Couch-surfing, camping out, living in cars in Okanogan County
By Marcy Stamper
People without stable housing typically resort to couch-surfing during the winter, staying with friends or family until they’ve worn out their welcome.
But for some people, even in sub-zero temperatures, living in a car is the best — or only — option.
Bruce and Angela (not their real names) found themselves without a home last April after job loss, a family crisis and disability. They camped in a tent through the summer and then retreated to their car, where they fold the seats down and sleep in a fetal position along with two good-sized dogs.
“My thermometer is to reach up and touch the inside windows of the car to check for ice,” said Bruce.
Although family members have helped out with gas money, moving in with them isn’t an option, they said. “We could go to Okanogan, but we can’t take our dogs,” said Bruce, who has applied everywhere for jobs.
“We can’t run the heater in the car or we’d run out of gas,” he said. “We’re resourceful enough to cook on our propane stove. You would be surprised what you can do with Top Ramen.”
One woman who had lunch last week at The Cove, the food bank and social-service organization in Twisp, spent most of the winter in a travel trailer, said Glenn Schmekel, The Cove’s executive director. But after she couldn’t pay the high utility bills she racked up heating the trailer, the power was turned off. So she moved to her car, where she at least can run the heat now and again, said Schmekel.
Travel trailers are a common strategy for people who’ve lived outside in the summer and fall, said Sue Baldwin, The Cove’s food manager. But the trailers are often unheated and people wake up to a frozen jug of water every morning, she said.
Baldwin estimates there are 30 to 40 people camping in the forest in the Methow during the summer, but said most leave the area or couch-surf in winter.
People who couch-surf usually have to move every week. Some have chronic behavioral problems, but the stress of homelessness can tax the hospitality in any situation, said Baldwin.
Lori Triplett, a volunteer with local church groups, spent the past year helping people who don’t have stable housing. One woman she assisted lived in her car all spring and summer, coping with intense heat and worrying about safety, said Triplett.
“It’s the first time I saw a situation like that close up,” said Triplett. “You hear about it, but when you get involved, you run up against doors that are closing. We used up everything there was to use up.”
“It is kind of hard for some people to grasp I was homeless because I don’t fit the stereotype,” said Jeannine (not her real name), who spent more than three months in the winter doubled up with family and friends.
Despite a steady employment history, including 16 years at a corporate job, Jeannine found herself with no place to live after she was laid off. “It was winter — there were no jobs to apply for,” she said.
Jeannine stayed with a friend in Winthrop for a month, spent a few weeks in Wenatchee with another friend while she looked for work, and ultimately went to Seattle to stay with her brother — who put a time limit on the arrangement. “I wasn’t sure what I would have to do — I thought I was going to have to live in my truck,” she said. “I totally lost it — I felt literally hopeless.”
Even before she lost her job, working in the hospitality industry meant that Jeannine supplemented her income with unemployment every winter when her hours were reduced. “That $50 a week from unemployment made a difference between eating and not eating,” she said.
Pets can be a barrier to finding a stable place to live. Schmekel asks people if they’ve tried the low-income apartments in Twisp or Winthrop. They tell him, “I would, but I’ve got four dogs. That’s my family,” said Schmekel.
“I couch-surfed for three months with a cat — that was a challenge,” said Jeannine.
Wayne Gray and Jan Hazen came to Okanogan County from Western Washington this winter to escape alcoholism and violence. After maxing out their time staying with a friend, they spent most nights at the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelters, a new facility run by a group of churches in Okanogan and Omak.
“The staff is really helpful, and people get acquainted and help each other. Everyone gets along quite well,” said Gray. A volunteer host stays overnight with the guests.
The community homeless shelters replace the beds provided by individual churches on a rotating basis. But the shelter is only open from November to February, and only at night.
Gray and Hazen have lived on and off the streets for years. “I’ve dealt with more death than most people,” said Hazen, showing off tattoos for two children who died and a third who lives with another family. “I last saw him when he was 2,” before he was placed in another home because of her mental illness, said Hazen. “My son was my rock — a reason to become a stable person,” she said.
Triplett volunteers at the community shelter in Okanogan, helping screen guests to make sure they are sober and cooperative. Because many of the homeless people are together all day long, hanging out at the library, convenience stores or on the street, tensions sometimes erupt at night in a confined space, said Triplett.
Triplett asks herself, “What would I do if I were in their shoes? I’m not there, but I can help,” she said.
The nonprofit church group had hoped to finish construction on the shelter last year but instead used an existing building this past winter. The group also plans to build a facility with bathrooms, showers and a kitchen, and eventually, tiny homes that can accommodate people with children, said Triplett.
“Some people think that if these people had a job, they wouldn’t be homeless, but that’s rarely the case — there are other factors,” said Schmekel.
“Life is not easy. Everyone’s life is difficult — you can’t understand what they went through, and can’t fit into their shoes,” said Hazen.