The hidden homeless

Beneath the gloss of destination Sandpoint, there lies a growing problem

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

The word “paradise” is often tossed around to describe towns like Sandpoint. But scratch beneath the surface in resort towns across the West and evidence of issues like housing insecurity and homelessness become more and more pressing as high home prices continue to spiral out of control.

For many living in North Idaho, the idea that homelessness even exists — let alone can be described as a “crisis” — is a fantasy. Unlike many urban areas, where unhoused people are more visible to passersby, it’s a little more complicated here.

“I call them the hidden homeless,” said Joanne Barlow, program director for Bonner Homeless Transitions, a nonprofit organization tasked with helping homeless families and individuals achieve self sufficiency and increase the quality of their lives.

“People don’t realize how prevalent it is here,” Barlow told the Reader. “When you think of the homeless in Spokane, you think of a tent city, people living on the street. Here, there’s a different connotation. Here, homelessness is someone who has to get out of their home they’ve had for 10 years and can’t afford to move, can’t afford to live. 

“We don’t have people laying on the streets in downtown Sandpoint,” she added. “We don’t really have tent cities. But we do have the hidden homeless, and we have a lot of them.”

While every situation is different, an alarming trend was recently highlighted by former Sandpoint Senior Center Director Cherie Coldwell, who testified Oct. 19 before the Sandpoint City Council. In her brief statement — given during the public forum portion of the meeting — Coldwell told the mayor and counselors that she had noticed a large number of seniors currently living without a home.

“I’ve got several seniors living in motels right now, or couch surfing,” Coldwell said. “I have several living in their cars. I even have one gentleman living in a storage facility.”

Coldwell said that since housing has become such a hot topic in Sandpoint, she wanted to make city officials aware that the issue of senior homelessness had come to her attention.

“Some folks who are homeless moved up here without a game plan,” Coldwell said. “They didn’t realize the housing market was so tight here and that the number of beds available at some assisted living facilities were very hard to come by. 

Courtesy photo.

“For the most part, folks are on waiting lists several months long, basically waiting for another person to pass away in order to have a space there,” she continued. “When you’re considering affordable housing, I hope you will keep our seniors in mind, given the median age of our county. A very large amount of people will be retiring in the near future and a lot of those folks are on fixed incomes and will require affordable housing.”

Coldwell concluded her testimony by asking if anyone on the dais had questions. There were none.

Catching up with Coldwell a few weeks later, she went into further detail with the Reader about why she testified before the City Council.

“The median age of our population here is 49,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the statewide median age is 36.6, according to the 2020 census, actually making it the sixth-youngest state in the nation. 

“That means a lot of people are getting ready to hit retirement and have no idea what they’re in for,” Coldwell added. “A lot of them have jobs where they can’t save for retirement, where they’re living paycheck to paycheck. The dishwasher we have at the senior center is 76 years old. … It’s going to be ugly by the time Gen-Xers start retiring. None of my peers have a safety net. None have saved for retirement.”

Both Barlow and Coldwell said that when discussions about housing come up, they get frustrated because seniors are often left out of the equation.

“With this huge population about to retire, the question is, do we have the infrastructure for that?” Coldwell said. “The state has talked about affordable housing, but never once mentioned affordable housing for seniors. Workforce housing is great. We absolutely need it. But we also need to find a way to take care of our seniors who are out there on their own.”

The issue of affordable housing has captured the attention of policymakers from the city to the national level — resulting in dozens of possible solutions — but the fundamental question remains: “Will any of them work?” 

“I don’t know the answer,” said Barlow. “No one does. I wish I did.”

“Solving this problem has proven to be a little difficult, to be sure,” Coldwell added.

The issue is also cultural, Coldwell said, rooted in Americans’ generally indifferent attitude toward the elderly.

