WENATCHEE — It was December and every two hours Heather got up to turn the propane heater on. She had to warm the tent so the kids could sleep. She’d been repeating the process every night for weeks.
Heather, her two friends Pattie and Vicki, and their combined five children were in a park. But they weren’t camping, they were homeless.
Their journey to homelessness started as many do — with the threat of eviction.
They stopped paying rent after a dispute with their landlord over the "uninhabitable" living conditions in their Wenatchee home.
Eventually they agreed to leave the house and, without other options, started camping next to a lake in the woods outside of town.
“A friend of ours told us there was a camping spot up there and that it was beautiful so that’s where we went,” Heather said.
They slept in tents for six months.
At first, Heather and Pattie were hesitant to tell their story. Years of custody fights with estranged family members have heightened their desire for privacy. The Wenatchee World has agreed to use only their first names to protect that privacy.
But eventually they agreed to share their experience. They wanted to show how the program that assisted them, the Women’s Resource Center, can help people get to a better place.
That’s because Heather, Pattie and their kids just moved into an apartment last month.
WENATCHEE — The demand for affordable housing in the Wenatchee Valley is greater than the supply.
Six months without a home
The pair originally met almost 20 years ago and became fast friends. A few years later they started living together. They've never been romantically involved, but they consider each other family, Heather said.
The last house they lived in was in a state of serious disrepair, Heather said. When it rained, water would come through the ceiling. There was black mold in the walls, she said.
They stopped paying rent in an effort to get the landlord to make repairs, Heather said. After the landlord started the eviction process, they agreed to just leave the property.
They tried to find another apartment or house to live in, but the family’s only source of income was Pattie’s monthly disability check.
“With us just having at the time a little over $1,000 a month, there’s nowhere in the valley you can find a place anymore,” Heather said. “You can’t even find a studio anymore for less than $750, let alone anything that has a bedroom in it.”
At the time, the average apartment rent in Chelan and Douglas counties was $1,036 and only 0.3 percent of units were vacant, according to data from the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate.
So Heather and her four kids, and Pattie and her son, went to Beehive Lake to stay in a tent. Around that time, their friend Vicki and her daughter were also facing housing instability and came to join them.
For a month and a half, the group of eight stayed at Beehive Lake and nearby Lily Lake. At first they had three tents, then they had to move into a single large one, Heather said. It was September and the evenings were starting to grow cooler.
“By the end we needed the body heat,” she said.
That’s when they moved down to Confluence State Park in Wenatchee. It was warmer and a shorter drive to bring their kids to school every day. But the park’s rules prevented them from staying there for long stretches at a time.
“Every 10 days we had to move camp,” Heather said. “We could only spend 10 days in one spot between the two parks, Confluence and Lincoln Rock.”
Things began to spiral for the group. They’d been nomadic for months and the nights were growing colder.
“When you wake up and you realize the snow is starting to collapse your tent, it’s ‘now what do I do?’ Three of the kids were sick, it was getting colder and it was getting to the point where we couldn’t let them go play anymore,” Heather said.
That’s when Confluence Park Ranger Jose Velazquez found them and wanted to help.
WENATCHEE — On Mondays and Fridays, it’s coffee. They gather in the common room and pour it from a pair of white coffee pots in the corner.
At first, they were resistant, Heather said.
“For the longest time, I was really mad at him,” she said. “It was like ‘How dare you get into my business. What gives you that right?’ But I’m really grateful he did because I was afraid.”
He got in touch with Suzanne Stanton, the Wenatchee School District’s homeless liaison, who brought in the Women’s Resource Center, a nonprofit that offers housing assistance.
WRC gave them a hotel voucher to get them out of the cold and one week later they moved into the Bruce Hotel, a transitional housing building in Downtown Wenatchee.
“They helped me get my babies off the street and that’s all I wanted was to get them off the street,” Heather said. “I tried really hard to make it so they didn’t have to look at their friends and say ‘I’m homeless.’ But there in the end it was getting really hard to do because it was getting cold and I was getting scared.”
They stayed there until June, when they found out they’d qualified for an apartment through WRC’s landlord-tenant liaison program.
The program pairs people facing housing instability with landlords who have market-rate units available. Often their rent is then subsidized with grants from federal housing agencies or local funds.
“In a way, it’s kind of poetic. Because it was the month of June, two years ago, that we first became homeless,” Heather said. “And it was June, two years later, that we found out we got a place. June was the first day of hell and it’s now a first day of a new beginning.”
WRC started the program in May 2018 and since then they’ve housed 30 families, said Bill Bilderback, the program’s coordinator.
“It’s so rewarding, just to be a part of that solution and helping other people meet their goals,” he said. “Words can’t even describe what it’s like to be a part of that.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, he went to check in on the family in their new apartment in East Wenatchee. Heather and Pattie are living there with four of the kids. Vicki and one of the kids are still at the Bruce Hotel.
Bilderback sat and put together a puzzle with one of the kids while Pattie unpacked boxes of movies. Heather waved to a neighbor and her dog.
They reflected on the first holiday in their new home — the Fourth of July, a week earlier.
“Pattie said it best, ‘Independence Day this year has a whole new meaning,’” Heather said. “It was fun, we pretty much stayed at home. We had what we could afford in fireworks and I cooked fajitas.”