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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Local government

In the cold and snow, politics falls away amid the effort to stay warm and dry

Cassandra Cree woke up to find her roof – the tarp under which she sleeps at Camp Hope – had collapsed.

The wet, heavy snow that covered the city Wednesday had caved in her tent, a condition that afflicted many of the camp’s residents as a result of this week’s record snowstorm. Across the encampment, tents slumped under the weight of snow or collapsed altogether, leaving people and their clothing and bedding soaked. Camp residents huddled inside the warming tents that organizers have set up – and tried to do whatever else they could to stay warm and dry in desperate circumstances.

Despite it all, Cree smiled and spoke almost cheerfully in describing what had happened to her and how she was struggling to outlast the weather. She sat bundled up in layers of clothing and rubbing her hands before one of the large ducts snaking through the camp’s welcome tent blew out welcome, warm air.

“Yes, it’s a little tiring, but I have my buddy right here,” she said, pointing to a man lying in a nearby cot. “He helps me a lot.”

As the winter storm struck Spokane early Wednesday morning – shutting down schools, bringing out the plows, causing car crashes – Cree and the other roughly 400 residents of Camp Hope were focused on the simplest, most elemental challenge: staying alive.

They huddled, bulked up with layers of clothing and draped in blankets and sleeping bags, inside three warming tents that had been arranged around the camp – the large Quonset hut-style tent on the outer edge of the camp that has been a focus of dispute with the city and two smaller tents inside the fenced camp.

Camp residents tried to dry out, or swap, clothes and bedding that had gotten wet. Camp organizer Julie Garcia said they’d distributed about 400 pounds of blankets and scores of Buddy Heaters to help people stay warm in tents and campers.

Some residents have turned to desperate and potentially dangerous ways of keeping warm in their tents, burning wood or creating makeshift warming lanterns by burning hand sanitizer in pop cans.

“You gotta stay warm somehow,” said Tommy Fetzer, a 49-year-old resident of the camp.

Camp rules prohibit dangerous burning inside tents, but camp residents don’t always follow them. As an apparent result of residents using an unauthorized burning method to stay warm, one camper trailer was burned and two people displaced by a fire Tuesday.

As politicians posture and threaten, as lawsuits collide in courts, as the blustering deadlines come and go, the arrival of extreme winter weather put a sharp, uncomfortable light on the humanitarian crisis at Camp Hope this week.

Under the weight of the cold and the snow, those in the camp are more focused than ever on simple survival. And the forecast is a long line of nights and days below freezing.

“We’re the keep-people-alive folks,” said Garcia, whose Jewels Helping Hands has been operating the camp in conjunction with Empire Health Foundation and several other partners. “We just keep people alive. That’s our job, is to stable people and keep them alive.”

‘Best alternative’

The one-year anniversary of Camp Hope is drawing near; it started last Dec. 10 as a protest at City Hall, relocating to the vacant state land alongside I-90 after the city drove protesters away.

Garcia organized that demonstration as an unavoidable call on city leaders to do more to address homelessness. Since then, the camp has grown dramatically; potential solutions have not.

“We’re still in the same situation we were in when we started,” Garcia said. “The powers that be have definitely misjudged the number of people experiencing homelessness.”

The camp has become many things to many people. As more and more homeless people moved there, it turned into an unavoidable expression of a human crisis and a failure of civic leadership. It became a political Rorschach test of various responses to the issue: Do you see human beings or public nuisances on that land? Do you see poverty or crime?

It has laid bare the ineffectiveness of those who believe that, in a city with glaringly insufficient housing, our real problem is too many services, too much misguided compassion and too many grifters getting rich off the poor. “We make it easy to be homeless,” Mayor Nadine Woodward once pronounced.

In a situation that begs for unified, effective action, deep schisms among divided camps of leaders, activists, business people, East Central residents and service providers have deepened further.

The ongoing state-funded efforts at the camp have also exposed how steep the challenge is. The state is spending roughly $25 million – by far the largest investment of any government in our region – to move every person at Camp Hope indoors, but the lack of housing and other services has made it a slower process than anyone would wish.

Zeke Smith, the president of Empire Health Foundation, said there has been steady progress in the last few weeks, with the camp’s population dropping from 465 to 433, and he’s optimistic that the pace is about to pick up. Empire is partnered with several other organizations – including Jewels, Compassionate Addiction Treatment, the Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition and Revive Counseling – to identify what residents need and find them a place to live.

