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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shelter leaders question tent city proposal

After eating a free dinner at the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Spokane, a group of homeless men and women gather behind the church Monday evening. They all said they support the proposed homeless tent city. As of now, they said, they spend their nights sleeping under local bridges and freeway viaducts. (Colin Mulvany)
Kaitlin Gillespie The Spokesman-Review

Despite a Spokane couple’s proposal to create a safe, family-friendly tent city downtown, some shelter directors doubt such an encampment is the solution for combating homelessness.

Ralph “Doc” Harvey and his wife, Becky, applied for a permit last week to create a long-term tent city, large enough to fit 50 people, under Interstate 90 off South Browne Street. The couple said there would be a list of rules for the camp, including no alcohol, drugs or sex offenders.

Such a facility is illegal by city law; the transient shelter ordinance allows a tent city to exist for just 14 days. It’s also illegal by state law, which prohibits camping on the Department of Transportation-owned land.

Questions about the safety and effectiveness of such a model also hang over the proposal, but shelter directors say the tent city likely would attract residents because many homeless people refuse to use shelters and transitional housing.

“A surprising number of families” don’t use shelters, said Steven LaPointe with the Salvation Army. “We can only assume that they are utilizing their own resources. Our primary concern is that they’re in a safe place.”

LaPointe is also the director of the Homeless Families Coordinated Assessment Initiative, a program that matches homeless families with services that fit their needs, whether through the Salvation Army or another program. Since the initiative launched in October, the waiting list for homeless families to enter a shelter has decreased to 16 from 52.

Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, said tent cities usually are attractive to people who don’t want to follow the rules of a homeless shelter.

Catholic Charities operates several homeless shelters and low-income housing facilities in the Spokane area, including the House of Charity. That shelter turns away a handful of people every night, unless the temperature is below 15 degrees, McCann said. But, he said, many of the homeless people on the streets of Spokane are there because they want to be.

McCann said he doubts the rules the Harveys have recommended could be upheld. He said many of the homeless people in the community are “very, very fragile individuals” who could become “easy prey for people with bad intentions.”

Marilee Roloff, president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, said her concern regarding tent cities is teenagers.

Roloff founded the Crosswalk teen shelter, which houses from 5 to 18 teenagers a night. The facility never turns teens away, she said, regardless of how full it is.

“I’m very concerned about the safety of kids in a tent city,” Roloff said. “I would worry about the dangerous people, and about drugs and alcohol, and parties and sex. Clearly, it’s much safer for kids to be in a shelter or at home.”

Ralph Harvey agrees that many of the people on the streets don’t want to be in homeless shelters, but some of them have good reasons, he said. Harvey, for example, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the National Guard. Being outside where he can see everything is more comfortable for him, he said.

Harvey also said lack of space and separation of families are reasons to stay in a tent city rather than a shelter.

If a tent city is installed in Spokane anytime soon, Catholic Charities would provide some services as support for the homeless people who would live there, McCann said.

But the nonprofit’s ultimate goal would be to shut it down, he said. “Even if they were to create the Taj Mahal of tent cities, we’d work to shut it down.”