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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Upcoming property sale forces CdA homeless to go elsewhere

Dawn Cooper smokes a cigarette Monday in front of her encampment off of Government Way in Coeur d’Alene. The property’s owner is preparing for development of the land where homeless people live year-round. (Kathy Plonka)

For the past year, a campsite under a blue tarp in the wooded area behind Coeur d’Alene’s Target store has been home for Dawn Cooper.

But on Monday morning, Cooper was packing up. She and her wife, Dawn Garvin, want to be off the site well in advance of police coming to clear the private property of trespassers. The two women were told they have to be gone by Wednesday.

“We don’t want to be here when they start arresting people,” said Cooper, a 40-year-old construction worker.

Cooper and Garvin aren’t sure where they’ll go next, a dilemma for many in one of North Idaho’s largest homeless camps.

Douglass Properties of Spokane, the landowner, has asked the city of Coeur d’Alene to dismantle the camp and evict trespassers. For the past three weeks, social service agencies and local churches have been scrambling to find other options for the camp’s residents.

“Part of our issue is that there aren’t places for them to go,” said Gar Mickelson, a pastor who runs Kaleidoscope Community Services, a faith-based nonprofit serving low-income people.

Volunteers from local churches will arrive with pickups and trailers early Wednesday to help people move out of the camp. By that time, Mickelson hopes to have permission from the Hayden City Council to provide temporary housing for about 20 people at an industrial park within the city limits.

“We have a piece of land and a willing property owner to get us through the winter,” he said. The site has room for storage and dog kennels. But city permits would be required.

Mickelson said the crisis housing would be a tightly controlled situation. People in the program would have to abide by rules and work toward obtaining jobs and housing. The nonprofit would provide an insurance policy, supervision and mentoring of residents, and security for the industrial park’s other tenants, he said. It also would work closely with St. Vincent de Paul and other agencies with the goal of helping people move out of homelessness.

Mickelson will present the proposal at tonight’s Hayden council meeting. He said the idea of providing housing in an industrial park came from a Post Falls company, which offered its warehouse for a winter shelter three years ago.

“We’re doing the best we can to serve these folks, and not let these people just dissipate,” Mickelson said. “We’re at the mercy of the Hayden City Council. … In the short notice to respond to this particular crisis, there is no Plan B.”

Douglass Properties didn’t respond to an interview request Monday, but Sgt. Christie Wood of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department said the owners want to clean up the property for future development. Police officers will continue to ask the camp’s residents to leave by the Wednesday deadline, she said.

“We do not want to subject homeless people to arrest for trespassing unless there is no other option,” Wood said.

An estimated 40 to 60 people were living at the camp Oct. 9, when residents first were notified that they’d have to leave. Many of the chronically homeless already are gone, said Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul North Idaho.

“These are the small percentage of people that want to be left alone,” Conroy said. “They don’t want services.”

The site has a long history of homeless camps. When another living arrangement fell through, Cooper and Garvin ended up there.

Cooper said it was the first time she’d been homeless. Last winter was difficult, but she and Garvin formed close friendships with some of the other residents. They shared food, a campfire and cigarettes.

While Garvin washed dishes with water heated over the fire, Cooper described the difficulties that people at the camp have trying to find housing. She has a felony conviction, which is a black mark on rental applications, she said.

“I’m clean and sober. I’m trying to get a job,” Cooper said. “But not all people are felon-friendly.”

Stephen Marshall, 52, has been a camp resident for nine months. He was cooking a noodle casserole over a camp stove Monday morning in a three-room setup of tents and tarps, insulated with sleeping bags. Marshall, who has seizures, said he receives a monthly disability check, but it doesn’t stretch to cover housing.

“Tonight’s my last night here,” he said. “I have no idea where I’m going to move to.”