“It’s really disturbing, coming from an Asian background; growing up in Hawaii where multi-generations were living in the same household,” she said. “To see these seniors without a safety net, these solo-agers without family or community support is really disheartening. It’s a broken system that’s ingrained in our culture — we just don’t care about our seniors.”

Because so many seniors have moved to North Idaho without conducting the proper advance research, Coldwell said many arrive here flabbergasted that they are unable to secure housing.

“Because it’s North Idaho and super conservative, many move here thinking, ‘This will be my Eden,’” Coldwell said. “Then they arrive and can’t find a place to live.”

According to a study by Simmons University in Massachusetts, people 50 and older make up about a third of the entire unhoused population. By 2050, it is estimated there will be as many as 100,000 elders living without stable housing — more than double the current homeless population for this age group.

The National Coalition for the Homeless said the clear upward trend of older people experiencing housing insecurity is made worse because some fall between the cracks of government safety nets. Those under a certain age fail to qualify for Medicare, but those who do qualify are often too elderly to be able to work and pay a portion of rent — a requirement at many subsidized housing facilities around the country.

For Barlow, she recognizes how hard it is for seniors to be without stable housing. Because Bonner Homeless Transitions is a program, not a shelter, the tenants must be working within 30 days — a requirement that’s often difficult for senior citizens who rely on Social Security payments to survive.

“For seniors, it’s really hard. If they need to get out of the cold and get out of their car, there’s no facility in town that will help them,” Barlow said. “For women, there are none in the county. For men, the Bonner Gospel Mission will take them; but seniors, they don’t want to work. They’ve worked all their lives. They just want a roof over their head and food in their stomach.”

Barlow said the housing crunch that exploded in resort towns such as North Idaho during the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem worse.

“Some have rented a home for a number of years, but the owners might see that the home they paid $100,000 for is all of a sudden worth half a million dollars,” Barlow said. “We have the upper-class, wealthy people who show up here and buy whatever … and the renter is out, then the rent goes astronomical. 

“If you’re only making $1,000 or say $1,400 in Social Security a month and rent is $1,500, you can’t afford it,” she added. “Everybody is working. It’s not that. They’re making good money for Sandpoint. People are definitely working. It’s housing. That’s the problem.”

While the problem might seem remote to many, it couldn’t be more serious for those experiencing their own housing insecurity. Take the case of Steve (last name withheld), who has lived in Sandpoint for 15 years and in the West for his entire life. 

At 70 years old, Steve isn’t your typical senior citizen. He has a number of talents and artistic skills that help pay the bills. He is still able to ski and ride bikes, but has spinal issues related to farming for many years that make it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time.

Steve was drawn to the recreational possibilities available in North Idaho, as well as the artistic nature of the town. 

At first, he rented a duplex for $690 per month. The price later increased to $750, then $850 and, after the pandemic, rose to $1,000 per month. It was during the housing spree — when buyers were purchasing homes sight-unseen for cash amounts far above asking price, when the shoe dropped on Steve.

“The owner came back from his usual winter away and caught up with me and the other tenant and said, ‘The bean counters said I need to start spending some money, so I’m looking to get a contractor to remodel and redo the place,’” Steve told the Reader. 

Steve said the owner came back a few days later and said he might have to sell it. A week later, a man knocked on Steve’s door and served him with an eviction notice.

“It said I had 30 days to vacate, after 15 years renting there,” Steve said. “I told him it’s impossible, sorry. It took me fully two months just to find storage big enough to do me any good — and at that, I had to leave a lot of stuff behind.”

The owner eventually obtained a court order giving Steve a deadline to leave.

“I had until 5 p.m. to get out and he showed up at 1:30 and said, ‘You’re cutting it a little close, aren’t you?’” Steve said. “He then told me that after I left, he would put up a sign that read, ‘Eviction sale: Everything free,’ and he and his wife sat there across the street in their car watching me pack up and leave. The place sat empty for three to four months afterward, but I heard someone bought it.”

Steve was frustrated at the lack of compassion from everyone involved.

