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Bob Peeler spends time on the streets visiting homeless people

Every week, Bob Peeler spends 10 to 12 hours on the streets—talking and sharing experiences with people who sleep under bridges, camp along the river and dive in dumpsters for food.

Bob Peeler, SNAP
Bob Peeler, Spokane Neighborhood Action Program

Their life stories could be ours,” said Bob, family development specialist with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP) homeless program.  “I’ve talked to people who had the dream—the house, the RV, the car—but because of circumstances beyond their control, they lost it all.”

The stories of men, women and youth are familiar to Bob.  He empathize not only from working 28 years as a homeless advocate, but also because he has walked in their shoes.  During his junior year in high school, Bob was on the streets off and on after experiencing conflict and trouble at home.

Although he continued to attend classes at Spokane’s North Central High School, he sometimes had no idea where he would eat dinner or sleep at night.

During warmer months, he spent evenings in parks. Often he stayed with friends and relatives. A few teachers, school counselors and other adults were aware of his problems, he said.  They offered him food, clothing and encouragement until he was able to rent an apartment with a friend.

“People were supportive and they stuck with me through that,” he said. “They made me realize that with help and resources, people can pull themselves out.”

The encouragement and assistance he received in high school motivated him to change the course of his life. It shaped his commitment to service and social justice, as well as his conviction that “everyone has value.”

After graduating from North Central, Bob joined the Army and served two years in Germany. While overseas, one of his high school teachers visited him at the army base. Bob returned to Spokane and studied human services at Spokane Falls Community College and Fort Wright College.

In 1980, he started a job with SNAP, a nonprofit community action agency that has helped homeless and low-income families, children and seniors since 1966. He said the organization is the largest private human services agency in Spokane County. It serves the poor and vulnerable by providing basic human needs, searching for long-term solutions to eliminate poverty and working as an advocate for those in need.

“It’s remarkable how hard low-income people have to work to put themselves back on their feet,” said Bob, describing his work with clients. “Anyone who is facing poverty can become homeless at any time.”

He and others at SNAP work as a team to address needs of people in crisis, he said. They do this through 45 city- and county-wide programs that include emergency shelters, transitional housing, community voice mail, day care for homeless children and other services that help people discover stability and self-sufficiency.

“Much is role modeling and listening to people,” Bob said. “We need to really listen to what they want, find out their dreams and help them realize the dreams.”

There is no “typical” workday at SNAP. When he’s not in the office talking to clients, he’s handling emergencies—a family of five living in their car, for instance, who need to find shelter for the winter.

Bob also goes to highway exits, parks or anywhere on the streets, spending time with people others have forgotten.

“Many folks don’t trust us yet, so you have to meet them where they are and earn their trust,” he said. “It takes time to do that.”

He works hard to treat people with dignity and respect, no matter their lot in life. When he visits a homeless camp, he makes a knocking sound as he would ring a doorbell before entering a person’s house.

Then he takes the time to sit down with people and hear their stories—their past, their troubles, their hopes for the future.

He also learns about their resilience and survival techniques.

By talking to people who live on the streets, Bob and others at SNAP learn that individuals in dire need often don’t know where to go for help. These street conversations and experiences often teach them how to better serve this vulnerable population.

In addition to addressing crises, Bob maintains relationships with those who receive SNAP’s services. It’s a matter of finding and designing programs and services to fit people’s needs.  The homeless and others who receive services help create the design, because having ownership increases their likelihood of success.

“We work on education because we don’t want them to be homeless again,” he said. “We want to enhance their quality of life.”

The workload at SNAP and other human services agencies has increased in recent months with the current economic crisis.  Donations are down yet the need continues to grow.

SNAP and other agencies see people who have never been homeless or received an eviction notice before, he said.

“They’re scared and they don’t know what to do,” he said.

Only 25 percent of those who turn to SNAP for help suffer from generation-to-generation poverty. Most experienced the sudden loss of a job, a disability, a divorce or some other major change that affected their ability to earn a living and pay the bills. Many are one or two paychecks away from homelessness, he said.

Although the work can be overwhelming, being part of a team “can bring us through the tough times,” he said. “Social workers often don’t see the result of their efforts.  We plant many seeds.”

SNAP works with various agencies including the Spokane Police Department, Community Health Association of Spokane, the Salvation Army and other shelters to reach out to the homeless.

SNAP is part of the Homeless Coalition that includes churches and organizations such as Volunteers of America and the Union Gospel Mission. Because there are limited resources, it’s essential that these groups work in partnership, he said.

In 2007, Bob and a team of social services providers helped relocate more than 200 people evicted from three downtown Spokane apartment buildings. The Commercial, the Otis and the New Madison were bought by corporations that wanted to renovate the buildings.

For that leadership, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers entered his actions in the Congressional Record in August and honored him at the dedication of Riverwalk Point II, a housing project for poor families.

“Even though I received the award, there were many others who worked as hard,” said Bob, who listed government leaders who regularly take the time to listen to the needs of the poor.

“Spokane is remarkable because it’s one of the smallest big cities that I’ve ever been in,” he added. “I don’t know of any other place where agencies and homeless people have access to those who are making decisions. It’s a place where people work together to find solutions.”

For information, call 456-7106.