HEAT WAVE DAY 3 | The biggest needs beyond water, ice and sports drinks are toilet paper, hygiene products and prepackaged snacks
Today, as temperatures rose to triple digits, Tammy McCray and her dog Jonah sat in front of one of the industrial fans in Camp Hope’s makeshift cooling shelter. The moving air and shade helped, but it was still very hot in the tent.
Misters were set to be installed right after I left at 4 p.m. and the camp is still waiting to rent a swamp cooler. There’s a shortage of such coolers in this heat, and Julie Garcia — executive director of Jewels Helping Hands, an organization that provides and organizes support for the camp — told us the equipment rental company was waiting on a return. When the cooler finally arrives, it will make a huge difference inside the tent and for the whole camp.
McCray said she has been living in her car for the last seven months since she got evicted from her trailer in Medical Lake shortly after losing her job at the Petro truck stop. She said she was evicted for not having a sufficient sewer system for her mobile home.
Normally when it’s hot, McCray stays in the car and turns on her A/C. Coming to Camp Hope has helped her make ends meet. “I ended up here because they’re supplementing my food, they’re supplementing my water,” McCray said. “I was spending half of my food stamps on water.” Hanging out on a cot in the cooling tent rather than with the air conditioning on her car was saving McCray on gas today.
For McCray, who said she has multiple sclerosis and degenerative arthritis, shelters with beds on the ground and tents aren’t an option. “I had to come here because no shelters would take me even after a doctor’s note that said she’s in chronic pain and can’t get off the floor,” she said. After waiting in her car outside the Cannon shelter for over two months, she moved to Camp Hope in early July. “My car has saved my life,” McCray said.
McCray said she’s working with the Spokane Housing Authority to get into housing and has a voucher to get into a townhouse in Airway Heights. Still, she’s worried it might not go through because she’s been homeless. “The longer you’re homeless, the more it works against you, you become a freak, you’re different, why aren’t you in a home?”
A vital part of McCray’s journey has been the companionship of her squirmy black collie Jonah. “I do treat him like my child, because if you take care of your child and your responsibilities, in the end you take care of yourself when you want to give up,” she said. “If it wasn't for my dog, who is my emotional support animal and service animal, I would give up,” McCray said.
The challenges of living on the streets and in Camp Hope are always compounding. People search for glimmers of hope, companionship, community and a way out. But as obstacles stack up, the chaos of living on the streets can become all encompassing. Today, one of the main challenges people were talking about was theft within the camp.
Kenny Swaine, who said he’s 60, a kidney cancer survivor and a former semi-pro water skier, currently has some work at a local mechanic shop that services boats. He said $50 was stolen from his wallet last night after he fell asleep with it in his back pocket. “I came home from work, I was dog dead tired and I woke up and my wallet was all over my tent.”
Over the course of the afternoon, rumors circulated that an elderly man in a wheelchair had his generator stolen. That kind of major theft prompted a call to the cops. The generator was found and returned, but the woman who camp members suspected stole it was no longer at the camp.
Timothy Morgan helps deal with situations like the stolen generator and working with the police. Morgan said he started working at Camp Hope after he reached out to the security company that works the site for a job. Now, he’s a fixture in the community.
“The reality is when you steal you shouldn't be staying in a place like this, when you're dealing drugs, you shouldn't be staying in a place like this,” Morgan said. “There's still rules and regulations that need to be followed when you're living.”
“The police feel as though they have no responsibility there, they can't do anything because their hands are tied [by drug decriminalization laws],” Morgan said. “I will enforce the rules that we have set. Since day one, I've worked with Jewels [Julie Garcia] on enforcing — making sure that everyone knows kind of what's going on.”
Camp Hope has three main rules: no fighting, no drug dealing or open use, and no stealing. As I walked through the camp with Garcia, who was doing an afternoon round of wellness checks on the residents, we saw the remnants of the two encampments of people who had been thrown out the night before.
Garcia says she knows each community member within the camp and knows when something’s not as it should be. When I raised the concern with her that a man was passed out in his tent – out of fear he may have fainted from the heat — she told me he was a heavy opiate user and that she could see his chest moving. When we passed a tent with a syringe left outside the tent, she noted where the tent was and took a picture. They would be kicked out later for not abiding by the camp’s rules.
