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News / Clark County News

Street family gains support network, safety: ‘We all look out for each other’

Homeless encampment group assist and share

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:04am
9 Photos
Cheri Rhodes, gray beanie, joins Mike Moises, white glasses, and other members of their street family as a small fire provides a little warmth in the pouring rain at their downtown Vancouver encampment on a recent afternoon.
Cheri Rhodes, gray beanie, joins Mike Moises, white glasses, and other members of their street family as a small fire provides a little warmth in the pouring rain at their downtown Vancouver encampment on a recent afternoon. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Mike Moises sat around a fire with his family. They sank forks into a round, white cake.

After taking a bite of the donated dessert, Moises rose to reposition a stick holding up the tarp sheltering his family from the rain. It’s not the first family he’s had, and it may not be the last.

Somewhere along the way, Moises — aka Mushroom Mike — lost touch with most of his biological family. He’s been in and out of prison for decades, falling into homelessness after every release. Each time, he connected with a new “street family.”

A street family is a group of people who forge strong bonds while experiencing homelessness together. Fostering such close ties may be essential for survival on the street. But they can also bind, making the transition to housing difficult.

625: The number of unsheltered homeless people in Clark County in 2022, according to Council for the Homeless.

$1,715: Clark County’s median rent in January 2024, according to Zumper.com

“This is the only family I got,” Moises said. “I don’t really have anyone anymore.”

Moises’ street family is an eclectic group of people of all ages who ended up in a cluster of tents near the Share House, a men’s shelter in downtown Vancouver. The group includes his friend, Sandi Jernstrom, who inhabits a nearby tent.

“Being close to people out here — that’s the only way you can survive,” Jernstrom said.

Found family

Jernstrom has been homeless on and off around the Pacific Northwest for many years.

Throughout her life, she’s gone by many names. Now, everyone just calls her mom.

Her biological daughter lives in the same encampment. Jernstrom has picked up some bonus children and other family members along the way.

If you’re within earshot of the camp, you can hear people calling out for their mom, dad, son, daughter, sister, aunt and uncle.

Jernstrom and Cheri Rhodes refer to each other as sisters. They have been best friends for more than three decades, sticking with each other through the best of times and the worst.

A few years ago, Jernstrom was living in housing when she got a call from Rhodes.

“She goes, ‘I lost the house. I have to move out of the house. I have the boys. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going camping, and I need you now.’ ”

Jernstrom dropped everything and rushed to her. Now, the two live at the Share encampment together, looking after each other and their pets.

“It’s nice to have friends out here … people you can trust, turn to,” Rhodes said.

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The family acts as a support network in camps where people have nothing other than what fits in their camp space. They often lose those possessions. The city clears camps every few months, when officials perceive they’ve become health hazards.

The city gives more than a week’s notice before each cleanup, but many people don’t — or can’t — move their camps in time.

So street family members share what they have — whether it’s toilet paper, cigarettes, blankets, overdose reversal medication, food or a spot in a tent for the night.

“We all look out for each other. It could be day or night,” Jernstrom said. “Even if we’re asleep, the kids can just reach in (the tent) and grab sandwiches, snacks or whatever. We just make sure everyone is taken care of.”

Fuzzy family

Animals are integral parts of people’s street families. Many pets walk alongside those in chronic homelessness and offer unconditional love to people feeling left behind by their own kind.

“Animals are everything out here,” Jernstrom said while clutching her two dogs, Firestone and Bolt.

In the relentless rain, most items in the camp are muddy and stained, but the sweaters the dogs wear are spotless. Keeping the animals warm and safe during January’s cold snap was the camp’s biggest priority.

The dogs, cats and ferrets here keep their humans company during some of the hardest times in their lives. No one leaves their animals alone in the camp, Jernstrom said. If someone needs to leave a pet, a family member always watches it.

Kiki — a little black cat wearing a purple collar with a bell — is the animal most often looked after by the family.

“My cat is my everything. My cat is almost like my kid, really. My life sort of revolves around her,” said Melissa Rayne as she sat close to Jernstrom inside her tent.

As a result of these tight bonds, pet owners in the camp say they won’t go into housing or shelter if they can’t bring their animals with them.

“They’re part of the family. They give us love,” said Rhodes, as she popped open the back of her minivan to display two small dogs in sweaters, two ferrets and a cat lying leisurely over the dashboard.

Suddenly quiet

Jernstrom and her dogs may be leaving her found family soon. After months of waiting for a Section 8 housing voucher, she finally secured one.

“I hate the fact that I’m going into housing, but I need to. My stomach infection is back. I’m not doing well,” Jernstrom said.

Sunny Wonder, deputy director for Council for the Homeless, said leaving a street family can be an emotional and difficult experience.

“There is a community with folks that are outside, and the thought process of ‘Do I deserve this anymore than any of my friends that are unhoused that are outside?’ That’s a really big piece as well,” she said.

Despite what many might think, the first night in housing after years of living outside can be harrowing.

“Suddenly, it’s super quiet,” Wonder said. “There’s no other voices around. You have to work through something that feels really overwhelming.”

Some people invite their street family into their new homes, but Wonder has heard of people facing potential eviction because they’ve let people who need a place to stay for the night sleep over.

Joseph, who didn’t want his last name used for fear he’d get in trouble with his housing managers, said he had been reprimanded for letting in a large group of his friends for prolonged periods.

“They’re my friends. … It’s hard with not seeing them,” he said.

The transition

Sabrina Thayer knows how difficult it can be to leave a found family to move into housing. She had been homeless with her husband for about a year when the pandemic hit. Living on the street was an incredibly lonely time for them, but moving into Vancouver’s first Safe Stay transitional shelter, The Outpost, changed that.

She found family among the people living there, she said. So when she received the keys to her tiny home months later, it was bittersweet.

“At first, it is difficult because you’re used to the routine and all the noise. When you go to your own place, it’s not the same. It’s just silence,” she said.

Unless you’ve experienced the bonds someone can form while homeless, it’s hard to understand that transition, she said.

For the first three weeks in housing, Thayer couldn’t stand the silence. She’d visit her old friends at The Outpost to hear their voices again. But she knew she’d have to face the quiet eventually.

Although she still keeps in contact with her found family, Thayer became more involved in the community to stay social. She attends community events for homeless people and gives them advice on coping with the shift into housing.

“You just gotta take baby steps,” she said. “You’ll meet new friends, but you can still go back to your family.”

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.