The challenging path for the unhoused to permanent housing - Salish Current
October 25, 2023
The challenging path for the unhoused to permanent housing
Matt Benoit

Loving the life: after many very challenging years of housing insecurity, Blake Spangler has a home in an affordable housing complex in Bellingham. Spangler is one of the lucky ones, as the majority of households in Whatcom County hoping for housing vouchers remain on a waitlist. Local housing agencies report that about twice as many applied in 2023 as in 2022. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

October 25, 2023
The challenging path for the unhoused to permanent housing
Matt Benoit

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When Blake Spangler was 15, his parents informed him they were moving. There was one catch, however: he wouldn’t be coming with them. 

Spangler’s parents told him he had 30 days to find another place to live, or to continue renting the unit they were about to leave. His life became a painful journey of survival marked by alienation, substance abuse, violence and recurring bouts of homelessness. 

But in the last two years, the now-63-year-old’s story has taken a very positive turn. Spangler has gone from living on the street to renting an apartment at Samish Commons, a new complex featuring affordable housing on the former Aloha Motel site on Samish Way in Bellingham. 

“I love life today,” said Spangler, in a recent interview inside his new apartment. “I didn’t want to basically just die on the streets.”

Long, sad road

Spangler was born and raised in Everett, the youngest of four children. His father was a traveling salesman whose territory included portions of the Alcan Highway across Canada’s Yukon. 

In order to make room for him, Spangler’s parents removed his developmentally disabled sister from their home and institutionalized her, which made his oldest brother David resent him, he said. David physically and emotionally abused him growing up, and the two haven’t spoken in 30 years. 

Spangler struggled in school, partly due to dyslexia misdiagnosed as vision problems. By the third grade, he’d essentially stopped attending.

His parents drank copiously, and Spangler attended his first kegger at age nine. By the end of that experience, he said, he was puking in the back of his parents’ car while they argued over who was sober enough to drive home. 

As a preteen, Spangler went on the road with his father, drinking in Yukon lounges. He was also driving his parents’ RV to a local Everett park on weekends to drink beer and snort cannabinol. During summers, he and his mother would venture to the cabin his family owned along the Alcan, where Spangler would often fill a backpack with canned goods and light out into the territory.

He bicycled or hitchhiked, into the mountains and to communes. Sometimes he’d be gone over a month before his parents would come looking. 

“I was always alone,” he said. “I was just an extra cog. I was a burden.”

His parents had a turbulent relationship — briefly separating at one point — and his father would sometimes beat his mother until she was bloody and unconscious. 

“I’d stick up for her and he’d end up throwing me down the stairs,” Spangler said. At one point he told his father that if he ever touched his mother again, he’d kill him. Many years later, shortly before his mother’s passing, Spangler learned his father never touched her or alcohol again following the threat. 

At age 12, Spangler and his parents moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Taken away from his few friends and additional family, he had even less social contact or support. His mother would leave for months at a time, returning to Everett to visit family, while his father continued traveling for work. Spangler said he’d get his hands on any drugs he could find, once overdosing on Valium. 

“I didn’t want to live,” he said. “I hated life. I hated everybody. I hated myself.”

In a world where no one seemed to care about his well-being, Spangler made his own way. Over the decades he lived in various areas of the country, doing carpentry and manual labor while living in hotels, motels or wherever he could afford. 

For a long time, he said, he preferred to call himself “residentially challenged” instead of homeless. 

Eventually returning to the Everett area in 1980, Spangler married in 1985 and became a father. When the relationship ended, he was unable to see his children, and his wife eventually went to prison for murdering a man. Spangler attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. 

He had nobody in Everett he could trust, he said, and his drinking was out of control. The last time he entered the hospital was in 2000 in Spokane for detox; it took nine days for his blood alcohol level to reach zero. 

Spangler began using methamphetamine to curb his drinking and help with pain from physical problems. 

‘Tiny Town’

After a period of wandering Western Washington on his bicycle, Spangler arrived in Bellingham in 2021. He stayed at the downtown Base Camp for a time, but when he felt he wasn’t getting enough help finding housing, he left for a winter campsite by a river. Police showed up after three days, he said, giving him a week to relocate. The next day, law enforcement returned with a social worker who assured him they could find housing. 

Spangler was referred to Gardenview Village, a 35-unit tiny home community off Woburn Street serving homeless individuals who are 55 and older, or medically fragile. 

Managed in partnership with the City of Bellingham, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and Road2Home, the village opened in October 2021. 

Spangler — who refers to Gardenview as “Tiny Town” — received a referral slot from the Opportunity Council’s Whatcom Service Homeless Center. He moved into one of the 8-foot-by-12-foot wooden homes in January 2022. Adapting to the communal living and cooking areas was challenging, but Spangler managed it. Adhering to a nightly curfew was particularly tricky. He was used to wandering the streets late at night, sometimes getting into altercations. But an empathetic conversation with two people who’d become vital in his support network — case manager Carol Ouellette and volunteer ally Mark Galvin — led him to agree to start staying in at night.

A note from a friend provides powerful emotional support for the newly housed, formerly “residentially challenged,” such as Blake Spangler. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

He spent a year and a half at Gardenview, getting his anger and substance abuse further under control while learning to trust people who actually cared about his well-being. While he is not sober today, his substance use is dramatically reduced. 