But enforcement attempts like this can be fleeting. “We don't really have any authority. The stuff that they do here, they do out of respect for each other and us,” Garcia said. “Really that’s all there is.”
Danny, a camp resident who didn’t give his last name, told me he ends up doing a lot of the mediation and conflict resolution in the camp. He said things have been busy lately. “People steal on one side of the camp and go sell it on the other,” he said. “With this heat people be losing their minds.”
Morgan described dividing lines in the community that echo the challenges I’ve heard from camp residents about the struggle to keep things together and to help rather than hurt each other. He explained it as a struggle between the people who come here to live, and those who come here to die.
“There's people here that just want to be here because they have a free range of habit and they can sit in their tents and use — that's why they don't go to shelters and those people are the ones here to die,” Morgan said.
The people trying to live are “the ones trying to gain access to social security cards, IDs, birth certificates, resources for housing, jobs,” he said. “And they just ran through a rough end of it when they were dealing with the COVID situation and because they weren't up to par with their rent at the end of it, they got kicked out. There’s a lot of those situations here right now.”
This creates a natural tension, Morgan said. “The ones that come here to die are trying to overrun the ones trying to live.”
Problems with theft compound the challenges of the heat wave. People don’t want to leave their tent, lest their belongings get taken. This reality underscores why the opening of cooling centers offsite is so untenable for Camp Hope residents. It also shows why pallet shelters are so attractive to residents: you can lock them.
Beyond the loss of property that comes with theft, a major challenge is that, if someone’s identification is stolen, it hurts their ability to access other services. Tammy Meyers, an outreach specialist, spends four or five days a week working with Camp Hope residents trying to get them the basic identification and support they need to move on from the camp.
Meyers said that lack of identification is already one of the biggest barriers for people trying to get into housing or services, and theft compounds that. “There's a bunch of us collectively that they're trying to get funding for [identification support],” Meyers said. “That's something that really needs to be looked at to remotely even get some of our folks on the trajectory to housing.”
The challenges people face at Camp Hope are no different from anywhere else in the unhoused community. “It's no different than anyone living under the bridge, living on the outskirts of town — they’re just people trying to survive, people getting their basic needs met and just really wanting help, but not knowing where to go for that.”
Meyers said she wants people in the community to understand who the people of the unhoused community are, apart from the stereotypes. “Our homeless community as a whole is one of the best communities that you could ever work for,” she said. “They're genuine, they're authentic, they're loving. A lot of them have just been treated so poorly by the systems in place to help them, so they've lost hope. You have to work a long time to build trust.”
“I think that's the biggest thing. These aren't invisible people. They're people with dreams, hopes, and aspirations, they're people that have needs just like we do,” Meyers said. “We all have to brush our teeth. We all use the bathroom. Everyone has just basic rights to do that. Our folks just need to be given a chance and be treated with dignity.”
Cindi Sarvis sought the shelter of the cooling tent today. She’s been struggling in her tent where all she has to cool off is a cardboard fan. “You don’t even know, I was sopping wet,” Sarvis said. “It’s scary, especially for my age, I’m 60.”
“If I had money, I could probably buy ice. If I had electricity, I'd be able to run a fan. I don't have a generator or anything like that,” she said. “So I'm just stuck winging it with what I can to keep cool.”
Sarvis said she first became homeless when her house in Wenatchee burnt down six years ago. She came to Spokane three years ago hoping she’d have better opportunities to find a place to live. “I came here seeking housing because I heard the housing over here was a lot better, but I found out it’s not,” she said. “Ever since I got here I’ve been on the streets.”
For Sarvis, who has been at Camp Hope since it began, living here has been a hardship. She showed me swelling and a rash on her shin that she said is cellulitis from the dirty conditions in the camp. Sarvis said she is a breast cancer survivor and that she has bad knees and a bad back. She uses a walker to get around.
Sarvis first applied for housing two and a half years ago. “I’ve just been waiting and waiting and waiting,” she said. “They lose my information, I get lost in the system. It's always something.”
Despite all the struggles she’s faced trying to get into housing and fighting to get social security, Sarvis said she’s still grateful for whatever support she can get. “It makes me appreciate the small things in life. What other people take for granted, I appreciate it,” Sarvis said. “Anything I get I'm grateful for. I don't take anything for granted at all.”
—edited by Luke Baumgarten
Read Day 4 here.