Next week, a new permanent supportive housing project, operated by Catholic Charities, is expected to open and take in about 100 people. And Smith said he anticipates more state resources becoming available very soon that could accelerate efforts.

He hears regularly from people who tell him the camp’s residents simply don’t want housing – that they’re just drug users and criminals who prefer that life. But he said most of the residents want housing but don’t see options that they consider better than life in the camp.

“There are so many folks there who are legitimately, sincerely trying to figure out how they can get into a better situation and are still deciding Camp Hope is the best alternative available,” he said.

‘No shelter’

City and county officials, meanwhile, have been in intense and seemingly continual conflict with the state effort at the encampment.

They’ve put all of their eggs in one basket – the Trent shelter, which is still very far from being the kind of service-oriented “navigation center” it’s been touted as, and the seeming hope to simply sweep the camp and force everyone there.

The true capacity of that shelter has been hard to gauge, with different officials citing different numbers of beds and talk of a “flex capacity” that has been very flexible. No matter what the number is, it isn’t enough to put all of Camp Hope there, to say nothing of many homeless people living elsewhere throughout the city.

Even if it were, many residents of Camp Hope say they won’t go there. Most are chronically homeless people who have deep aversions to shelters for various reasons. On Wednesday, several people warming up at Camp Hope said they’d spent the previous night at Trent simply because they had no other place to go during the storm – but they didn’t plan to make it a regular practice.

“That place is no shelter,” said Sandy Pennington, who was warming up inside the tent with her partner, James Conner.

Pennington is pregnant, and she has qualified for a federal housing voucher to get a place to live. In that respect, she’s a symbol of the overall problem – she needs a permanent place to live, she qualifies for a subsidy, but there’s nothing available. Housing officials recently cited a three-year wait for people to get into federally subsidized housing.

Pennington complained that the Trent shelter is cold, lacks personal space for residents and doesn’t have the kind of services – including access to addiction counseling, housing services, identification badges and indoor plumbing – she’d expect to see.

“It’s not a shelter,” she said. “It’s a homeless community in a warehouse.”

Many other people weren’t able to get in to Trent on Wednesday, Garcia said, because it was full. The city is saying that its warming center plan – required by law when temperatures get too cold – is just to rely on the existing network of shelters throughout the city rather than additional indoor emergency space.

Repeatedly, the people trying to stay warm at Camp Hope and camp organizers said the city’s warming center plan is leaving people in the cold.

‘Some little hope’

By late afternoon Wednesday, more than 7 inches of snow had fallen, and it was piling up thickly throughout Camp Hope. It was heavy and wet, turning the paths between the tents into mushy gray tributaries, and dripping thickly from the trees.

Many of the tents and tent-like tarp structures were bowed under fat clumps of snow. Some had collapsed, soaked through.

John Smilari, who has been living at the camp since he was evicted earlier this year, was warming up near an outdoor burn barrel with the legs of an old chair ablaze. He said he was using a burn barrel at night inside his own tent.

A few feet away, Loren Freeman surveyed his collapsed tent. A couple of camp staffers brought him a shovel to begin digging out. He said it was a difficult situation, but he was trying to make the best of it.

“I get along fine,” he said. “It is what it is.”

A man walking by pushing a bicycle shouted a greeting. When he was asked in return how he was doing, he said, “Blessed!”

In the large welcome tent, people come in for sandwiches, for dry clothes, for canned goods and bags of lentils and macaroni. Free copies of the New Testament sit in a rack. Housing officials have posted shelter information on a white board and are issuing identification badges for residents. In a neighboring trailer, residents are seen for addiction services.

At the back of the tent, Cree – the young woman whose tent collapsed – is sitting by her “buddy,” Tommy Fetzer, in front of the warm air blowing through a duct.

Fetzer has been at Camp Hope since it was at City Hall. He said he drifted into homelessness after a serious bike crash that left him with a broken arm, unable to return to work in Alaska. He lifts the sleeve of his heavy canvas coat to show the scar – a thick pink line, brightly pale against skin darkened by smoke and dirt, running up the inside of his arm from his wrist.

“Sometimes you want to throw up your hands and give up,” he said.

But for Fetzer, there is some light on the horizon.

“He just got housing!” Cree said. “So maybe there is some little hope here.”

Fetzer said he’d been approved for housing through Frontier Behavioral Health, though it won’t be available until January.

“I used to have a normal life. A regular life,” he said. “I’m finally getting my life back on track.”

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