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News / Clark County News

‘Housing is a life changer’: Vancouver couple who spent years living homeless find fresh start, hope in new home

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: October 11, 2023, 6:04am
5 Photos
Katie Vongthongthip, left, and Chance Newbill talk in the kitchen in their new apartment.
Katie Vongthongthip, left, and Chance Newbill talk in the kitchen in their new apartment. Vongthongthip has a love for cooking and is excited to have her own kitchen, (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The first morning waking up in their new apartment, Chance Newbill turned to his fiance, Katie Vongthongthip, and told her to soak in the silence.

For nearly a year, Newbill would experience nightmares and wake up every morning followed by a panic attack — a by-product of living homeless and being incarcerated.

But in early September, about 24 hours after receiving the first set of house keys the couple has ever owned together, Newbill woke up without anxiety and no bags under his eyes.

“Every day when we wake up here it doesn’t feel real,” Vongthongthip said. “It’s just a fairy tale.”

‘We fought through it all together”

Vongthongthip, 30, and Newbill, 34, have shared two life-changing moments: when they recovered from substances together and when they got the keys to their first apartment.

The two met on Facebook in 2017. Newbill was at a hospital healing from a recent car accident, while Vongthongthip was across town in another hospital being treated for a health condition.

The two quickly hit it off, and they were soon inseparable.

Before meeting, Vongthongthip and Newbill experienced homelessness separately. After they met, they became a unit. The couple slept on sidewalks, in tents, and in various vehicles.

They said they didn’t mind their circumstances as long as they were together.

When Vongthongthip briefly lived with her parents, Newbill would pitch a tent near her family’s property line. “We just wanted to be close to each other,” he recalled.

About six months into their relationship, Vongthongthip began to lose her eyesight. It worsened throughout the years, and she mainly relied on Newbill as a guide.

“I always joke that I’m the eyes of the operation and she’s the brains,” said Newbill, who proposed to Vongthongthip about four years ago. “Together we make a good team.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of years of living homeless, the couple were resilient, overcoming obstacles and accomplishing what can seem impossible — recovering from opioid addictions while unhoused.

“We fought through all of it together, the ups and downs of life,” said Newbill. “It seems like life gives people lots of restart buttons.”

Most significantly, the couple fought for housing together. Vongthongthip and Newbill said they believe manifestation played a role in them securing housing.

Last winter, their van broke down and the couple was afraid they would freeze to death without the source of heat their Honda Odyssey gave them. But Vongthongthip and Newbill held onto hope.

“I told her we’re going to get a place before Christmas,” said Newbill. “We were so worried, but I just focused my mind and kept saying: ‘It’s going to happen, and we’re getting into Hope Village before Christmas.’ ”

A few days before Dec. 25, the couple got the call that there was a pallet shelter available for them at the city of Vancouver’s second Safe Stay Community, Hope Village.

The couple lived in the community for about nine months. While living in their tiny home, the couple would say aloud their aspirations for a more permanent housing situation, sometimes writing it down.

“We believe you (can) manifest good things if you just keep saying it will happen and putting steps toward your goals and breathing it into existence,” said Newbill.

But their housing journey wasn’t all credited to the universe. Hard work and determination played a key role in their success.

Vongthongthip worked with housing case workers for several years to secure permanent housing. She found there was little to no movement in the progress and that there was always some type of confusion or miscommunication that would hiccup the couple’s advancement.

So she decided to be her own housing advocate.

Vongthongthip went to the Vancouver Housing Authority in person consistently to fill out applications and check up on her housing status.

“I figured I’d cut the middle man out and do it all by myself. It made a huge difference to show up there and show my face and ask them for help,” Vongthongthip said. “I was getting it done and proving that I was committed to getting housing.”

The day the couple received the call that they were approved for a Section 8 housing voucher and would soon have their own apartment is “indescribable,” said Vongthongthip.

“Housing is the golden ticket,” she said. “It’s life changing to have the consistency of knowing where you’re going to wake up and where you are going to sleep that night.”

Changing the narrative

Now that they are on the other side of houselessness, Vongthongthip and Newbill hope to change the narrative around the homeless population.

“We all affect people, whether we know it or not. It can be negative or positive,” said Newbill. “It’s just the little things you don’t even think about that can impact someone.”

Whenever they can, the couple stops and strikes up a conversation with people living unsheltered and try to help fulfill their needs to the best of their abilities by giving away food, or other necessities. Newbill once took the sweatshirt off his back to give to an unhoused man during a cold chill.

“It’s a really good high to do those good things,” said Newbill. “It’s way better than any dope I’ve ever done.”

Vongthongthip and Newbill said they don’t assist people for the recognition but rather because they remember the helping hands they got when homeless. The moments where someone showed them a sliver of humanity was monumental when they think back to living outside.

Like when Vongthongthip was holding a sign asking for spare change, a group of people kicked dirt and some barked at her.

But an hour later, someone gave the couple $20, despite them just asking for change.

Or when they would make themselves a bed on the concrete; people would step over them, some making snide remarks. But then somebody would come up and ask how they were doing.

They remember the community members who gave them blankets in the winter, the car dealership owners who would vouch for them or the pastor who let the couple sleep at the church.

“Sometimes there are times when it all makes you want to say ‘eff’ people,’ but then something happens an hour later that makes you want to cry and it just restores your faith in humanity,” said Newbill.

‘Housing is a life changer’

As soon as Vongthongthip and Newbill opened their apartment door, their 1-year-old dog, Nova, bee-lined to the large window in their living room.

The pit bull and husky mix perched her front paws on the windowsill, while her hind legs gained leverage on a small workout trampoline beneath her. She pressed her wet nose to the glass, peering at the courtyard below.

“This is her favorite thing to do,” said Newbill. “She loves looking down at the yard.”

The couple said that housing has made all the difference in pursuing their dreams.

While at Hope Village, Vongthongthip learned how to use a walking cane and connected with other resources for people who have vision impairment.

Now that she’s in a more permanent location, she said she is even more motivated to pursue her long-term goals. She will attend a school in Seattle soon that will teach her more skills while living blind and work toward getting a guide dog.

“Since being in housing, my life is just advancing one step higher and higher each time,” said Vongthongthip.

Newbill is in the process of sorting out his Social Security applications.

“How are people supposed to improve, better themselves when they’re living in (a) car?” he said. “Once you don’t have to focus on trying to survive and eat and deal with things that consume your every minute (when homeless) like meeting your basic needs, you have nothing but free time to do the things you’ve always dreamed of doing.”

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Thinking back to their time living on the streets, the couple said it was nearly impossible to picture themselves housed.

When they lay in a makeshift bed behind a church or in their van, the couple would try to let their minds wander to their future apartment — what would it look like? Would there be enough room for their dog to run around?

Now, they still have trouble processing that they are finally home. But they are excited for what the future holds for them.

“This is just the start line for us,” said Vongthongthip. “This is the beginning of our brand new life.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

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.