Updated: Jun 14, 2022
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’.”