Veteran who lived in tiny Sumas shed grateful for apartment

Video: Community helps homeless Whatcom County vet find a home

Steven Hortegas of Molina Healthcare and veteran Clifford Speck talk outside Speck's apartment in Bellingham, Monday Oct. 19, 2015. Speck was living in a storage shed in Sumas until he got help getting into an apartment.
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Steven Hortegas of Molina Healthcare and veteran Clifford Speck talk outside Speck's apartment in Bellingham, Monday Oct. 19, 2015. Speck was living in a storage shed in Sumas until he got help getting into an apartment.

One recent day as his young grandchildren played nearby, Clifford Speck paused to consider those who had helped him move out of a small storage shed in Sumas to an apartment of his own in Bellingham.

“I couldn’t believe it when I walked in,” the 59-year-old Speck said. “I could never pay everyone back.”

Never mind that he didn’t have a chair, a bed, blankets or furniture of any kind when he moved into the one-bedroom apartment in June. The homeless veteran was just happy to have a place to rest his head.

“One of Cliff’s famous lines is, ‘Things are looking up,’ ” said Steven Hortegas, a Molina Healthcare of Washington employee who helped Speck and was at his apartment that day.

“They are,” replied Speck, an affable man with a weathered face and a ready smile.

He was just a person in the community that was trying to do his best and needed a little bit of extra help.

Carl Crouse, pastor at Sumas Advent Christian Church

A number of agencies, nonprofits and people played a role in getting Speck into this stable place. It’s part of a push to house homeless Whatcom County veterans, an effort that’s been successful overall given the sharp decline in vets on the streets compared to 2008. But those numbers went up this year, according to the most recent census of the homeless.

In helping Speck, the local agencies provided a home and health care for the medically fragile veteran. They also, unexpectedly, gave him something back when they discovered that he hadn’t been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, as he had mistakenly believed for nearly four decades.

“There was a lot of waste there,” Speck said. “I accepted it and made the best of it.”

He needn’t have, as it turned out.

Housing shortage

There are at least 651 people homeless in Whatcom County, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time Count conducted in January. Of those, some 38 are veterans.

Because the annual count provides a snapshot of the homeless in Whatcom County, those who help the needy often say the number of people without housing is actually higher.

Still, the most recent tally showed a drop of 54 percent from the 83 homeless veterans counted in 2008.

The sharpest decline was in 2011-12, when the number of homeless veterans totaled 28.

That’s primarily because more resources were made available starting in 2010 as nonprofits, Whatcom County government and Veterans Affairs pushed to help homeless veterans.

1.3%The vacancy rate for apartments in Whatcom County, which is considered extremely low.

The biggest challenge to helping homeless veterans has remained the same over the years.

“We have a really hard time finding affordable housing units,” said Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center at the Opportunity Council.

Extremely low rental vacancies coupled with high rents have been a persistent problem in Bellingham and Whatcom County, and a barrier to getting people into affordable housing. It’s one likely reason why the number of homeless, including veterans, is on the rise in Whatcom County — a trend that’s occurring elsewhere in the state.

The vacancy rate for apartment units in Whatcom County was about 1.3 percent, well below the state average of 3.6 percent, according to a September 2014 survey by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. The average rent for those apartment units surveyed was $846 a month, up $22 from a year earlier.

The Homeless Service Center coordinates with local governments and other nonprofits to help provide housing for those in need, including homeless veterans.

The two programs that are key to the effort are Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, which provides long-term housing and case management for veterans who have been homeless for a long time, and Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which gives case management and short-term financial help to families in danger of losing their housing.

Also important is the Veterans Assistance Program, a county program that helps veterans by using money from a property tax levy.

Even with recent increases in the number of homeless, Winter said the news is good overall.

“The outcome of all of this coordination work over the last few years is a dramatic decrease in the number of veterans who are homeless here,” Winter said.

Playing a role, too, is the Homeless Outreach Team, which goes to wherever the needy are in the hopes of plugging them into services. That street team is being funded by a low-income housing levy Bellingham voters approved in 2012.

The road home

Hortegas, Molina’s community connector for Whatcom and Skagit counties, met Speck more than a year ago in Sumas. He was living with friends and family and then when that no longer worked, Speck found himself homeless around the end of 2012.

“Friends, family and two church groups looked after him with their limited resources,” said Hortegas, part of a team that worked with Speck on a health care plan and helped him navigate the system.

Carl Crouse, pastor at Sumas Advent Christian Church, was among the people who helped Speck.

Crouse met him around 2010, during the Seeds of Hope soup suppers at the RV park in Sumas, where Speck was living in a trailer at the time.

“He was just a person in the community that was trying to do his best and needed a little bit of extra help,” Crouse said of the man he prayed with, the man with a “big, big heart.”