“They were really, really good,” he said. “It is the best group of people I’ve ever been around.”

Galvin — a retired Bellingham School District teacher — was paired with Spangler as an ally to provide emotional and practical support, like taking him to appointments and running errands. Not every allyship blossoms into true friendship, but Ouellette said Galvin’s presence was a game-changer for Spangler’s ability to accept help. 

“Relationships wound and relationships heal,” Ouellette said. “With Mark and Blake, it’s gone to really high levels because Mark has invested himself in Blake. And I think Blake is someone that’s been able to respond to that, and it’s just been beautiful.”

Getting into Gardenview also allowed Spangler to begin receiving long-overdue medical treatment. When he arrived there, Spangler said he had four broken bones, carpel tunnel issues, and a lump in one shoulder that turned out to be cancerous. 

Though he’d long wanted medical help, Ouellette said, he needed stability and assistance to get that done. Ouellette said she’s had other unhoused clients who’ve gone to see doctors about legitimate health issues, only to barely receive five minutes of their time. When a case manager or ally accompanies them to an appointment, they’re often given more attention, she said. 

Last June, Spangler left Gardenview after receiving a voucher from the Bellingham Housing Authority (BHA), which distributes federally based low-income housing vouchers for all of Whatcom County. While Section 8 housing vouchers are typically attached to a person, allowing them to keep their voucher when moving from one place to another, Spangler’s is tied specifically to Samish Commons. For now, however, that suits him just fine. 

His apartment is brand new, his rent is $275, and his total income is about $1,000 a month when Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is factored in. So far, his biggest complaint is the cost of misplacing his room’s security fob — it’s an $85 fine if residents lock themselves out, Galvin said. If they lose it completely, the replacement cost is $255. 

Spangler isn’t sure what’s next besides more medical treatment. He’d like to do some volunteer work, he said, perhaps with disadvantaged youths. 

While getting to this point has been difficult, he hopes other unhoused persons can also reclaim their lives with the right help at the right time. “People do come through who are willing to do the work, and just need the guidance to what doors to knock on,” he said.

Waiting for help

Spangler’s story is proof of what’s possible, but getting to this point can be challenging for people in similar situations. 

At Gardenview, about 35% of the village’s 2023 residents will be re-housed by year’s end, Ouellette said. Those who aren’t will continue waiting for the chance to obtain Section 8 housing vouchers from BHA, while others hoping to leave the street or Base Camp will also be waiting to enter Gardenview. 

Nota Tsitsiragos, Gardenview’s ally program manager, said all the village’s 35 units are full, with 34 people on a waitlist as of Oct. 23. That may understate the true demand, however, as the waitlist is the number of people she has officially interviewed and added, not the number who’ve shown interest by starting an application. 

At BHA, the application period to join a waitlist for Section 8 housing vouchers is opened just one week a year. BHA CEO Brien Thane said 1,126 households applied for the waitlist in September — about double the number that applied in 2022.

Of those 1,126 households, only about 400 will actually be chosen — via lottery — to have vouchers processed in the following 12 to 18 months. The number of 400, Thane said, is the limit of what BHA’s team is able to process in that timeframe.

Fifteen or fewer of Gardenview’s residents were part of BHA’s September selections, Ouellette said.

Demand for housing vouchers is growing across the board, Thane said, as rents across Western Washington have risen dramatically in the last decade, exacerbated by the lifting of pandemic-related rent moratoriums.

“Congress has not been increasing voucher appropriations to keep pace with demand,” Thane said. “It’s estimated on a nationwide level that, at best, 25% of the people who are eligible for housing choice vouchers actually have one.”

Shannon Laws, a BHA housing coordinator, said she is receiving a lot of panicked phone calls this year from people seeking housing help for the very first time.

“We hear just very, very sad stories of rent gouging,” she said. “The cost of living has really gone up this year. So, people on fixed incomes can’t respond as quickly, or be prepared like some people who have disposable incomes. It’s really hitting a lot of people.”

Lorena Shah, director of operations for Opportunity Council, said the end of federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs is creating overwhelming need in Whatcom County. 

“The homeless prevention phone line is receiving tens of thousands of calls from 300 to 500 unique callers each week,” she said. “The new state-funded Homeless Prevention Program (HPP) includes case management services, not just rental assistance, so the numbers we are able to serve are based on caseload capacity. We anticipate serving 70 to 90 households over the next year based on available funding.”

That funding is dramatically less than it used to be. Opportunity Council was distributing $1 million to $2 million a month when ERA was available, Shah said. HPP, meanwhile, has the resources to distribute no more than $1.2 million annually. 

At Samish Commons, Spangler is lucky to be where he is. Construction on the complex was completed this spring; by July, all 172 units were fully leased, Thane said, and there has been limited turnover.

“The rental market is increasingly out-of-reach for folks from all walks of life,” he said.

Without enough affordable housing, properly addressing the other needs of the homeless will continue being a challenge in Whatcom County, Ouellette said. But she still has hope for more success stories like Spangler’s in the future. 

“We care about these people,” she said. “If we give them a chance, most of them will rise to the occasion.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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