George Beard poses for a photo outside of the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington, on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

George Beard poses for a photo outside of the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington, on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

From sick to the streets: How an illness left a Stanwood man homeless

Medical bills wiped out George Beard’s savings. Left to heal in his car, he got sicker. Now, he’s desperate for housing. It could take years.

STANWOOD — It started with a painful, peeling skin rash and an irregular heartbeat.

While doctors tried to determine the cause, George Beard, 61, became too sick to work. He used vacation time to prolong his insurance coverage, but eventually lost his job as a Ford auto body technician, and later, his apartment.

“People may have an image of what homelessness looks like,” said Dennis Worsham, the director of the county health department, “but so many of us could be one emergency or unexpected change in circumstance away from being unable to afford housing.”

After Beard fainted in a grocery store, doctors found a rapidly spreading infection, blood clots and an enlarged heart artery the size of a baseball. In the span of a few months, Beard had abdominal surgery at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon and major artery replacement surgery at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

He blew through his savings, about $20,000, paying for medical bills and prescriptions. Altogether, doctors prescribed Beard eight medications. One cost $560 per bottle without insurance.

“I was just trying to get through,” he said. “The prescriptions were killing me.”

Now, Beard lives in a busted 2004 Pontiac Grand Am loaded with all of his belongings.

George Beard grabs something from his car while parked at the Stanwood Library on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Stanwood, Washington. While Beard used to park his car at the library to sleep at night, the city recently put up signs indicating overnight parking is not allowed. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

George Beard grabs something from his car while parked at the Stanwood Library on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Stanwood, Washington. While Beard used to park his car at the library to sleep at night, the city recently put up signs indicating overnight parking is not allowed. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Beard is one of more than 1,100 Snohomish County residents without permanent housing. It’s unclear how many others in the county have become homeless due to their health conditions and the rising costs of health care. In 2019, the human services department stopped keeping track of the reasons for homelessness in the county.

“We found the reasons didn’t change much from year to year,” Mohamed Bughrara, a spokesperson for the county’s human services department, wrote in an email.

In Snohomish County, 47.9% of renters — a higher percentage than the state and national average — spent more than 30% of their income on rent in 2023. And in a survey of about 1,250 Snohomish County residents published last year, one-third said they didn’t have affordable health insurance. Most who couldn’t work said it was due to disability.

“There’s no denying that challenges related to housing and shelter, behavioral health care and physical health care have grown across our region,” Bughrara said. “Particularly for the most vulnerable communities.”

‘Like my insides were torn out’

When Providence discharged Beard after his heart surgery, he had to use the Pontiac as a recovery room. Across the county, 206 unhoused people are living in their cars, accoring to this year’s annual Point-in-Time count.

“I spent two months laid up in the car almost dead, with no one to take care of me,” Beard said. “It felt like my insides were torn out. Looking back, I rather would have died.”

Most days, Beard hangs out at the Stanwood Public Library, which has a kind staff, public restroom and community resource center across the street. For over a year, he slept in his Pontiac in the library parking lot.

“The cops will mess with you,” he said. “They usually leave me alone when they see the scars and stitches.”

George Beard lifts his shirt to show a massive scar from an abdominal surgery he had a few years ago on Thursday, May 23, 2024, while sitting outside the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington. Between the abdominal surgery and a leg surgery around the same time, Beard’s health and medical bills have left him living out of his car, unable to work. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

George Beard lifts his shirt to show a massive scar from an abdominal surgery he had a few years ago on Thursday, May 23, 2024, while sitting outside the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington. Between the abdominal surgery and a leg surgery around the same time, Beard’s health and medical bills have left him living out of his car, unable to work. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Since Beard doesn’t have regular access to showers, he has contracted multiple post-surgery infections that landed him back in the hospital.

“Having a safe place to heal or care for yourself long-term is crucial for people with health complications,” said Worsham, the health department director. “You may need to get and use medications, do physical therapy exercises, make diet changes, schedule and get to follow-up appointments or treatments, or rest and avoid straining your body. When you are experiencing homelessness, all of these become more challenging.”

A few months ago, a library patron noticed Beard left a blood trail in the library and called 911. Doctors at Skagit Valley Hospital found Beard’s legs were dry and cracked, with blood seeping out like sap, from sitting too long in one position.

