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Camping Lessons 

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen the homeless pulled up stakes on their downtown tent city last fall, real estate agent Robert Gilles stepped in, offering his vacant lot for another tent city. From the start, neighbors around Napa Street and Mission Avenue complained about disruptive behavior while parents fretted about children at a nearby elementary school. Soon, then-Mayor Dennis Hession came calling. The tent city would not be tolerated, Hession said.





Gilles caved. But now, less than two months later, he wonders whether it was such a bad idea.





"I now think that this camp thing may not be as crazy as we all thought, just because it worked in some cases," says Gilles, speaking publicly for the first time.





Gilles talked with The Inlander recently and recounted some of the tent city's successes. Ten homeless people from the camp were placed into temporary and permanent housing -- including two couples expecting babies. Another six people were relocated to shelters and rehab.





Terri Mayer, a volunteer who manages the housing locator database for Americorps/VISTA, found homes for some of the tent city residents. Having them in one place where they were relatively safe and could be contacted was key to her success, she says. When they are scattered on the streets, they tend to fall through the cracks.





"It really did work," Mayer says of the tent city. "If this is something that could be set up and maintained, people would have a place until they could get services."





But for all its supporters, the tent city had plenty of detractors and even now, with the benefit of hindsight, they have little to say for it.





"I understand the issues and I understand the needs, but I also have to listen to the neighbors," says councilman Bob Apple, who recently met with Gilles, Mayer and others to discuss alternative solutions to homelessness.





Acknowledging that some neighbors were supportive of the tent city, he says, "You had one guy aiming for homeless people in his car and others were just waiting for an excuse. Even the rumor of an abused child would have been enough for clubs. It was a powder keg waiting to blow up."





Apple has voiced unambiguous opposition to the idea of maintaining any sort of tent city for the homeless -- "now and until the day hell freezes over," he says.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & redictably, Apple and Mayer disagree whether the city's existing shelters are adequate in form, function and numbers. The availability of a bed changes by the moment. Mayer says she has studied the issue extensively and argues that a large, climate-controlled tent could be used to provide shelter for homeless individuals and couples for up to 30 days while they seek services and transition to permanent housing.





"We could do like they've done in Vancouver and get a building and put a chain-link fence around it and let them go in there and do their drugs and whatever else," Apple says, "but I don't think you'll get the voters of Spokane to go for it." He says the city council won't support any relief efforts for the homeless that do not involve permanent structures.





"I never thought that was a solution, and I still don't think tent cities are a solution," agrees Council President Joe Shogan. "But just because I don't believe in tent cities doesn't mean I don't believe homelessness isn't a problem." Shogan led a task force on homelessness in the 1980s and knows the complexities of the issue. "You have families down on their luck. You have single men and single women. You have people who want a mobile lifestyle, and you have mentally ill folks. There's no one solution for all," he says. Shogan says that people who embrace transience as a lifestyle and shun shelters because they don't want to abide by any rules pose a particular challenge. "That's a tough population to serve," he says.





Four tent cities have existed in Seattle since 1990, and two, under the auspices of project SHARE/WHEEL, still remain. One is moved every two to three months among the parking lots of churches that cooperate with camp organizers. A bill was introduced to the Washington House of Representatives in 2007 authorizing churches to host such encampments -- meaning counties, cities and towns couldn't shut them down. The bill died, but has been revived this year and sent to committee.





Advocates argue that the homeless who choose to live in tented communities are safer than those who sleep alone on the streets, and that having somewhere to store their stuff allows them to work and to travel to appointments. Critics argue that the camps become safe havens for incorrigible alcoholics and drug abusers who want to spend their available money on partying instead of getting ahead.





But Gilles says that the fishbowl effect upon a self-regulated camp provides motivation enough to behave. "It's pretty hard to be a criminal right here on this arterial," he says. Social services, code enforcement agencies and the media frequented Spokane's camp throughout its existence.





Neither Gilles nor anyone else is saying the problem will be simple to fix, in part because homeless people as a group are not easy to categorize. Some have drug problems, some have mental health issues, others have become anti-social living on the streets.





"A lot of the problem I see is people getting out of jail," Mayer says. "They can't find a job; no one will hire them because of their criminal history. They get mental evaluations, and if it's determined that they are unstable, they get $339 a month. How can you rent a house for $339 a month? You can't."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & G & lt;/span & illes, Mayer and Apple also agree that any real solution to homelessness must address the city's meth epidemic. "A lot of people do meth one time and they're addicted," Mayer says. Meth addiction has even touched her own family, and many of the people she tries to help are already trapped. "I've even known prominent people -- doctors and stuff -- they get addicted and they sell everything for it." The recidivism rate among meth addicts seeking treatment is high.





Apple advocates for a "meth jail," with a mandatory nine-month, in-treatment program. He points to models in Wyoming and Montana that boast a 70 percent success rate, the highest anywhere.





He also says he is open to the idea of something like a penny-per-square-foot tax on rental properties to help provide "work force housing" in Spokane. "I don't care if it's a penny: How many millions of square feet of rental space -- houses and commercial -- are there in Spokane? That one penny -- you're talking millions of dollars," Apple says. "That doesn't mean we give everybody a handout, but we could provide the bare essentials."





Asked what the city has learned from the tent city saga, Shogan says, "Just because this particular tent city went away doesn't mean that the problem went away. I expect it will resurface. In the meantime, we'll be looking for solutions."
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