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News / Clark County News

‘There was a miracle that happened there’: First graduates of downtown Vancouver Safe Stay celebrate milestone

Thanks to new stability, couple working to regain custody of sons

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 21, 2024, 6:05am
7 Photos
P.J. Leonard-Loera, 7, his mom Patricia Leonard, Anthony Leonard-Loera, 6, and dad Paul Loera play Pokemon Monopoly at Open House Ministries. Paul and Patricia are the first graduates from the downtown Vancouver Safe Stay shelter that opened in November 2023.
P.J. Leonard-Loera, 7, his mom Patricia Leonard, Anthony Leonard-Loera, 6, and dad Paul Loera play Pokemon Monopoly at Open House Ministries. Paul and Patricia are the first graduates from the downtown Vancouver Safe Stay shelter that opened in November 2023. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Two rambunctious boys squirmed and squealed while playing Monopoly with their mother and father, Patricia Leonard and Paul Loera, at their dinner table last week. Anthony and P.J. Leonard-Loera, 6 and 7, filled every second with chatter.

They are making up for lost time.

Moments like this, their parents said, are only possible because of 415 West, a Vancouver Safe Stay shelter that consists of 20 huts enclosed by a fence in downtown. The shelter opened in November. Leonard and Loera were the first from the shelter to graduate to other housing, a milestone 415 West celebrated with a March 11 ceremony.

Leonard, Loera and their children became homeless after being evicted in 2022. Child Protective Services then took custody of Leonard’s and Loera’s sons, a devastating blow to the already struggling family.

But when Leonard and Loera secured a spot at 415 West, their lives started to change. Now they live in housing offered by Open House Ministries. Slowly, they’re working on regaining custody of their boys. Leonard also hopes her 16-year-old son can move in with them soon.

“Everything that’s happened in the past three months, I would say, is because we moved into the Safe Stay on Nov. 27,” Leonard said.

The city’s decision to place a Safe Stay shelter downtown drew concerns from nearby residents and businesses. Residents also complained about the cost of the shelters; 415 West cost almost $1 million to create, according to city documents. Each of the city’s four Safe Stay shelter’s costs about $1 million a year to operate.

People debated whether that money would have been better spent elsewhere, such as affordable housing. Leonard and Loera say the Safe Stay was a necessary step for them before they could be housed and reunited with their boys.

“There was a miracle that happened there,” Loera said.

Losing housing, sons

In 2022, the family was evicted from Stevens Moorage RV Park Camp in Woodland. Then they lived in a broken-down trailer on the side of the road in Battle Ground and Ridgefield before police told them to leave.

Leonard’s 16-year-old son, Christopher Fox, left to live with family in California. Leonard, Loera and the two younger boys moved into a family shelter for a while. After that, they lived in a broken-down van.

Child Protective Services took the two younger boys on Aug. 1, 2023. Loera’s and Leonard’s hearts shattered.

“It became more depressing,” Leonard said. “We fell even harder into addiction, and we battled with that for a while until we got into the Safe Stay.”

For months, the couple lived in the homeless camp behind Vancouver City Hall. Just before 415 West opened, the city cleared the camp to make way for development there. Loera and Leonard stayed until the last minute and got onto the waitlist for 415 West.

The couple still felt bleak after entering the Safe Stay shelter. For over a month, they did not participate in activities or engage with staff.

Crystal Drake, a 415 West staff member, met Loera and Leonard in the field behind Vancouver City Hall in November. She recalled Leonard “looked like a scared animal” and Loera had a mean, defensive look on his face.

After outreach workers got the couple into the Safe Stay, they weren’t interested in receiving help, she said.

“They were not super-engaged at first,” Drake said.

She said she had to administer naloxone, an opioid reversal medication, to Loera two or three times.

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One night, Loera overdosed in his pallet shelter. Staff were going to kick the couple out, but decided to instead let them stay if they received detox treatment.

All the staff at Outsiders Inn, which operates 415 West, have experienced some form of homelessness or drug addiction in their lives, so they knew what it was like for Loera and Leonard.

The couple went through treatment. Both are now celebrating more than two months sober.

“It helps when you have people that have been there where you’re at,” Loera said. “You don’t feel so alone. … They’re there to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.”

Breaking the cycle

In the drug treatment program, Leonard and Loera found motivation to change. They want their boys back.

It was difficult to get to supervised visits with their children while living in a tent and battling addiction, Leonard and Loera said. Oftentimes, they were late, unable to let their children know about the delay while the boys would watch the door for their mom and dad.

Loera and Leonard know what it’s like to not have parents. Leonard’s mom struggled with addiction and her dad was in and out of prison most of her life. Loera grew up in foster care and bounced from home to home.

“It’s just time for me to break that cycle,” Loera said. “These kids, they deserve better. I deserve better.”

When Leonard and Loera arrived at 415 West, they noticed a drastic change, Loera said. Having stability and the ability to shower and clean their clothes made all the difference. They were able to keep their appointments with their attorneys and kids, they said.

“We were able to make a lot more progress, and it only happened because we were there,” Loera said. “If we weren’t, we would probably still be out there getting high, and we wouldn’t be getting our kids back.”

The couple’s faces reflected their change in attitude, Drake said.

“The tightness isn’t in his face, isn’t there anymore. The fear is out of her eyes,” Drake said. “I think that having people that work here that do have lived experienced makes a huge difference.”

A birthday to remember

Now, the couple lives in a small unit inside the nonprofit Open House Ministries’ transitional housing complex, just a few blocks away from 415 West. Leonard and Loera’s awards for parenting classes and sobriety hang on their wall.

“Your mom and dad came a long way to get here,” Leonard said as she made ramen for Anthony.

On Friday, P.J.’s birthday, the boys will have their first overnight stay with their parents in eight months. Anthony’s birthday is the next day.

“It’s kind of a good birthday present for them, you know?” Loera said.

Leonard and Loera have new goals now: a lifetime of sobriety, being loving parents, taking care of each other, having a home and building a foundation for their family.

“It’s always been my kids who have always been my strength to recover,” Leonard said. “My dad was always in and out of jail and my mom wasn’t around. … I don’t want it to be like that for them.”

Fox, Leonard’s son, said he is proud of her, despite the hard times. He hopes to move in with Leonard and Loera when they get permanent housing.

“We both know it’s a stepping stone, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Loera said.

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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.