Beard dreads the colder months the most, since it’s near impossible to stay warm in the Pontiac overnight. This past winter, he said he spent two days in the hospital with “frozen feet.”

Each month, the state sends Beard gas vouchers, $450 for his disability and $290 in food stamps — meaning he lives on about $10 a day for food. Every Wednesday and Saturday, he walks a couple blocks to the food bank. The line is about three hours long.

‘Urgent, bold action’

About a year ago, Beard met Stuart Heady, whose wife works at the Stanwood Library. Heady would bring Beard breakfast burritos in the morning, and they would chat for hours. Heady has become Beard’s biggest advocate — signing him up for Medicaid, calling 211 to get him connected to his resource navigator, helping him go through piles of government paperwork.

“I would hope with the medical risk he’s at, he would be a higher priority,” said Heady.

After Beard’s latest stint at the hospital, a resource navigator brought a briefcase full of papers to the library for him to sign, and assessed his medical history. Beard said he is on every housing list in the region.

But “very few” housing spots are available for Beard, even with his medical condition, said Lori Morgan, a resource navigator for Arlington, Marysville and Stanwood. She said it could be a while — maybe years — before Beard finds housing.

“I really have no answer for (how long it will be),” she said.

To help solve homelessness, Snohomish County would need 67,585 more affordable housing units by 2044, according to county estimates. And housing would need to be built at more than twice the current rate.

Last year, County Executive Dave Somers said he was taking “urgent, bold action” to expand emergency housing and behavioral health services. The county plans to spend $93 million to build 700 new affordable housing units over the next five years. This includes two former motels turned “emergency bridge” shelters, called New Start Centers, set to open next year with a total of 150 units.

For Heady, the solutions aren’t coming quick enough. He’s frustrated with the local 211 system, and said there’s “too much procedure, and too many people with too little authority to actually solve problems.”

Heady and Beard said they’ve called 211 and waited several hours to talk to a navigator.

North Sound 211 serves Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. Amanda Etchy, the chapter’s director, said the agency was understaffed when it took on Skagit County services in February. That month, the average wait time for calls was over 23 minutes. The standard for 211 is to have all calls answered within seven minutes.

Staffing is up now, Etchy said.

“Our wait times will be decreasing to even less than three minutes very soon,” she said.

In the first three months of this year, North Sound 211 navigators provided housing and shelter resources 7,574 times. Across the state, Snohomish County has the highest rates of housing and shelter requests.

“The main barrier,” Etchy said, “is that clients might have already exhausted all available resources in the community.”

‘I’ll already be dead’

The New Start Centers could be an option for Beard, Morgan said. The centers were supposed to open last fall, but methamphetamine contamination delayed the project.

At low-barrier housing across the county, meth contamination has displaced residents for months and cost millions to remediate. Snohomish County officials have since debated how to best address the problem.

County Democrats and the health department say being unhoused is more of a health risk than meth contamination exposure. They want to prevent evacuation for drug cleanup when possible. County Republicans, however, are set on preventing drug use and contamination in public housing.

For Beard, it’s not an issue.

“The only thing I wouldn’t take is something with black mold,” he said.

Heady echoed Beard.

“Is homelessness a greater health risk?” he asked. “Yes, if waiting endlessly for relief causes someone, who is at a health risk already, to die sitting in a car waiting for promised help that is delayed and delayed.”

One of two new “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” signs is posted in the parking lot at the Stanwood Library on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Stanwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

One of two new “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” signs is posted in the parking lot at the Stanwood Library on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Stanwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Last week, Beard woke up to two freshly minted signs at the Stanwood library: “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING.” The city posted the signs in response to resident complaints, city spokesperson Nicole Strachila said. Beard alone wasn’t a problem, but several other unhoused people began sleeping in the lot.

“In the event that an individual refuses to leave the library parking lot during overnight hours, officers would issue a no trespass warning notice,” Strachila said.

Beard is now sleeping anywhere he can find. Meanwhile, Heady has grown more frustrated on Beard’s behalf.

“It is interesting how easy concerted action is when it involves the ‘move along’ instinct as opposed to actually addressing the problem,” Heady said after the signs went up.

It’s been about a month since Beard has heard from his assigned resource navigator, he said.

“By the time they get to me, I’ll already be dead,” Beard said. “I’m just waiting patiently for my turn.”

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