Almost Home: Families in North Idaho are struggling to find permanent housing

COEUR d'ALENE — Like many others, Heather Bischof moved here and found a job. But she soon realized that she wasn't making enough money.

“I didn’t know anything about the wage, $3 and some cents an hour,” Bishop said. “I ask myself, 'How am I going to make enough tips and salary to pay my rent, especially in the off-season?'”

Bishop and her roommate fell behind on rent and soon found an eviction notice on their door. For Bishop, homelessness was about to become a reality.

Idaho counted 1,611 homeless people in early 2023, but Katherine Hoyer of the Panhandle Health District said that number can be misleading.

It follows the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homelessness: “having a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not intended for human occupancy.”

Advocates say this doesn't reflect the reality many people face. Families may not be considered homeless even if their situation is precarious.

“If you have a child, you will do anything to avoid being in this situation,” said Lisa Donaldson, case manager at Family Promise of North Idaho. “Maybe you're in your car and your kids are with your mom, or you're renting a hotel whenever you can, or you're staying with a friend and then staying with another friend.”

Chris Green, director of the Heritage Health Street Medicine Community Outreach Program, knows this because he has seen many North Idahoans go through it.

He said most people who lose their home for the first time don't initially think of themselves as homeless because they don't identify with the stereotypical image of a person standing on a street corner, clutching a sign and asking for money. But over time, mindsets change.

“When the streets are cold and the people in your city are cold and turning a blind eye, you begin to identify as a homeless person,” he said.

When someone becomes homeless, Green said it's important to connect that person to resources and services as early as possible.

“If someone finds housing and gets back on their feet within 90 days, they rarely become homeless again,” he said.

But the longer someone remains homeless, the more difficult it becomes to return to a normal life. About a third of people who are homeless for six months become chronically homeless, Green said. Only about 10% of people who are homeless for more than a year later receive permanent housing.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of people who need shelter but do not meet HUD's definition of homeless, but their numbers appear to be increasing.

Nathan Whatcott is the Kellogg School District's homeless liaison. He said he has seen an alarming increase in the number of families staying in RVs and RVs.

“Our current housing stock is not great. There’s just not much out there,” Whatcott said.

And what is available is becoming more and more expensive.

“Rents are so high here, including first and last month rent,” said Barbara Miller, founder of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center.

Fortunately, people and organizations are ready to help.

So Bishop managed to stay accommodated.

“It got to the point where I was shaking every day because I was so stressed and my stomach felt like it was empty and cramped,” Bishop said. “I tried to look for all the resources I could.”

Her supervisor at a local brewery contacted CDAIDE, a nonprofit that helps hotel workers in crisis. They helped her with two months' rent and repaired her car.

“CDAIDE has been a blessing,” Bishop said. “Even though it couldn't cover everything, I didn't expect anything. I was so grateful. I was in shock for quite a while.”

Family Promise also aims to help families avoid homelessness in the first place, whether through rental assistance when financial resources are available, or through other means.

“We can help them come up with ideas on how to stay out of the shelter and avoid trauma to their children, but still work with them and help them while they live somewhere else,” Donaldson said.

Family Promise partners with 18 local churches to provide homeless families with a safe place to stay and services while they find permanent housing. Parents and children can spend time in an animal shelter during the day. At night the churches open their doors to families.

The organization also offers support services, including classes on parenting, financial literacy, good tenant ownership and more. Even when a family “graduates” and enters permanent housing, services continue to be available to them.

“We can walk with a family for as long as they need, usually up to a year to walk on their own,” Donaldson said.

Even school districts can help. Whatcott said the county can sometimes use federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act money to get propane so families can cook and stay warm, but it can't help with rent.

But not everyone who needs help will ask for it.

When people need help, Green said, shame can stop them.

“Be brave,” he said. “Wade into the discomfort. Ask for help often and everywhere. Recognize that there are people who care about you and people who want to help, and don’t let a bad experience stop you from asking for help.”

Green invites anyone experiencing homelessness to visit the Heritage Health Street Medicine Community Outreach Center at 109 E. Harrison Ave. in Coeur d'Alene.

He said perhaps the biggest misconception he encounters about Kootenai County's homeless population is that it is made up of “outsiders.”

“Over 95 out of 100 are from northern Idaho,” he said. “The vast majority of people we serve were born and raised here. They have nowhere else to go.”

Last week, the sun beat down on Bishop's porch as her son Austin, 7, and daughter Ellie played in the water in the heat of a summer May evening.

Bishop paused as Ellie came up the porch step with a purple pansy in her hand and asked her mother if she could please put it in her hair. Ellie, who would turn five the next day, held still and grinned as her mother smoothed her flyaway strands, tucked the flower behind her ear and kissed the top of her head.

The home in downtown Coeur d'Alene is well lit. Down the hall, past the bedrooms and laundry room, a door opens to a small fenced-in backyard, where vines grow along the fences and on the other side of the woods a patch of rhubarb is already exploding with life.

“This feels so good,” Bishop said. “We’re really lucky to get in here. I love it so much.”

She was standing on the back porch of the house she rents with a new lover, Sean. Her rent is $2,000 a month. Since it eats up a large portion of their income, they plan carefully.

Bishop looked around the backyard and said this was the first time she didn't feel the impending doom of having to find somewhere else to live.

“This feels like home,” she said. “I never felt like I could settle down and call something home. I know that in a month or two I won’t have to struggle to find us an apartment.”

Ellie, 5, Austin, 7, and Heather Bischof share a family moment in their new rental home on May 9th. “I often stand here and look around in shock because I'm actually still here,” said Bischof, “This is actually mine and I did this and got this far.”
Heather Bischof still doesn't believe she and her family have a happy home in Coeur d'Alene despite trauma, homelessness, her daughter's health and more. She is seen on her back porch on May 9th.
Heather Bischof places a flower behind her daughter Ellie's ear on May 9 as they enjoy the sunshine on the porch.

In the 2023 Point-in-Time Homelessness Survey coordinated by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association (excluding Ada County), 58% of homeless people are ages 18 to 54, 25% are under 18, and 17% are 55 or older. The same survey found that 15% had been homeless due to issues related to substance abuse, 13% had fled domestic violence, 12% had become homeless due to issues related to serious mental illness, and six percent were veterans.
A point-in-time survey coordinated by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association statewide (excluding Ada County) counted 1,611 homeless people as of January 25, 2023. This number is closer to the numbers observed in 2020. (The survey included a note that the pandemic limited the scope of the survey in 2021 and 2022.)
Shelli Niemi and Denise Bausch work on kits for seniors and hygiene kits for the homeless at the Kellogg Public Library as part of a program offered through the AmeriCorps 9/11 grant.

Anna Harden

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