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When stereotype becomes story, everything changes. 

Have you read the Spokesman-Review Article about our success?

“There is hope,” (Joe Ader) said. “There are possibilities. ... It’s a solvable situation.
It’s not easily solvable, but it’s solvable.”


By Jane Farstrider

With the disappearance of a promised job, Jax’s family of four was soon left out in the cold.

When the Arsenault family relocated from Idaho in 2017, homelessness was the last thing on their minds. Jax was a manager at a Popeyes in Twin Falls, and when she was offered a position running a new location that would soon be opening in Spokane, she started making plans right away.

As she tells her story, it’s immediately clear that Jax is most in her element when she’s taking action. She sees what needs to be done and gets right to it.

The family uprooted, rented an apartment in Spokane Valley, and waited for the store to open so she could start work. They kept waiting. Month after month, no store came. Jax and her husband Dennis grew worried as time kept passing with no firm answer about an opening date, and their savings quickly disappeared.

Without months of income they had counted on, they soon lost their truck. Then they lost their apartment. When Jax tried filing for unemployment, she says they argued that she had just quit. The Spokane Popeyes location never opened.

“We had no friends or family here,” says Jax. With a 13-year-old daughter, a seven-year-old son, a dog, and no support system in a new city, she and Dennis didn’t have much to fall back on. An acquaintance from their apartment complex offered them a temporary place to stay, but It was close quarters for all of them.

Two more weeks passed, and they still had no work or housing. “Things were getting a little testy with two families in an apartment,” Jax says, in her matter-of-fact way. “She ended up telling us, ‘You can't stay here.’”

With no vehicle, nowhere to go, and a cold, February night ahead of them, they threw together a makeshift shelter to stay out of the elements and sleep. “We ended up digging a hole,” she says. “We put an emergency blanket underneath us, then blankets on top of that, and put an air mattress on top of us to keep out of the wind and out of the snow, and it kind of blended in … which was anything but ideal.”

It was an East Valley High School employee who gave the family the first bit of good news they’d had in a while. “My daughter was seeing a counselor at East Valley High School, and she told him that we were homeless,” Jax says. “He sent us a brochure about Family Promise.”

“I was doing Work Source and was in a class, so Dennis came and talked to Serena [the Family Services Manager] and another supervisor; he did a walk-through and saw the resources they had at the time.”

Afterward, Jax says they met up at McDonalds and Dennis told her “I came across a program at Family Promise. They only shelter families, so you and me and the kids can all stay together. It’s not going to be the best, but 100% better than what we're doing right now ― like running to a truck stop to grab a shower.”

“Asking for help was the hardest part,” she says. They decided they would go to Open Doors, an emergency day shelter at Family Promise, where they would have access to some much-needed essentials like food, showers, a place to do laundry, and computers. At night, they’d be shuttled to the Salvation Army’s night shelter.

“The worst part for me was the shuffle between the Salvation Army and Open doors,” Jax continues. Often they’d end up waiting outside for an hour or longer, hoping there would be room enough for everyone. Inside, there wasn’t much privacy and they’d do their best to sleep on thin, memory foam mats.

“My son adjusted pretty quickly,” says Jax. “To him it was just like a vacation; getting to hang out and play with friends every day … My daughter had a harder time ― she was focused on everyone else who needed help. It helped her get through it.”

Relocating had already been difficult for her teenage daughter, even before losing their home in a new town. “It hurt her really bad,” Jax says, “especially to watch the apartment take our stuff, knowing it wasn’t because of something we did.”

While they were working toward finding housing, another program they found through Family Promise made it possible for their daughter to continue attending East Valley High School. The Have a Heart program helped with transportation to school and bringing her back to the shelter each day.

30 days after coming to Open Doors, Jax found a new job with The Cleaning Authority, where she would end up working for the next three and a half years. Permanent housing took a little longer to figure out. “They were doing fewer housing assessments back then,” Jax recalls, but within 90 days they were approved for rapid re-housing through Catholic Charities.

