WENATCHEE — Tommy Adkisson used to sleep behind a laundry building, huddled up by a hot air vent to keep warm. A couple weeks ago he got a ticket for trespassing there. Now he sleeps in a concrete stairwell across the street.
Adkisson insists life on the street isn’t as bad during the summer months, but things change when the temperatures drop and the snow falls. He used to have a sleeping bag, but that was stolen a while ago. Now he curls up with a pair of thread-bare blankets.
“If I’m lucky I have a motel room sometimes,” he said. “But I haven’t had one of those in awhile. Mostly it’s on the street, anywhere I can lay down.”
But Adkisson, 53, had a job and a family and a house for most of the 32 years he’s lived in Wenatchee. Then in 2017, he split up with his wife and couldn’t afford the rent on his own.
He’s not alone; by nearly all metrics and across all income levels, it is becoming harder to find a home in the Wenatchee Valley.
The median home price in the Wenatchee area is at a 10-year high. It costs more to build and more to rent a house in Wenatchee than in Ellensburg, Tri-Cities, Yakima and Spokane, according to housing solutions group Our Valley Our Future.
The average rent for an apartment in Chelan and Douglas counties is $1,088 a month and only 1.39 percent are vacant, according to the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate.
Roughly one in every 250 people in Chelan and Douglas County is homeless — Adkisson is one of them. He’s been on the streets for 727 days.
The road to the streets
Adkisson is the first to admit he’s made mistakes. He’s been to both jail and rehab more than once, he said. He’s still struggling to kick a decade-long methamphetamine addiction.
He worked as a forklift driver in local fruit warehouses for years. Then an old injury flared up in 2011 and left him unable to work.
He lived with his wife on 19th Street in East Wenatchee until they split up in 2017. They were both collecting disability at the time and together their monthly checks covered rent.
“We both were on fixed incomes and we made it all right together but neither one of us made enough to make it on our own,” he said. “She went to Moses Lake to stay with her daughter and granddaughter and I went to the street.”
His disability payment was $478 a month. His rent was $750.
“I complained a lot about it, saying what a piece of crap the house was,” he said. “I would have gave my left leg and right arm to have it back over the last two years.”
Now Adkisson spends most of his days at the Lighthouse Ministries’ soup kitchen on Wenatchee Avenue. He eats meals there, he has his mail delivered there and he helps out with the dishes when he can.
Living on the streets can be dangerous, he said, but there’s also a lot of camaraderie between people in the community. Many will share resources or invite friends to stay over when someone can afford a motel room for the night.
Most nights when Lighthouse closes at 6 p.m. Adkisson starts to consider his options. Sometimes he’ll sit in Trav’s Tavern for a few hours to pass the time. Some nights he can stay with a friend, but usually his bed is a concrete sidewalk or asphalt parking lot.
There are three emergency shelters in Wenatchee. Adkisson is ineligible to sleep at any of them because they all require sobriety.
His drug use started with cocaine in the 80s. He moved on to meth in 2005 and has been caught in its web ever since. Adkisson was clean for six years until he relapsed in 2016. He’s been to rehab twice, trying to kick his addiction.
But the drug use has been wearing on him more as he’s gotten older. As he washed dishes at Lighthouse one Wednesday afternoon he described buying a bag of meth the night before but couldn’t bring himself to use that night.
“I sat and looked at it last night, the bag,” he said. “I didn’t do anything but stare at it until I went to sleep. Today was a different story.”
Adkisson is scheduled to go to rehab soon at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Treatment. He says he really wants to quit this time — he knows he can’t stay at a Wenatchee shelter while he’s still on it.
“I’m 53 years old and if it doesn’t work, it’s going to kill me,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it more lately than I have been in the past.”
He’s in the process of collecting some back-paid disability checks that never got to him. He hopes to use the money for a down payment on a place to live.
“I’d like to find a little house I can afford. If not, then any one-bedroom apartment I can find,” he said. “Anything to get me off the street.”
Adkisson’s also been pouring over classified ads and visiting employment offices to find a job. One day, he wants to reconnect with his stepdaughter and granddaughter.
“My biggest fear is that I don’t want to die alone out here,” he said. “I don’t want to go out like that. I don’t want to die here.”
The Wenatchee World is taking a deeper look at the area’s housing crisis.
Our reporters in the coming months will tell the stories of renters to first-time homebuyers to businesses struggling to house job-seekers. We start today with a report on the homeless.