YAKIMA – On a recent morning, Mary woke up around 7:30 a.m. and prepared her coffee with the Amaretto creamer she bought the day before – a splurge for someone living on food stamps.
But instead of spending the morning watching TV or getting ready for work, Mary sat in the day tent at Camp Hope.
It wasn’t long before the creamer ran out after a handful of her now-closest friends asked if they could have some, too.
But Mary wouldn’t have it any other way, despite having only a fixed amount of money to spend on food each month.
Two months ago she was forced out of the house she owned after the city declared it unsafe because it had no roof. Mary eventually ended up at the Union Gospel Mission, only to leave because she was uncomfortable attending the mandatory church services.
While Mary’s path to homelessness is unique to her, her situation is far from unusual.
Since Camp Hope opened in mid-March, 160 people have spent at least one night at the camp, a largely out-of-sight, city-sponsored homeless encampment behind the former Kmart building on East Nob Hill Boulevard.
Like any community, there are people here striving to get ahead, while others are content to spend the day wandering around downtown, lying in bed or hanging out with friends at the camp.
It’s not a five-star resort. The camp has three barracks-style men’s tents and two for women, with about seven beds in each. It also has two large camping tents being used by two couples.
There are also picnic tables set up as a smoking area in a green space sectioned off as a dog park. The camp’s day tent – a large, open-air tent – partially collapsed in a recent storm.
The camp averages about 38 people per night and has a capacity of 50.
Officials have seen adult families, a pregnant couple, and residents ranging from twenty-something to the elderly. Their plans for the future are as varied as their circumstances.
Residents must follow a list of rules that organizers credit with keeping the camp orderly and safe.
Residents must check in between 4 and 6 p.m. to get a wristband that guarantees a bed for the night. If they make arrangements, they can be gone for three days before their bed is given to someone else.
Nicholas Spellmeyer, a resident receiving hospice care for an illness he was reluctant to discuss, doesn’t like the wait to sign in, but said in the long run it’s a good thing.
“The wristband gets me a bed but when I’m downtown it also tells police and everyone else that I’m a part of Camp Hope. They hold us to a higher standard.”
That higher standard stems from a “good neighbor policy” residents must sign. Residents must agree not to bring drugs or alcohol into the camp, as well as to not loiter, panhandle, urinate on buildings and otherwise engage in other nuisances. Violations result in being barred from the camp.
Making a life
For 56-year-old Mary, who has diabetes, sleep apnea and chronic lung disease, life at a homeless camp can be especially challenging.
But her newfound homeless family does what it can to help. The doughnuts offered for breakfast every morning aren’t the best choice to keep her blood sugar down, and it’s challenging to find an electric outlet for her nighttime breathing machine.
But she said support she gets from other residents makes all the difference on those days she gets discouraged.
While Mary stays back at the camp after breakfast, 26-year-old Sage Morningstar heads to WorkForce training at Goodwill. He’s learning to be a warehouse logistics clerk and is getting his GED in hopes of getting an upper-level job at Walmart.
Unlike many, Morningstar says he chose to become homeless because it was the only way he could turn his life around.
Morningstar said he grew up around drugs in the Lower Valley, sometimes using drugs himself.
But after Camp Hope opened, he decided to make a change. He moved in, cleaned up and is now working to better his life.
“I’m just happy to be here. This is the safest homeless shelter I’ve been to, and it lets me go to school and learn and try to turn my life around. It’s easier here at Camp Hope because everyone is encouraging and wants me to do better.”
But for almost every person like Morningstar, there’s another whose goals seem limited to finding a meal each day and a place to lay their head at night.
After Morningstar and others leave for training programs or head downtown to spend the day wandering, those still at the camp start going about their daily tasks.
For residents without a set time to be at a job or other obligations, routines can be important.
Some days Mary reads or colors, passing the time while she and a caseworker try to find her a job and an apartment she can afford.
While she gets about $750 a month in Social Security, several apartments she’s looked at require an income three times the rent. That means an almost impossible task of finding rent of no more than $250 per month.
Others take their dogs on walks or hang out in the tents, using their phones to play games or music.
For Ed, 55, time spent in the camp is devoted to getting in the “right mental state” to move into the future.
“I checked into Camp Hope on the day it opened. I started out in the emergency winter weather shelters and then was just moved over here when it opened.”