“All four of us cried when we got rapid rehousing,” Jax says. Their new apartment was a two-bedroom, so Jax and Dennis opted to hang a curtain in the dining room, turning it into a master bedroom so the kids could each have their own space. “The kids really loved that ― the fact that mommy got put out and they both had a bedroom with a door,” says Jax, laughing.

With work and housing finally coming together, finding a reliable car was their next big challenge. Greg Plummer, who is on the board of directors at Family Promise, ended up donating a car to the family. “We still have it!” Jax says.

Dennis started volunteering at Family Promise, and before long he was hired on full time. Jax worked her way up from house cleaner to quality inspector in her three and a half years with The Cleaning Authority before looking for opportunities at Family Promise herself, helping with a little bit of everything.

“Within my first 30 days here, I was an assistant supervisor, then I was promoted to Supervisor, and then Donations Coordinator,” she says. “It wasn’t even something I was looking to do. I just kind of took over the supply room.” With a grin, she adds, “Assistant Manager is the next goal.”

When she talks about her work with Family Promise, Jax bubbles over with enthusiasm. For her, the connections she found there were life-changing, and she’s busily finding ways to make a difference in her new community. “I love making connections with other resources – I handle food and supply donations with the shelters,” she says. “Making relationships.”

Jax uses that skill to find businesses to partner with who can donate high-quality items for families in need. The new Amazon facility was a recent connection she made, and since they began donating, Family Promise has had a more consistent supply of everything from toilet paper and cleaning supplies, to electronics and produce. While they have an online list of needs that anyone can check, Jax explains that it’s harder to rely on individual donations alone.

“Being homeless teaches you how to be resourceful,” she says. “Tell me no, and I’ll find a way.” One of Jax’s favorite things about her work is being able to fulfill a very specific need someone might not expect; giving a new parent a baby carrier, for example. “When someone really needs something, I can hand it to them, and the smile in their eyes makes my day.”

“The best part about the program is the volunteers know what people are going through,” says Jax. People like Jax and Dennis, who have been through the program themselves, can reassure guests on their worst days that it really can get better.

She describes how discouraging it can be when a family hasn’t had any evictions, no late bills, and literally nothing holding them back other than having the money to put down on a place, wondering why they’re still waiting.

What Jax wants them to know is that it’s not the end. “It’s not over. It’s discouraging to see other people finding homes and feeling like it’s never going to happen for you … but you don’t know what obstacles another person has to go through versus what you have to go through. You never know, and you just have to be patient.”

“I know it’s hard, and it feels like when it rains it pours. Once you get into a shelter, it feels like your whole life just gets snatched from under you ― from a repo, or your clothes getting ruined, or losing important paperwork … You see all these people and think, ‘this is so crazy.’ But once you get to know people and you make a relationship; you make a family in the shelter. So not only do you have community outside, but you end up making a community inside, and having that helps.

“I love these people here,” she says. “Katie went through the program after me. Kermit and Melissa were there too, transporting people back and forth.”

If you’re having a really bad day, and you made a connection with another guest, it’s just like, you know, making a friend at work or something, and you have that person to vent to. It seems like the worst ― and it is ― but you can only go up from there.”

Against the odds, things can and do get better when people feel supported and safe. When they have a soft place to land and others who believe they can succeed.

“The hardest part of my job is when the families move out and go home,” Jax says. “I love that they are going home, but you have to start over with somebody new. We have to wait six months after they go through the program to reconnect and visit.”

With community support and partnerships, Family Promise has been able to expand the assistance they offer families experiencing homelessness. “They’ve grown so much since I came through,” says Jax. In recent years, Family Promise established their own overnight program, and guests now have access to more secure storage for their belongings. Each family gets a hall locker, a pantry locker with cold and dry storage, and a large outdoor locker for bigger items. That addition is a big deal, Jax explains, and recalls the stress of having no option but to stash her family’s belongings under a stairway, where the few things they had left could easily go missing.

Family Promise also added an aftercare program to provide support to families as they are getting re-established ― setting people up with high-quality furniture and household items to make it feel like home right away. “We never give people broken furniture,” she says, adding that that isn’t always the case with charity organizations. Sometimes aftercare includes helping with bills or restocking necessities when money is tight. “If they're having a rough month, they can reach out and we’ll gather up a food box for them,” Jax says. “We want to keep them in permanent housing and end that cycle of homelessness.”

