HEAT WAVE DAY 6 | While there’s been plenty said and written about Julie Garcia, founder of Jewels Helping Hands, she tunes it out. Her focus is on Camp Hope.
With the temperature hovering at or near triple digits, Julie Garcia, the founder and executive director of Jewels Helping Hands, walked with me through the tent and RV neighborhoods of Camp Hope doing wellness checks. With her long black hair under a baseball cap and her usual tank top, she carries herself with an air of pride and righteousness.
Garcia knows the ins and outs of each corner of Camp Hope. She points to trash piles where the leftovers of an evicted camper’s site remain. She knows some RVs are empty because the people who live there are at work. She knows who’s struggling the most with mental health and addiction.
Garcia is a polarizing figure in the community. She’s been accused of lying to city officials about the actions of other shelter operators and had attempted theft charges dropped against her in 2013. I’ve been warned that she has a penchant for exaggeration and stretching the truth.
While there’s been plenty said and written about Garcia in the greater community, she tunes it out. Her focus is here at Camp Hope. When I’ve asked her about challenges from the city to the cooling shelter, she waves them off with a defiant flick of the wrist and a clear, consistent message: She’s going to do whatever she can to keep this community safe — politics and niceties be damned.
Garcia’s defiance of the city and commitment to the camp has earned her a community of die-hard supporters within the camp. As she walks through the RVs and tents, people orbit around her. They tell her they love her. They ask her where they can get help. They bring her their problems to solve. They pick up trash in return for a cigarette.
Residents also tell stories about how she works alongside them. Melissa B. told me about the time she saw Garcia pulling trash out of a port-a-potty toilet so the pump company could empty it. This dirty work doesn’t go unnoticed by camp residents. It’s why they trust Garcia.
I talked with Garcia through a round of wellness checks, where we walked through the entire camp, knocking on RV Doors, peeking into tents and making sure everyone was safe in the heat.
As we walked past the supply and medical tents, Garcia was pulled into a conflict over a stolen generator.
“Tell him to call the police. It's over $500,” Garcia said. “Call the police and make a police report. It's over $500. They'll arrest her [the alleged thief].”
“If a bike comes up stolen in the neighborhood, we'll search the whole camp. Once we find whoever has it, we give them the option of giving it back or we let the police know. If it's a police issue, it's not our issue. We aren't keeping the police from coming onto this lot.
So, if they have a warrant for something or they have a person of interest, they search the camp. We've had a lot of people try to come in here after they robbed a car. Guys robbed this [nearby gas station] and tried to run through here. The thing is, is the police are always watching this lot so they know who comes in and out,” Garcia said.
As we walked past a tent, Garcia waved and asked a couple hanging out in a van how they were doing. They replied, “not good.” They’re too hot.
“You know, you can go across the street into that tent and there's fans and cold water and all of that,” Garcia said. “Go over there and see what they can do. Don’t stay in here, it’s too hot.”
After directing that couple to the cooling tent, Garcia came across an elderly man sleeping by an RV. “Hey brother, how you doin’?” she said. Garcia typically addresses men as brothers and women as babes. “You know, you can go across the street into that tent and there's fans and cold water and all of that. There’s cots, why don’t you go over there?”
“You want help up? I don't wanna grab onto you. You grab onto me,” she said, helping him to his feet.
“Go across the street, brother. Go get in that big tent. There's at least some fans in there.”
“He was dropped off here today by the police,” Garcia explained. “They just dropped him off. That’s what they do. The police bring people here all the time.”
Police spokesman Cpl. Nick Briggs confirmed to RANGE that police do drop people off at Camp Hope, but said that only occurred in certain situations, like a courtesy ride. He wrote in an email:
“Officers do sometimes encounter a situation where providing an individual a “courtesy ride” is appropriate in order to facilitate a law enforcement function. In such cases an individual might be transported to Camp Hope, but only if that person already had ties to the location and the officer was essentially returning them to where they already reside. For example, say someone who lives at Camp Hope witnesses a crime in another part of town. That individual sticks around the scene and provides officers with a statement to assist in the investigation. In the process of doing so, the Camp Hope resident misses the STA bus they were intending on riding which is their only form of transportation. This is a hypothetical scenario where the officer may provide the courtesy transport to the individual back to camp hope, which was their intended destination in the first place.
There are various versions of hypothetical situations like this which could result in someone seeing a person getting out of a police car at camp hope, but again, these are unique circumstances and the ride is being provided to individuals who already live there, they are not situations where officers are relocating people to Camp Hope.”
