On a brisk, overcast day last fall, a walk through downtown Spokane shed light on the plight of the homeless for members of SNAP’s Communication and Development Committee.

The homeless walking tour is a hybrid of something called the “Urban Plunge,” an idea originated several years ago by Catholic Charities in which participants take part in a 20-hour mission trip into downtown Spokane, eating at free meal sites, sleeping in shelters and talking to those who call the street their home. The goal is to educate residents about the challenges faced by our homeless neighbors and the resources that exist to support them.

Jon Carollo, development director for Volunteers of America and SNAP board member, led the walking tour

“It’s helping people see what I see every day,” said Jon Carollo, development director for Volunteers of America (VOA), who led the tour on Nov. 2. “I think what the tour does is acknowledge the fact that very few homeless services translate to paper.”

House of Charity, a 24/7 shelter run by Catholic Charities, is typically the first stop along the tour but an abridged version on this day took the group to VOA’s Hope House. Known as “a low-barrier shelter,” Hope House provides 36 beds downstairs and 25 apartment spaces upstairs for homeless women. Over a dozen are turned away each night due to lack of space and often wind up at House of Charity.

“It’s a real eye opener,” said Raju Hegde of SNAP’s Communications and Deveopment Committee. “You see how difficult it can be to find a safe place to stay.”

In one humble bedroom at Hope House, bunk beds make the most use of the limited space. Album covers from bygone years are thumbtacked to the walls, bringing cheer to the modest surroundings. Those who stay in the temporary beds are required to take their belongings with them during the day and check back in at 2:30 each afternoon.

“The need is so great,” said committee member Joan Durkoop. “You see the compassion and warmth of the people who work at places like Hope House and it just makes you want to spread the word about the help that’s needed.”

The next stop on the tour was SNAP Homeless Services at Second and Wall where the group learned about the agency’s outreach efforts and staff like Bob Peeler who has worked at SNAP for the last 37 years and is recognized on the street as a trusted ally of those forgotten by many.

SNAP Communications and Development committee members walk along Washington Street in Downtown Spokane

It is here where Rachel Galbraith, longtime front desk worker, kindly greets the steady stream of clients who wait Monday through Wednesday afternoon for an assessment to determine where they land on the priority list for the limited inventory of available housing. Last year, SNAP assisted 210 individuals in obtaining permanent housing and 709 individuals in securing transitional and or rapid rehousing.

SNAP worked with the Downtown Spokane Partnership and Lawton Printing in 2017 to produce a Homeless Resource Pocket Guide that features a map detailing meal sites, emergency shelters, drop-in day centers and other resources. As several committee members pointed out, such resources can prove critical for a wide range of people.

“Homelessness happens to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons,” said Communications and Development Committee Chair Mary Murphy. “It isn’t just one segment of the population.”

In leading tours for the past year, Carollo said the feedback he has received from participants echoes a similar theme.

“You learn a lot from the questions people ask,” he said. “Or people will say, ‘My grandson was homeless or my sister-in-law has stayed at Hope House.’ Homelessness affects so many.”

The final stop on the tour was Women’s Hearth, a daytime drop-in center operated by Transitions. The walk from Hope House to the Hearth – and back – is one many women make each day, regardless of the weather, Carollo explained.

The atmosphere at the Hearth is nourishing and generous with warm colors and original art adorning each wall. Light meals are served daily and a food pantry operates once a week. Visitors can take free classes in subjects like crochet and yoga while a computer lab is also part of the layout.

“There’s not a lot of privacy when you’re homeless,” said Patty Norton, a case manager at the Hearth. “We try to create some nooks and crannies where women can have some space and some quiet.”

On the walk back, Carollo told participants about Crosswalk, a downtown emergency shelter and school drop-out prevention program for youth founded by VOA in 1985. As the tour wound down, committee members shared their thoughts on what had been an enlightening afternoon. Carollo said everyone he has brought on the brief journey learns something worthwhile about an often-misunderstood topic.

“Everyone, to a person, gets something new out of it,” he said. “As people walk, they get to reflect and process what they have seen and heard. I see the beauty of the people we serve.”