Working with Vanessa Behan and Spokane Valley Partners gives guests access to things like childcare, diapers and wipes. “They’ll also help you once you get into permanent housing,” Jax says. “Even if you’re out of the shelter you can get assistance with diapers and wipes through them, but people have to make that connection themselves.”

“We have a connection with Global [Neighborhood Thrift], where we give them donations we couldn’t utilize here, and they work with us and our families in aftercare ― giving them vouchers they can come to the thrift store to get things they need.”

There is always a lot to be done, and Family Promise volunteers and staff are used to adapting to whatever the day might throw at them, taking it in stride. “It really helps when you like your co-workers,” says Jax. On a typical day, Jax says her co-workers probably only see her as she runs through the building, on her way to handling the next task. “From 8:30 til about 2:00, I’m running non-stop,” she says. “I don’t like to sit around ― I’m a busy bee.”

Jax wishes people understood how much closer the average person is to homelessness than they realize. “All it takes is not having a rainy day fund. It can take a car accident, and that just starts that domino effect and the next thing you know you’re out of options. Just because someone’s homeless doesn’t mean they’re a drug addict … it can be a disability, a mental health issue, or a job change.”

“A lot of times it’s hard to ask for help. All I want is for people to know that they can always ask. If you don’t ask, the answer is always going to be ‘no’.”

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By Jane Farstrider

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a hard-working mother with three young children. You, your husband, and kids sit in a run-down motel room, nearly 2,000 miles from your home state. The few resources your family had were enough to get you to Spokane, but neither of you has a job yet. The credit cards are maxed out. You have no way to pay for another night indoors. You’re exhausted, and the hope of finding a fresh start is turning to cold panic.

For Hailey VenHuizen, facing that stark reality pushed her to look for help she never thought she would need.

Hailey’s quiet determination is striking as she explains how they had struggled in Ligonier, Indiana before deciding to take a leap into the unknown and move across the country.

“Life in Indiana was not ideal for my family,” she says. “I was working 7 days a week from 2 p.m. - 3:30 a.m. to care for my family and catch up on the bills. Finally, when I was almost caught up on all of the bills, the rent had increased significantly and I fell behind. Again. I had received a notice to vacate my home and there were limited resources that would help with rental assistance. I prayed every day hoping God would hear me.”

When an old friend told Hailey and her husband about Spokane, they felt that the opportunities there would be worth leaving everything they knew behind.

In Indiana they didn’t have a support network, the educational options weren’t great, and resources for people struggling financially were sparse. “There wasn’t even a bus system,” she says. “We took our tax refund and escaped Indiana and never looked back.”

Hailey’s husband flew to Spokane in February of 2019, and Hailey followed in March with the kids, who were all between the ages of 1 and 5 at the time.

“The position that we were in was dreadful and embarrassing,” Hailey says. “Maybe we should've had a plan before we moved to Spokane, sure, but we also knew that if we had stayed in Indiana, our position would've been much worse.”

The beginning of it was terrifying. You feel like a horrible person having to put our kids through that, it is not fair. It was February, pouring rain and we were cold and soaked when we arrived at Family Promise’s Open Doors Shelter.

If it weren’t for Family Promise, we wouldn’t be alive today. We would’ve gone hungry and cold. We would’ve ended up under a bridge in a tent.

When they couldn’t afford another night at the motel, Hailey took action and started googling emergency family shelters, even though it made her deeply uncomfortable.

Hailey says that during this time, she knew she had to hold it together and be a positive role model for her kids.“How you feel on the inside is what you manifest on the outside,” she says. “You just keep going. Stopping is not an option.”

“I mustered up the courage to call Open Doors,” she says. “Katie Theobald answered my phone call. She was gentle and understanding and her warmth made me feel comfortable enough to explain the situation. Katie walked my family through the anxieties and fears that we were experiencing.”

With Katie’s instructions, they never had to face a night on the streets. Hailey and her family got into Open Doors, a day shelter run by Family Promise where they could safely stay together and work on next steps. “Once I had called and spoke to Katie, we were in the shelter the very next morning at 7 a.m.”