Ed has spent these months trying to get into housing and says he doesn’t want to start a job he has lined up as a painter until then. For now, it’s just a matter of time.
During the day, he helps look after the camp. If a camp staffer leaves for supplies or errands – such as one recent day when the director went to get poles to fix the day tent – Ed ensures other residents know where they’ve gone and when they’ll be back.
During that day, he and Mary strike up a conversation, trading stories from their years as long-term caregivers.
Ed explains he gave up home caring for the elderly after suffering a head injury that he doesn’t elaborate on. For Mary, health problems and a move to Yakima from Portland many years ago caused her to change her career.
The two still take great pride in knowing the best way to give CPR or how to sanitize their hands well enough to deliver a baby outside a hospital.
Like a family
Around lunchtime, Ed saunters over to a table set up behind the day tent to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But Mary can only eat the peanut butter thanks to the sugars in the jelly and white bread. Her food stamps only stretch so far to supplement what she gets at the camp.
“The only meal people get around here is the meals that are donated, and sometimes that means eating only once a day, but it’s enough. I’m just thankful I’m here,” she said.
While the camp provides basic shelter and meals, money is a constant source of worry for most.
The government cuts “people off when they’ve been living on the streets, but sometimes food stamps are all they get for food each month.”
Around mid-afternoon, those who spent the day downtown make their way back to camp. Morningstar and others return from classes. Most residents use this time to take care of their dogs, talk with one another and relax in their tents.
Some residents use the time to meet with the camp’s caseworker, who works part-time to connect them with service providers that can help them find jobs or housing.
Tensions are inevitable when as many as 50 people are living on less than an acre.
“It’s like any family. We look out for each other. Sometimes people get into spats, but it’s just like when brothers and sisters fight. Some people get in the middle and break it up and it’s OK,” Ed said.
Camp Director Mike Kay, who sees residents at their best and worst, agrees.
Every resident has their moments, and Kay can tell stories about the most challenging residents. But the overwhelming sense he gets each day is the profound care residents show one another.
While at Camp Hope, this reporter was offered sodas, apple pies, candies and other prized treats purchased by residents, mostly from food stamps. For those who didn’t have anything to share, they offered to get waters from the camp’s supply and extended invitations for dinner.
During the afternoon, Kay overheard residents planning to host their own feast, purchased by food stamps.
Betty and her husband, Mike, affectionately referred to as “Mike Two” to differentiate him from the three others at the camp, live in one of the camp’s couples tents with their four dogs. The two recently used their food stamps to purchase steaks, baked potatoes and all the fixings to make a nice meal for those living at the camp.
Ed joined in and decided he was going to use some of his money to buy ice cream and soda to make root beer floats for everyone.
But instead of making it on a Friday, like the plan originally called for, residents asked Kay to freeze the meat so they could make and serve the food to the police when a whole shift comes to visit next week.
“They see the police as someone who protects them now. Some of these people are felons or haven’t had good relationships with the police in the past, but now they just want to thank them,” Kay said.
Most of this change is because police have been called out to the camp several times to help when unwanted guests arrive.
Gang members drive by the camp shouting “Get a job,” or call the residents bums. Drug dealers have tried to get into the camp to find customers. Estranged spouses can cause disruptions. All encountered police who want to keep the camp’s residents safe.
And the residents couldn’t be more thankful.
‘What it’s actually like’
Toward the end of the day, a handful of volunteers from various, mostly faith-based organizations arrive with meals ready.
Meals range from cookouts prepared by a local motorcycle club to spaghetti, salad, Italian bread and dessert made by the camp’s meal coordinator, Debra Wentworth, and her family. Residents say they rarely leave the table hungry.
“The only person you have to blame if you don’t get your fill is yourself. All of the volunteers bring more than enough to eat and are always asking if we want seconds,” Ed said.
Like a family dinner, residents use this time to get to know one another better and talk about their days.
But what stands out most to Ed is the relationships the homeless make with everyone who comes in. Wentworth’s 15-year-old daughter helps bring in the food and serve, chatting with Camp Hope’s residents like old friends without a hint of pity or discomfort.
“People think Camp Hope is a bad place, but people are too busy judging each other. Come out to the camp and see what it’s actually like,” Ed said.
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