Courtney Ligman starts each day by taking her dog, Angel, for a long walk in the park. She eats breakfast, showers and heads to work.
It sounds like a typical routine for a working adult. But for Ligman, a 36-year-old resident of The Outpost, Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community in the city’s North Image neighborhood, each activity presents a new challenge.
“Everything takes a lot longer. It’s not like I can just get up and get things done in a reasonable amount of time,” Ligman said.
Ligman lives in one of The Outpost’s pallet shelters in a community of about 25 people. After living outside on and off for three years, The Outpost saved her life, she said. Its nonprofit operator, Outsiders Inn, provides 24/7 on-site staff that connects residents with resources and services.
“If you have a problem, if you need to talk, if you’re depressed or feeling like doing something stupid, there’s always somebody that can help you,” Ligman said.
But the city’s Safe Stays aren’t built for permanence.
Her small shelter, though heated, still gets cold when temperatures drop below freezing. The communal kitchen space means she often has to wait in line to cook.
Three porta-potties shared by residents aren’t ideal for her chronic bladder condition. She needs medical procedures to treat the condition, but she’s putting them off because she doesn’t have access to a comfortable bathroom. As a result, she’s in constant pain.
There are no showers on-site, so she showers at the nearby YMCA and walks or drives back to The Outpost. “It was great in the summer, but when the weather’s like this, to get out of the shower and then be in the freezing cold – it sucks,” she said.
‘Doing the right thing’
After nearly a year at The Outpost, Ligman is ready to move on. She’s “doing the right thing,” she said – earning money, taking classes, staying clean and sober – but she still can’t find housing.
She got a job in October at Share’s Talkin’ Trash program, which employs people with former or current homelessness experience. Ligman works four days per week picking up garbage, old furniture, discarded needles, bottles of urine and other items at abandoned campsites.
Her boss at Talkin’ Trash told her about a scholarship through WorkSource for a certified nursing assistant program. She applied for the scholarship and got it.
“That’s a big honor, because that’s something I can’t really afford,” Ligman said. “I was a caregiver for a lot of years, so I’d like to get back into it, and being a CNA would give me a higher pay.”
She hoped the extra income from Talkin’ Trash would give her a better shot at getting an apartment, but she’s finding the opposite to be true. When she applied for The Meridian, a supportive housing complex in Vancouver, her case manager told her that her insurance disqualified her.
“I don’t know if it’s because my income is too much, because I’m also on Social Security. So even though they had a referral put in for me there, I can’t get in there,” Ligman said.
She’s been on waitlists for low-income apartments and the federal Housing Choice Voucher program for years. When she calls Council for the Homeless or the Vancouver Housing Authority to check on her applications, she said she’s typically on hold for hours.
“They’re doing the best they can, but they realize that they’re limited with what they can do, too. It frustrates them and it frustrates us,” she said.
Even with its day-to-day challenges, The Outpost is a step up from Ligman’s last home, a tent where she lived with an abusive partner.
Ligman first became homeless in 2019. She and her then-boyfriend were renting a room at a trailer park. She thought her roommates were paying her portion of rent to their landlord, but she found out they had been keeping the money for themselves, she said.
She and her boyfriend were served with eviction papers. “It was like six days after my birthday, basically, and it was just like, ‘OK, you guys gotta move now.’ We didn’t really have much notice, we didn’t have enough money to go anywhere, and that’s when we bought a tent,” Ligman recalled.
Her Social Security disability benefits, which she’s received since age 19, had always been an income to fall back on, but it hasn’t increased proportionally with living costs, providing her with less than $1,000 per month.
“I never expected, having an income, that I wouldn’t at least be able to find a room to rent,” she said. “The people that live off of disability are the ones that get hit really hard. Because there is nowhere (to go), the waitlists are so long.”
They pitched their tent in a culvert outside the trailer park, and later moved to a spot on the Discovery Trail by Leverich Park.
There were some upsides to living in the woods. Ligman gets overwhelmed by crowds of people, so she appreciated the isolation. But she never felt safe.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh, this is kind of like camping,’ because it was summertime. And then winter hit. That’s when it was probably the hardest,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my dog, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Her abusive relationship made things even more difficult. Originally from California, Ligman didn’t have many connections in Vancouver apart from her boyfriend’s family and friends. Her disability caused her to be reliant on him for physical needs, too. She struggled with alcoholism and fell back into using methamphetamine while living with him.
“I had to rely basically on his family to have help with everything,” she said. “When you’re in an abusive relationship, it just gets bad. Your world gets small really quickly.”
She had a no-contact order between her and her boyfriend, but it wasn’t enforced while living outside.
Then she met Sheila Andrews and Jamie Spinelli, outreach workers who are now on Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team. Andrews and Spinelli visited Ligman’s tent several times over the course of a few months, building a relationship with her. They eventually got Ligman a spot at The Outpost and convinced her to give it a chance.
“It was probably like a good six months of them coming out,” Ligman said. “And then finally I was like, ‘All right, yeah. Let’s do it.’”
Moving to The Outpost was a huge decision for Ligman.
It provided an opportunity to get away from her partner, since the no-contact order meant he was legally unable to join her. The staff got her a case manager, a Washington license, substance use treatment and mental health services.
“They met me where I was,” Ligman said. “I came in like a massive alcoholic and meth addict. They sent me to detox and paid for it and everything.”
Ligman’s journey has been long and frustrating, but also rewarding. She’s learned to reach out to Council for the Homeless and the city’s HART staff for help, and wants others to know that there’s no shame in doing so.
“They have everybody for everything. If it’s a mental health crisis, if it’s a drug crisis, whatever it is. Because there’s a lot of people in crisis out there, and they do have somebody that can help you,” she said.
Her mental health and self-worth have also come a long way since getting to The Outpost. She found a faith community at Walk After Christ church in Portland that keeps her grounded. “I genuinely thank God for every possibility he has given me,” she said.
She’s excited to begin classes soon for the WorkSource certified nursing assistant program, which she hopes will help her get back on her feet.
“I came here pretty broken,” she said. “I’ve been able to find my independence again and prove to myself what I can and can’t do. Mainly what I can do. I can do a lot.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.