. Homeless.

These are real people whose names and real stories can never be shared because of privacy laws related to homeless service providers. There are myths in Jefferson County that ought to be dispelled.   Myths like “All people experiencing homelessness have mental health issues.” Or: “All people experiencing homelessness refuse to work.”

Here’s the reality: There simply isn’t enough affordable housing anywhere for those on limited incomes of say $197 a month or $783 a month. And the vast majority of our clients fit into that financial category.

 Dan, for example, lived on $197 a month and qualified for a program called Housing and Essential Needs (HEN), which is under the umbrella of the Consolidated Homelessness Grant (CHG). The grant is aimed at helping people who are applying for Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Income, and others who are aged, blind, or disabled. For those who are literally homeless, it can provide rental assistance. It can  also provide basics of living such as toilet paper, shampoo, soap and, of all things, Q-tips, while the SSI/SSDI application wends its way through the system or the person recovers and is well enough to return to work.

While there are up to 70 or more people a month in Jefferson County who are on the HEN program, there’s only enough funding to pay the rent of less than a dozen. As people “graduate,” new clients can be added to the roster. It can take a few months to “graduate” – or years.

Dan was the first one I succeeded at signing up for HEN in 2018. He had been homeless off and on for years. Most recently, he’d been living behind a gas station.  He is 6-foot-3, wears Army fatigues and says “Yes, Ma’am” a lot, except when he doesn’t like what he hears. Once, he flew into a rage and started storming out of the office when I used the word “no.” I offered him a cup of coffee and he turned and came back and then left a little less angry.

Dan also qualified for another grant called HARPS (Housing and Recovery through Peer Services), which helps people who have a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse disorder (SUD) pay for deposits or first and last month’s rent or rental assistance.

Dan qualified for both. After filling out reams of forms, all he had to do was have his landlord sign two vouchers – essentially promises that, in exchange for funding, the landlord would house him.  Then Dan would have a place to live. We could even pay his rent for as long as the state deemed him eligible for the grant and that probably would have been a year or more.

I waited. And waited. The voucher became outdated. Dan vanished. His landlord was furious.

And then came Denise. She sashayed into the office in a pale blue summer dress with sandals and nail polish to match. She was polite, photogenic. She had been to Port Townsend before and seemed to know her way around town.

That summer, she had come to Port Townsend expecting to meet up with her fiancé. He had a job. She didn’t. He had friends. She didn’t. She expected to meet his friends, find a place to rent, get married, find a job.

And then her fiancé, still in Arizona, called and told her he wasn’t coming and didn’t want to marry her. Suddenly she found herself living in her car and a tent at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.

She said she felt like she was fleeing domestic violence. Not from the fiancé, but her family. Her relationship with a parent was so emotionally debilitating that it had seeped into her relationship with her fiancé. And it had impacted, traumatized her.

She told this story as we filled out paperwork required for the grant, including a VI-SPADT, also known as the VI. It stands for Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Assessment Data Tool.  It’s an intense questionnaire that pries into the most personal crevices of a person’s life. Have you thought about harming yourself or anyone else? Do you have financial problems? Do you have mental health problems? Substance abuse? Do you have income? Is there anything that makes you happy on a regular basis? Has your family made you homeless? Do you sell your prescription drugs?

Depending on how you answer those questions, you’ll get a number score. If it’s 4-7, you qualify for what is called Rapid ReHousing through the CHG program. Above that, and you need to be evaluated for permanent supportive housing. The VI is under scrutiny these days, but three years ago it was “the tool” used for housing.

Denise qualified for the grant because she was fleeing domestic violence, living in her car and had no income.

Amazingly, within four weeks, she had a job. And then she found a place to stay. That’s when she came back to OlyCAP for the first, last and deposit, which was paid for out of the CHG grant.

There are other DV victims who have had a hard time responding during the VI questioning, have told of what it was like fleeing violence in the middle of the night with their children or why they left because someone attacked their child.

One take-away I’ve learned is that the outside can hide what’s inside. They often appear well-manicured and well-dressed but that belies what they are feeling inside. And that is fear and grief.

 About a year after Dan vanished from Jefferson County, he was arrested. I saw his name on the jail roster, which we check regularly when customers go missing. Once he was released, he stopped in to OlyCAP to say he was sorry, and he’d like to try again. No problem.  Second and third chances are a given. More, if necessary.

That’s another thing you learn. It may take two or three times to re-house someone after they’ve been homeless.

But then Dan vanished. Again.

Another eight months went by and I happened to stop for lunch on Bainbridge Island. A large man spun around as if following me. It felt odd.  I looked up and there was Dan, smiling. He looked well. He was happy. He had found work. He was still looking for housing. But there. Not here.

My guess: I’ll see him again.

And Denise. About a year after helping to house her, I saw her in another store. I recognized her but didn’t think she recognized me and didn’t want to share if I did. It would be her choice to engage, not mine.

But she did recognize me, spun around, not unlike Dan, and gave me a hug. (This was BC, Before Covid.) She told me what she was doing. She had accomplished everything she said she would do. More actually. She’s working in the healthcare field. She’s working on relationships.  

There are people whose stories don’t end as well. One veteran with Stage 4 cancer committed suicide while he was housed. A woman I had photographed in another lifetime, when I was a newspaper reporter, died of an overdose.

Another man who had been homeless for two decades finally was set with transitional housing – until he got drunk and turned up at a Bob Marley concert at night. It was the last straw. He’s back on the streets in Jefferson County. During Covid, he’s traveled in four states. We’re still working on housing him. He swears that when he’s housed, we’re going dancing.

When I see people on the street these days I no longer believe what I think I see.

Until you sit and talk to people, or just listen to them, until you ask them questions and hear what happened to them, you don’t know.

You just don’t know.

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Writer and founding member Allison Arthur spent 13 years as assistant editor to the Port Townsend Leader. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula. Check out her resume at LinkedIn

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