We continued, weaving our way through tent neighborhoods on the east side of Camp Hope. “Hello? Anyone in here? It's Jewels. How you doing?” she said outside of one tent.
In the tent, a man had a dirty and seemingly infected foot. “You want me to clean that?” she asked.
“It's fine,” he said. “I just cleaned it earlier. I cleaned just the affected area.”
“Have you seen the street medical team?” Garcia asked.
“I have,” he said. “They prescribed me a triple antibiotic ointment.”
“Right on, brother,” Garcia said. “There’s a hose over there if you need it to go clean up.”
As we continued, a man came by to show Garcia a pile of trash he’d been picking up from a campsite where someone was thrown out of Camp Hope. She told him where he could get more plastic bags and thanked him.
Then, we checked in with another group taking shelter from the sun under a tarp. “How's everyone over here?” Garcia said. “You can go across the street in the cooling tent, if you need to. Make sure you’re drinking enough water.”
“I’m just irritated with these worthless thieving pieces of shit around here and that they’re just allowed to do it,” one man said.
“I know, brother,” Garcia said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s like everything you got fucking going and they just take them right back to zero because they're just scummy fucks that we should be just slicing their throats, you know,” he said.
“Well that’s not a good idea,” Garcia said. “Let’s not do that.”
After talking with the frustrated man, Garcia showed me a pile of belongings strewn across a camp path. She said they belonged to a man who was thrown out of the encampment the night before.
Later, we passed an older SUV with oxygen tanks in the back. Garcia said she knows the old man living there but doesn’t know his name.
“If you can't care for yourself, you can't stay at a shelter,” Garcia explained. “Doesn't matter which one — that's just the way it is.”
After checking in with one of the residents who has been taken care of by Garcia for many years — I’ve met several residents who have stuck with her through their experience of being unhoused — we came across a needle in the walkway outside a tent.
“When we find a tent that has this outside of it, we go let security know and security will put a notice on their tent,” Garcia said. “That's one of the things that they don't allow here is needles outside or using outside.”
As we passed an area of loosely strewn belongings, Garcia said these were the remnants of another resident that had been evicted the previous night for stealing.
“Stealing and selling drugs are two things that we can't have in here,” Garcia said. “So we understand people may be using, but if we catch you selling drugs, we have to get rid of you.”
Then we checked in with another resident who is living in the tent with her cat. She couldn’t make it to the cooling tent with her cat because the cat would get scared by the dogs at the shelter. So, she was stuck in her hot tent trying to get through the day. Garcia continued talking about how people try to make this lifestyle work and get by.
“To most people it's trash, but it's all of their own stuff. That's all they have,” she said.
As we walked past another tent where a man was passed out in a chair. I asked Garcia if we should check on him, worried that he had heat exhaustion.
“He's a heavy opiate user,” Garcia said. “I saw him breathing so he’s ok. I always check the cars to make sure that there’s no one using in them. Especially if they’re using heroin. It can get so hot in cars. It’s very dangerous.”
Then, we walked past an empty tent that she recognized as belonging to a group of women.
“They were just up at the cooling center and they're family,” Garcia said. “So if one goes, the other ones go. They all go together because they're women. Out here, women don't do anything alone if you're smart.”
After checking in with dozens of Camp Hope’s satellite communities, Garcia reflected on the challenges this community has with maintaining cleanliness and order.
“People live in this. And, how do you teach them not to live like this? But I also listen to their sides of why. And their answers are, this is our tent. We just throw everything in it. And that's how they've lived for, for however long. It's not one day or five days. This is three and four and five years worth of living the same way,” Garcia said.
“People don't understand this isn't a quick fix. It takes a very long time to get people to where they can maintain and do what society wants them to.If you're so lost in addiction, what do you do? Every day it's just about using. Everyday is just about how am I going to get high.”
“I don't love that life. I hate drugs, but these people also still deserve a place to exist.”
“If they have solid places to live, it's been proven that works. Then, they know, okay, this is what structure looks like and that's important. But what does it look like if this is all you've ever known? This is what it looks like,” she said, pointing to a particularly dirty area.
“There's really not a good answer because I don't know what all those answers are, but I do know that if you can create structure and you can make them want to participate, they will.
For me, it’s like, what do you do? Provide them a safe place to exist I guess.”
Read Day 7 here.
—edited by Valerie Osier