“What I love about Family Promise is that they keep the family together,” Hailey says. “On our first day, there was a table full of resources for school, childcare, and jobs.”

One of the brochures on that table was for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Center, where they were able to bring the kids while they searched for work and connected with other resources.

“I felt a lot of security,” Hailey remembers. “We felt safe, wanted, and comfortable. They gave me tools I needed to go home. I filled out an application for another Bridges program – where we’d have our own room for the day, and were taken to a church to stay overnight.” The Bridges transitional living program approved their family quickly, and there Hailey met Susan Heitsman, whose support was particularly impactful.

“Susan was helpful and had gone the extra mile to ensure my family would be successful. When I found a home, Susan and her husband helped us with finding and moving furniture into our new home. I miss her greatly.”

When trying to imagine where they might have ended up, Hailey says “I couldn’t tell you and I don't want to know. That whole experience was so scary, but Family Promise made me feel safe. We felt welcomed and wanted. Their staff is amazing. If you are in a shelter and you don’t feel safe, welcomed and wanted – you’re going to fail.”

They were able to get food stamps, and through a program called Work First, Hailey’s husband found a job as a frozen foods manager at WalMart, and Hailey enrolled in Spokane Community College’s nursing program.

While it was an enormous relief to be in transitional living, they were still anxious to find permanent housing, and once again the options were limited. On a whim, Hailey says she sent out an S.O.S on Craigslist.

“When I say S.O.S, I mean that I was at the point of giving up and shared my story in a post needing help,” Hailey explains. “There were hardly any homes available to my family, even with the housing choice voucher that we had received through Spokane Housing Authority.”

Two days later, a landlord who was touched by Hailey’s post reached out saying he owned a vacant house and wanted to provide a stable home for her and her family. Coincidentally, the house was directly across the street from a daycare where she would be able to take the kids while she was in school. “We were homeless for less than a month from the first day of our arrival in Spokane,” she says.

“If I was talking to someone in the position I was in years ago, I’d tell them to use those resources that are available and keep going,” Hailey says. “They were all wonderful and exactly what we needed to move forward. You need to have grit and patience while you’re on this journey – if you don’t you will fail.”

Hailey says a lot has changed for them in recent years. “We are healthy, happy and in the best position that we have ever been in. Family Promise made it possible for my family to be a part of the community just by providing us support to step into the right direction to achieve stability and success.”

Since 2019, Hailey hasn’t slowed down. Her experiences from that year motivated her to chase her own goals to help people facing similar challenges. With her medical training, compassion, and first-hand knowledge, she is looking for opportunities to get more involved with the program that helped her find her footing here.

“I would love to have a permanent position at Family Promise,” Hailey says. “I want to help other families navigate their own journey. I don't want them to feel alone. My journey was scary and it would've been much worse had I not had the support of Family Promise.”

But she hasn’t stopped there. Just recently, Hailey took the first steps of starting a business that she hopes will help fill in some of the gaps she saw back in 2019.

“My company is called Nest Haven Properties LLC. I have big plans that may just be the answer to our families struggling with permanent housing within the community. What my company will be doing is renovating distressed properties to make permanent housing available to families that hold the housing choice voucher.”

The space and privacy to raise their children during those crucial days made all the difference to her, and Hailey wants to provide that stability to other families experiencing homelessness. By creating job opportunities for them at the same time, she hopes to give people the foundation they need for long-term success.

“There are many apartment complexes that do provide housing,” she explains, “but that housing is not permanent. I want to get to the core of the problem that is in our community and provide housing for families when they leave the shelter.”

“I have these plans all written out with years of projections to show that this would be a success,” Hailey says. Her plans aren’t without setbacks, though. She says startup funding is her next hurdle, and she is hoping someone will listen long enough to see the potential in her plans. “There is no way that I will give up on pushing this company forward to launch,” she says.

“It is amazing how stable housing can make a world of a difference for one family,” she says. “Now that we are stable, I am able to help my community. If every homeless family in Spokane had stable housing, could you imagine what our community would be like?”

“Family Promise loved us like their own. They gave us warmth, food, and shelter. It was like a mom and dad helping us out.”