When Speck became homeless, a restaurant in Sumas allowed him to stay in 4-foot-by-8-foot shed, which leaked when it rained, behind the eatery.

“It wouldn’t even fit a twin-size bed,” said Lindsay Hertz, a nurse who is the care coordinator with Molina Healthcare.

Speck lived in that shed for about three months.

“Always positive, he showed us his ‘kitchen’ — a collection of pots and pans and a small amount of food outside his door,” Hortegas said.

Adrienne Solenberger, housing case manager with Catholic Community Services, met Speck when he was living in the shed. She’s assigned to some of the most vulnerable and severe cases of homelessness in Whatcom County.

“He is a very kind soul and an absolute gentleman. He demonstrates that old-fashioned respect and courtesy to every person he meets,” she said. “That’s not something you find everyday.”

A roof over my head and God loves me, I don’t need much more.

Clifford Speck, formerly homeless veteran

The Molina caregivers were sent to help Speck through a state Medicaid program called Health Homes that reaches out to people who are homeless, difficult to find and in very poor health.

“It services that 5 percent of the population that use 50 percent of our Medicaid dollars in the state,” said Rena Cleland, manager of Health Homes for Molina. “If we can find them, most often they want the help.”

As people worked to help Speck, who was in poor health, he shared the story of his military service.

Speck was born in Tonawanda, about 11 miles south of Niagara Falls, in upstate New York. He went to school in Lodi, Calif. He was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1973, after the draft had ended.

He enlisted because he wanted to be a military man, Speck said, and was looking for a way to support his family after his first child was born. Plus, he wasn’t too good in school, he added

Speck went to basic training for 13 weeks. He wanted to be on active duty, but the Marine Corps told him no because he had a child. He was put into the reserves instead. He had been with the Marines for about three years when he stopped showing up for duty in the reserves, he recalled.

For that reason, Speck believed he had been dishonorably discharged. The Marine Corps might have sent him paperwork about his military service. He doesn’t remember. Anyway, he picked up and started moving around.

He carried that belief of a dishonorable discharge in the ensuing decades. He moved to Whatcom County in 2005. He worked a number of jobs. Then his health problems mounted, starting in 2007 — hepatitis C (from past drug use or the immunization shots he received from the military), liver cancer, a heart attack, peripheral artery disease. He couldn’t work. His trailer in Sumas burned down.

As he sought help, Speck thought he couldn’t get veterans benefits.

Then Gary Dolin, case manager with Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, discovered that wasn’t true. Speck had an honorable discharge and, what’s more, a good conduct award, according to his discharge form.

“It was an amazing experience for him. It totally reshaped and changed his perception of himself, ” said Solenberger, who had worked closely with Speck.

His caregivers organized a ceremony where he was presented with his discharge form in a frame by Lt. Col. Mike Kirkelie, a retired Army chaplain who thanked him for his service to his country.

His son Robert Speck, 29, was there.

“I was proud of him,” Speck’s son said. “It means so much to him. He’s come a long, long ways.”

Solenberger added: “He’s been given a chance to believe in himself.”

Clifford Speck said, simply, that it felt good knowing that his discharge had been honorable, after spending so long thinking he’d done something wrong.

He’s proud now. He feels healthier these days, he said. He’s doing what he should to stay that way.

“Things are looking better as far as my health,” Speck said, “But I’m still at that critical stage.”

On this day in October, Speck stood outside the front door of the apartment he moved into after spending some months in the shed. (Like most Opportunity Council clients getting subsidized housing, he’s required to pay at least 30 percent of his income to his rent, which also is paid for with federal dollars via the tenant-based rental assistance program.)

“His driving force for obtaining housing was to be near his family,” Hortegas said, “and his grandchildren are an important reason he pushes ahead.”

Now, he’ll also be able to get veterans benefits.

A door down from him was Joan Martin, site manager for Cottonwood Apartments in Bellingham.

“He’s a good guy. It’s nice he’s being honored,” said Martin, adding that when she talks to Speck he doesn’t talk about his health. It’s always about whether everyone else around the complex is doing well.

Across the way from Speck was another neighbor, whom he waved to and said she helped him get things like dishes that he needed for his apartment. Love Inc. also provided him with some furniture.

One of his three visiting grandchildren, 4-year-old Hayley Joyner-Speck, got his attention to show him something she’d been working on.

“That’s my girl,” he said to her.

It’s quiet in the apartment complex, Speck said. He likes it.

“Every day’s an improvement as far as I’m concerned,” Speck said. “A roof over my head and God loves me, I don’t need much more.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Housing help

The Whatcom Homeless Service Center coordinates many of the housing services in Whatcom County, collaborating with a number of organizations to do so.

Learn more by going to its website at whatcomhsc.org or by calling 360-255-2091.