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Disabled woman homeless for years in Sequim

While the snow posed an inconvenience for some on the North Olympic Peninsula last week, it made a bad situation even worse for Beverly Bennett.

Bennett, of Sequim, is disabled and homeless. She suffers from a medical condition unfamiliar to the general population: multiple chemical sensitivity.

Because she's mostly unable to use her legs, she spends her days reclined in the back of her hatchback car with her service dog Annabelle.

Life hasn't always been like this for Bennett. Chemical sensitivities often increase after exposure to a "toxic event."

"For me, it was a house fire. I lived in a beautiful home on Lost Mountain, but it burned down with me in it," said Bennett.

It's not clear what happens inside the body that causes suddenly adverse reactions to things such as perfume, paint, carpeting, exhaust or cigarette smoke.

Persons affected by the condition develop different symptoms, making it a difficult condition to treat or accommodate according to requirements of federal law.

"Many people think this disability is mental in nature," said Bennie Howard, former director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office of disability policy.

"This understanding makes it so those suffering from the condition are battling their reactions as well as the ignorance of those in the community. This is a real condition affecting a significant percentage of the population."

Bennett's diagnosing physician, Dr. Joseph Morgan with the Bay Clinic in Coos Bay, Ore., said Bennett experiences "recurrent episodes of intestinal hemorrhage when exposed to fumes of chemicals."

Bennett is trying to recover from an anaphylactic episode in 2007 that left her without the full use of her legs. She has reduced muscle ability, intestinal problems and nervous system failures.

Howard said Bennett is one of a handful of chemically sensitive people in the state living in their cars to escape plastics, carpets and chemicals.

As long as Bennett is careful about what enters her vehicle and where her vehicle is parked, it provides a safe haven.



All one step away

Bennett said her condition has reaffirmed her belief that everyone is one step away from being homeless.

"I was a marketing and public relations professional. I trained service dogs and was president of a nonprofit in Florida," she said

"A lot of people choose to be homeless. I've become someone I never thought I would be because of this condition - and I'm afraid of things getting worse."

Bennett has spent the past few years moving from one camp spot to another, avoiding the city's fumes while trying to find permanent housing.

Volunteers with Calvary Chapel church in Sequim learned of her problem and set her up in a rural backyard.



Sanctuary from fumes

What Bennett needs, according to Morgan and Howard, is a house outside the city, where no chemical fumes are present.

"It would be impossible for her to enter a long-term care facility or adult foster home setting because of the unavoidable environmental exposures which would result," said Morgan.

That poses a problem for Bennett. She needs help, but recognizes she is a difficult person to accommodate.

"Local nonprofits have options for the homeless but not someone with my condition," she said after she had explored her options.

"My hope is to be placed in a permanent home through HUD or the Housing Authority of Clallam County."

Bennett has been working with HUD and the Housing Authority for years, with many attempts at obtaining a residence falling through. She has filed a claim against the Housing Authority with HUD.

According to Bennett, her disability is what is stopping the organization from funding her placement into permanent housing.

John Kugler, the group's attorney, said the group has made two vouchers available for her since she last was under the auspices of the Housing Authority.

"She had been receiving Housing Authority housing for years, but things happened with the property owner, I believe, to no longer allow her tenancy," said Kugler.Housing Authorities assign vouchers to people who qualify for assistance. The house Bennett requested under her first voucher was too expensive for her voucher, according to Kugler.

He said Bennett did not accept the second voucher because for her to do so could jeopardize her claim against the Housing Authority.

Bennett said she cannot live in just any house and that the second voucher does not handle her disability.

"It's a difficult disability. Believe me, I know," she said, saying her claim is based on the authority not handling her special needs correctly.

Whether her claim is successful or if the two parties can work out a solution with the second voucher is still to be seen.

Until then, Bennett is keeping her head up.

"I can still breathe. The weather will soon get nicer. What else can I ask for?" she said.



To help Beverly Bennett financially, go to any Western Union Bank and ask to donate to the Beverly A. Bennett Donation Fund. To help with day-to-day needs, contact Mike Buchanan at Calvary Chapel, 683-5995.



Reach Evan McLean at

emclean@sequimgazette.com.

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