“It’s wonderful to have a future,” she says.

“I just need someone to believe that together we can end homelessness in Spokane by getting to the root of the problem.”

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By Jane Farstrider

When you meet Norm, you can’t help but be disarmed by his openness and warmth as he shares details of his past ― many of them moments a person might rather forget. But he always returns to the good things he experienced amidst the struggle.

As he tells his story, Norm reaches down to stroke Little Bit, the grinning pug who’s been a constant companion to Norm and his granddaughter, Cheyenne, for the past eight years.

Norm describes a younger version of himself that doesn’t seem to fit the soft-spoken man of today, who shares photos of his spunky 10-year-old granddaughter with smiling eyes. But back in the 90s and early 2000s, addiction had a firm grip on his life and he wound up in jail more than once. “I was a real thug back then,” he says. “I thought I was a real tough guy, you know?”

It was a serious car accident that eventually shook that tough guy image and set Norm on a different path. “When I hit my head on that windshield in 2006, my entire life changed ― I became a different person,” he says. “My life has been really full, except that I had a drug problem.”

It was a long, rough road to sobriety, but with a broken neck and the possibility he might never walk or talk normally again, he knew something had to change. After 52 days in the hospital, he left on his own two feet, determined to make a better life for himself.

A parietal lobe stroke added to his struggles in 2011, and Norm explains that even now it can be difficult to communicate ― apologizing when his story wanders. Norm’s battle for social security assistance stalled for years, but he did his best to get by without it.

He started his own telemarketing company in Arizona, and got to work building a life for himself and Cheyenne, who he has cared for since she was born. Regret tinges Norm’s husky voice as he reflects that he wasn’t really around for his older children as they grew up, and the chance to be there for his granddaughter changed everything. “It’s been the most amazing ten years of my life, raising Cheyenne,” he says.

But when his business went under in 2016, they lost their home. For four years, they bounced between temporary living situations, and Norm would often house-sit so they’d have a safe place to stay.

In early 2020, Norm and Cheyenne returned to the Northwest, where he had some family and hoped for a new start. With $390 and whatever he could fit in his vehicle, they made it to Spokane and briefly stayed with Norm’s niece. The situation didn’t last, however, and before long they were back at square one.

Not knowing what to do next, Norm says he and Cheyenne spent their days exploring Bear Lake, barbecuing and making the most of it, despite the uncertainty they faced. At night, they would park at the Flying J truck stop on Broadway to sleep, because there was security and it felt safer.

With the colder weather, Norm knew they had to figure something out soon, and was preparing to drive to a warming shelter in Idaho that would take the two of them. “It’s hard for a man and a girl to get a spot. Really hard,” he says. “I’d been to churches ― everywhere.” But when a new acquaintance told him about Family Promise, they jumped at the opportunity. “We never had to do the shelter thing where you have to sleep on the floor. We had our own room ― everybody did! There were five families there.”

“We met some amazing people through Family Promise. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been around.”

“This is so much different. They’ve stuck with me through all my trials and tribulations; helped me with electric bills; helped me get my vehicle fixed a couple of times. It’s a tried and true program … I’m not saying people never fail, but not because they aren’t trying to help you.”

“It’s not just getting you into a place,” Norm continues, “they set you up. They’ve helped me with so many things that I’m sure would have pushed me back … Now we’re able to do everything on our own to make it.”

He pulls out his phone, and flips through photos of a beaming Cheyenne in her Halloween costume, and talks about the basketball game he’s taking her to at EWU for family day. He says he wishes he was better at doing her hair. Luckily they have a friend ― an insurance agent who helped Norm when they first came to town ― who fixes Cheyenne’s hair when they see each other. “I guess I’m pretty good at making friends,” he says.

In August of last year, Norm and Cheyenne got their own place in Cheney, where Norm had heard good things about the schools. “That’s what I want,” he says. “I want her to have the best schooling.”

They seem to have settled into their new life, and Norm is a regular volunteer at Family Promise. These days, it’s common to see him around throughout the week, helping sort donations and lending a hand with whatever needs doing. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for these people,” he says.

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