Bonner Homeless Transitions celebrates 25 years of helping

Program leads 85 percent of residents to permanent housing

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Tamie Martinsen, program manager for Bonner Homeless Transitions, stands outside of Blue Haven, one of two transitional living locations it operates in the county. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — How can a group succeed this well for this long and still remain under the radar? To the community at large, Bonner Homeless Transitions tends to be one of those “Oh, yeah — they do a great job” organizations that pops into focus when its name comes up in conversation. 

For the scores of people it has served since being formed in 1991, it is very much a top-of-mind, life-changing bridge from homelessness to self-dependence.

“What fascinates me is that so many people still don’t know about it,” said long-time board member Gretchen Steen.

It is odd, since last year alone, Bonner Homeless Transitions provided a total of more than 16,250 bed nights to homeless families and single women through its Blue Haven and Trestle Creek shelter facilities, run by program managers Tamie Martinsen and Joanne Barlow, respectively. Of those receiving help, about 60 percent were children.

One could argue that homeless people, in general, fall outside the purview of our everyday lives — a case that would make sense if not for the fact the organization has been so completely effective in moving them out of that state and into the workforce and community at large. Fully 85 percent of families and women who move into the two shelters are transitioned successfully to permanent housing, which usually means a rental they can afford.

It’s no easy road to get there, however. Certainly not one without personal struggle and growth, according to Martinsen. Those who are given temporary housing at Blue Haven and Trestle Creek can expect up to two years of high expectations and hard work as part of the process. In her job, Martinsen sets boundaries and makes it abundantly clear that getting a break is just the first step in getting back on your feet.

In a situation where families have exploded and all other options have run out, her message rings like a bell.

“These people don’t have resources or families to support them,” the program manager said. “Sometimes, that allows me to provide resources, because they know it’s their last step.

“But this isn’t a way of life,” she added. “It’s a step that is a privilege.”

Tough message, that, particularly for those who also have to overcome addiction on the road back to finding a job and starting to pay for a place to live. Both shelters are “safe and sober” facilities, meaning that alcohol or drug use will get you bounced right out. For that reason, treatment is mandatory to receive temporary housing.

“If someone is struggling with addiction issues, we assist them in getting services,” Martinsen said, explaining that such assistance includes arranging for drug and alcohol counseling and setting up child care for parents who must attend those sessions. “We’ll do anything we have to so that there’s no excuse not to get treatment.”

The number of people Bonner Homeless Transitions can serve at any given time depends on family size, Martinsen pointed out. Once those families or single women arrive, she informs them that their work has only begun.

“Our program helps determine what has led to their homelessness so we can transition them to permanent housing,” she said. “I’m brutally honest with them, but I’m also a master problem-solver.”

The biggest lesson many of the residents learn is that there are community resources to get things rolling in the right direction, but that the real momentum out of homelessness comes from building the personal strength and confidence that unlocks a storehouse of personal resources.

That, more than anything, is what carries people back into the job market and out of the shelter environment. Success, Martinsen noted, is gauged, not how many come into the program, but by the number of those who leave for good.

“We’re not a revolving door — we don’t want them to come back,” she said. “And we are not enabling. This is not just a place to land. Work is required and everybody has to do something to be a participant in their community and their future.”

“We really are teaching them to fish,” added Steen, paraphrasing a section of the old adage about teaching others how best to help themselves.

Since its inception, Bonner Homeless Transitions — originally known as the Bonner County Homeless Task Force — has emphasized case management and education in working with residents. Along with fully furnished housing, they receive assistance through crisis intervention, help with food, clothing and access to medical services, transportation and classes on topics such as budgeting, parenting and how to find and keep a job.

It has been 25 years since the dynamic duo of Cyd Savoy and Jo Johnson started the ball rolling on helping the homeless in our community. It started when they overheard a conversation at the Bonner Community Food Bank about how some of the people coming in for food were local families living in tents or all but abandoned mobile homes lacking power or running water. Johnson passed away last month, but the movement she helped start remains stronger than ever.

That’s not to say there aren’t points of concern — such as the statistic that shows 20 percent of children who experience homelessness go on to become homeless parents. Still, when you stack that up against the 85 percent success rate Bonner Homeless Transitions has for guiding people into permanent housing, there is reason for optimism.

Martinsen said she sees it every day at work, most clearly in the faces of kids who have some stability for the first time in their young lives. She heard it this winter in the voice of a child who stopped by her office to say thank you for his new snow boots — the first pair he ever owned. She feels it in the pride her residents have when they tell her they’ve landed a job and started saving for a place of their own.

“And you know what’s wonderful?” she asked. “I would never have met most of these people, especially the children.”

The community rallied when Johnson and Savoy needed money to move a rambling old house across town to create Blue Haven and continues to rally to this day, according to Martinsen and Steen. Even though Bonner Homeless Transitions might not claim the instant recall that some local non-profits have, there is a small army of supporters made up of churches, businesses, individuals, groups and foundations that continue to rally in support of the cause.

However, that army can always use new recruits in a time when federal funding has flattened out while maintenance expenses keep rising.

To learn more about Bonner Homeless Transitions or to make a tax-deductible donation, call 208-265-2952 or visit online at: www.bonnerhomelesstransitions.org.

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