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News / Clark County News

Once homeless, Vancouver couple find comfort, stability in tiny-home community

Sabrina and James Thayer had been living in motels, on the street

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: September 7, 2023, 6:07am
9 Photos
An assortment of wall hangings and Christmas decorations are seen in Sabrina and James Thayer's tiny home in Vancouver.
An assortment of wall hangings and Christmas decorations are seen in Sabrina and James Thayer's tiny home in Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s always Christmastime at Sabrina and James Thayer’s tiny house in Vancouver.

Their living room is packed with what must be over 100 decorations from candy cane-striped cat toys to a white Christmas tree gleaming with ornaments. Even their cats have Christmas-themed names: Eggnog and Mrs. Grinch.

It’s a cheerful home for a couple who have survived hard times. Around a year and a half ago, they were sleeping on the sidewalk, unsure of where the future would lead.

But after staying hopeful and receiving help from homeless organizations in the community, Sabrina and James Thayer — ages 49 and 56 — have lived for a year in what they hope is their forever home.

“We always talked about once we get into a place, we’re going to put up the tree, and it’s going to stay up,” Sabrina said.

The Christmas lovers hope they never have to take it down.

‘I did what I had to do’

Early in the summer of 2022, James stood by the road, holding up a sign asking people for money. He needed to get his family into a motel for the night, but he’d have to make around $80.

Sabrina stayed back with their pets — Eggnog and their tiny, whining dog with a crooked tail named Corkscrew.

When they couldn’t afford motel nights anymore, they slept in front of an AutoZone after it had closed and then in a cubby-corner by Super Supplement.

They were unused to such a life.

James and Sabrina both spent time growing up in Vancouver. James said he worked as a professional wrestler, called “Wild Avenger,” in Oregon for a short time before spending 18 years working in security. Sabrina was a stay-at-home mother.

After meeting on Myspace, they eventually married in the Clark County Courthouse in Vancouver in 2007.

They were renting a house in Centralia when the pandemic hit. Afraid their rent was about to skyrocket, they bought an RV and left to live by the ocean. But the RV was old and untowable, and no one would let them live on their property, they said.

They moved back to Vancouver and lived in motels for as long as they could. By April 2022, motel rates had gone up and they were left living on concrete.

For months, James would stand for hours holding a sign asking for money before heading to his shift at Minit Mart in the afternoon, working until around 10 p.m.

While holding up his sign, hoping to attract the attention of drivers, James would think of the people in his position he used to ignore and drive by.

“I did what I had to do, and it was tough. It was hard,” he said. “And here I was, years ago, making fun of the people that were out there doing it.”

Life on concrete

Life outside was hard on the couple. James has diabetes and is hearing-impaired. Sabrina has asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Yet, they refused to buy a tent. Every night, they’d sleep on the bare sidewalk.

Sabrina said she had seen other people living outside in tents be moved by police, and it wasn’t something she wanted to experience.

“It was like, ‘No, we’ll just lay on the sidewalk with our blankets and pillows and we’ll be fine’ because we had both of these,” she recalled, indicating to Corkscrew in a polka dot tutu on her lap, and Eggnog, who purred on their couch. They had only gotten Mrs. Grinch, a lanky tabby who skitters and bats Eggnog playfully, the week prior.

Another reason James said they never bought a tent: they didn’t want to allow themselves to get comfortable being homeless.

“When you’re in a tent, you feel safe, and you feel like you don’t have to go to a motel. You really don’t have to go out there and earn the money,” James said. “If I didn’t have to go out there, then we probably wouldn’t have gotten the help that we did.”

After months living unsheltered, they were discovered by a member of Columbia River Mental Health Service’s Mobile Health Team on a warm June day.

The outreach workers helped the couple secure a spot in Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community, The Outpost. A few weeks later, Sabrina and James made the 3-mile trek, carrying their animals and pushing shopping carts with their belongings, to what they call “the pods” at the Safe Stay.

A new family

When Sabrina first opened the door to her pod and saw two narrow beds, she felt instant relief. Living outside wasn’t just physically taxing — it was emotionally challenging. She felt ignored and uncared for by people passing her by.

“It frustrates me when people just don’t take the time and stop and ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ or, ‘Can I help?’ or, ‘Do you need anything?’ ” she said. “We never even got that when we were on the street at all.”

But when they arrived at The Outpost, they found family, the couple said.

Jamie Spinelli, the city of Vancouver’s homelessness response coordinator, said Sabrina was like “a mother hen to folks” in The Outpost.

“One of the things I love about the Thayers is just their heart for community,” Spinelli said.

When the Safe Stay marked its first year, the couple threw a party for the people who lived and worked at The Outpost, hanging some of their photos on the wall.

Oftentimes, people who have experienced homelessness can lose their community when they become housed, Spinelli said.

“Lack of community and connection to community can create barriers to stability when you’re in housing,” she said. “And so that’s why it was good to see that what I had hoped would occur in these spaces did in fact occur for them.”

‘Welcome Home!’

The Thayers lived at The Outpost for three months before a worker stopped them on their way to get a meal. He asked them if they wanted to move into one of the Vancouver Housing Authority’s tiny homes in Fruit Valley.

Sabrina thought the worker was joking.

But on Sept. 21, 2022, the couple received keys, complete with a “Welcome Home” key chain, to their first stable home since before the pandemic.

“It’s finally relief off our shoulders. No more motels. No more trying to go out, figure out what to do. We finally have a roof over our head, and now we can just relax and enjoy the time we have with everybody,” Sabrina said.

Nicholl Acosta-Alaspa, a member of Sea Mar Community Health Centers whom Sabrina said helped her at The Outpost, said it’s an amazing feeling to see clients who were once homeless move through the system and become housed.

“When you can pluck them off the street, and by the time you’re done loving and supporting and advocating — just walking alongside them and building those connections — and you see them successful, it is the most amazing thing,” she said.

The Thayers are proud of how far they’ve come. Newspaper clippings picturing them at The Outpost and an ad featuring them for Proposition 3’s affordable housing levy replacement hang on their refrigerator.

James still works a few odd jobs, and the couple receives Social Security and other benefits, which they’ll use to pay their tiny home’s rent. They plan on living out the rest of their days in their new home, surrounded by Christmas and their “kids” — Eggnog, Corkscrew and Mrs. Grinch.

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In their spare time, they find people on the street who were once in their position and show them they care, whether by trying to keep them hopeful by telling their own story or buying them what necessities they might need. It’s what they hope to do throughout their retirement years.

“The homeless people just want to feel like there are people out there that care for them because a lot of people don’t care for them, and they just want that extra touch or that extra love,” Sabrina said.

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.