“I asked [the landlord], ‘Where am I supposed to go?’ and he just shrugged and said, ‘Not my problem,’” Steve said. “It split my neighbor’s family up three ways, because they got evicted, too. I have a lot of friends who are couch-surfing right now. There’s no empathy, no concern at all. The cruelty angle of it is that it’s just business: ‘Fuck you, get out.’”

After his eviction, Steve was forced to store some of his belongings in storage, as well as others scattered throughout town at various friends’ houses, but a lot was left behind and lost.

“The wealth and cruelty moving in here is alarming,” Steve said.

Because he was unable to access the tools and gear needed to make money through his various skills and activities, Steve said the eviction shut him down completely.

“One thing about being homeless, it’s damn near impossible to be productive,” he said. “I read somewhere that before COVID, 60% of Americans can’t afford a $400 surprise bill. That’s every month now. Rent went up in Sandpoint. Even places where it didn’t double, it still went up that $400.”

After his eviction, Steve lived in his vehicle, often parking in open lots in Sandpoint. He wasn’t the only one.

“Lots of people sleep in their cars in Sandpoint,” he said. “Some places, they don’t bother you too much. There are usually at least a half dozen cars parked downtown with people living in vans. Everyone I talked to was working, doing construction, painting, whatever.”

For Steve, there’s either a stigma around homeless people lazing around on the street corner all day, contributing nothing to society, or there’s the opposite idea that “van-life” is an adventure and a neat way to cut costs in today’s housing market.

“Van life ain’t adventuring if you don’t do it by choice,” Steve said. “A typical night sleeping in my car in Sandpoint, I’d always say, ‘Thank God I ain’t a single mother with four kids living in a broken-down Toyota Corolla parked underneath an overpass.’”

Between living in his vehicle and using a cheap membership at the YMCA to shower and get warm, Steve eked out a living in Sandpoint for a short while following his eviction; but, when winter weather started to arrive in early November, he had to make a move.

“I got out right before that big storm hit,” he said. “I’m incredibly fortunate. I’m a private son of a bitch and never asked anyone for much, but I had to put a post on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, I need some help.’ People came through like I couldn’t believe. I still get teared up about this.”

Steve said he had bald tires, a blown head gasket and a transfer case that needed rebuilt. He couldn’t stay in Sandpoint because it was getting too cold to sleep in his truck, but he couldn’t move on because he would likely crash or break down. He was stuck.

“I held on as long as I could, but after I reached out, people helped me,” he said. “They bought me a set of tires. I would not have survived without them.”

Steve packed what he could fit into his truck and pulled out of Sandpoint right as the first snowstorm blew in, blanketing Bonner County with newfallen snow. He has plans to return soon, but for now, he’s living in western Washington, where the coastal temperatures make it easier to survive sleeping in a truck at night.

When sharing his story with others, Steve said some callously ask why he doesn’t just get a job.

“I’m not in a position, no matter how good I look for 70 years old, to do manual labor anymore,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard all my damn life. If I could work, I’d work. I can’t. Be very careful of what you judge. You don’t know what people are dealing with.”

Yet, Steve recognizes he’s one of the lucky ones.

“I’m incredibly fortunate,” he said. “I have never turned anyone away who needed a job or a place to live, so I guess I had some karma built up. But a lot of older people don’t have any family to turn to at all. A lot of people don’t even have friends to ask for help. The cruelty of what’s being done to Americans is just dumbfounding to me.”

The plan is to go with the flow. Steve plans to return to Sandpoint when he’s able; but, for now, he’s just trying to survive.

“I don’t know where I’m going to be until I’m there,” he said. “This is a hell of a way to live when you’re 70.”

If you are experiencing housing insecurity, reach out to the many organizations that are available to help: Bonner Homeless Transitions, 208-265-2952; Bonner Gospel Mission, 208-263-6698; Bonner Community Food Bank, 208-263-3663.

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