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Can We Go Home for Christmas?

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Blue Haven is there for those without a home

SANDPOINT, IDAHO- Home and holidays are words being used together quite frequently these days. For most people, it conjures up visions of warmth, soft lights and delicious foods. First Lady Laura Bush has declared this year’s White House Christmas to be “Home for the Holidays,” in honor of all U.S. men and women currently fighting in the Middle East. We are hustling and bustling trying to keep up with the frantic pace, but why is it so frantic? We try to have the “right” attitude, reflecting our humility and acknowledging our blessings. And it isn’t that we aren’t trying to be genuine, because most of us are so blessed that it is hard to understand what blessed really means, and we struggle to reflect accordingly. But there is still a date, a deadline, or a goal that you will accomplish a set amount of tasks or…what? Or you live with the disappointment of having missed the society-imposed deadline. Christmas day is never arbitrary, and we know by our training that it is a holy day of tradition, lush with history and expectation, of things we can hardly fathom, but it still causes stress, and stress can turn to pain.

    Our frantic pace is caused by the covert and overt pressure put upon people during the holidays. Advertising is focused on whether you have spent enough money to ensure your family’s happiness. Unconsciously, we set our own goals for a Christmas with everything being done just right and always early. The underlying assumption is that you have money. Money to spend on the extemporaneous and money to live on. You have a home and you feel safe. But the safety net between those with a home and a full belly and those that have neither has worn thin, and in some cases has gapping holes that whole families are falling through.

    Families become homeless for a variety of reasons. Some families move here on the notion that a good job has been secured but it doesn’t work out. Others get the job then get laid off because the work is seasonal, slow or experiencing a down turn. Companies close down, or the person gets sick. Where do they turn? For many years, the options were minimal. Today, thanks to the fortuitous work of the Bonner County Homeless Task Force (BCHTF) there are more choices, although the needs of our County exceed the existing resources. The guiding force for much of the progress has come from Cyd Savoy and Jo Johnson. In 1991, Savoy and Johnson asked Panhandle State Bank to give them a building that was slated to be torn down. The building was located where PSB now has their parking lot on Third Avenue. Funds were raised to move the building to South Florence where land had been donated to the effort.

    The result is a home called Blue Haven, which is large enough to house four units for women and children, and four units for families with children. Over time the BCHTF has been forced to develop a structured screening process, both to cope with demand, as well as position themselves to be eligible for grants. Successful candidates are screened, drug tested, conform to a curfew, take classes, get jobs and pay a sliding scale percentage of their earnings toward the rent. It is a two year program so turnover is minimal. Nevertheless, when the Advisory Board meets each month, there are almost always at least 4-6 applications to review. People learn about Blue Haven through a variety of ways. Social workers refer people, Bill Brown Rentals refers people and word of mouth are the principle sources.

    When BCHTF cannot provide housing, they look to peer organizations in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane for help. Sometimes a family just needs help paying their rent, utility bills or medical bills. In this case they can talk directly to Northern Lights, Avista, or to the Bonner County Government Assistance department. The Assistance department provides funds to eligible candidates who cannot afford hospital and medical care or non-medical necessities, such as rent and utilities. The county is required by law to assist in paying for these bills, but county assistance is temporary when no other alternative exists. Specifically, this obligation stays with the individual as a collectable debt so taxpayers are not footing the bill for assisting low income families. There is no question that the number of applicants has risen recently, as there is a sign posted on the front door of the Assistance department requesting that rent payment problems be notarized to assist with prioritization.

    The BCHTF also works closely with the Bonner County Food Center. Alice Wallace is the Executive Director of the Food Bank, and has been helping to close the gap for 5 years. The Food Bank has served 13,500 people with food this year or 1125 people per month. A family comes in and provides proof of residence and fills out an application. No matter where they live, Wallace reaches out to them, but coordination must occur to stay within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines. FEMA, donations of food and financial donations run the Center. The staff consists of two full time, two part time and two volunteers at all times. The Center has 6 freezers, 5 refrigerators and a walk-in cooler so food donations are not limited to canned goods, but meat donations must come from a certified meat cutter. Other items given to families include diapers, baby food and formula. The most helpful thing a person  can do right now is give money. Normally in a month, Wallace provides 130-140 food boxes. Right now the Center is averaging 180-200 boxes of food per month. Job loss, people moving in, lay offs, wage cuts and reduction in hours are all contributing to the increased need. To coordinate efforts, Wallace provides information and applications for other sources of assistance.

    Another anchor organization helping people get on their feet is the Bonner Gospel Mission. It was started by Corkey Kalben in 1987 as the New Hope Ministry and later changed its name to BGM.BGM last month provided 165 beds, 540 meals and 180 showers to homeless men. Currently BGM is trying to raise funds to build a shelter for women and children. “Corkey runs a tight ship, and the men hear the gospel at his place,” stated Frankie Clouse, a veteran volunteer and member of First Presbyterian Church. Presbyterian Women, which Clouse is a member, give to the BGM and the BCHTF by having an annual rummage sale and through the sewing circle. Kalben started through his church’s jail ministry and has been going strong ever since. The BGM operates exclusively from donations.

    It always seems impossible to picture oneself in such a predicament, but generally the people that find themselves in need are not drug addicts or system abusers. Regrettably, because so much profiling goes on in our society, the average person thinks of the homeless as a second class citizen. Whether alcohol, drugs or violence are part of the chaos or not, it is important this holiday season to remember that not of us are insulated from stress, disaster or pain. We might find a lot more joy from giving another person a helping hand up than anything else. We know that many people are hurting in New York this year, and we know that our country has begun again to awaken to our true spirit of giving. But if you like the idea of being home for the holidays this season, then consider giving your energy locally, and helping your children learn that the gift of giving lasts a lifetime.

    When looking at the other side of the holiday season, the final piece to the puzzle is domestic violence. Look for information in our next issue, Dec. 21, about what’s being done to address that issue in our communities.


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Carol Curtis

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