On the first afternoon of October, as the skies began to fill with rain clouds, three middle-aged homeless men were situated on the northwest corner of the Alder Street Fill.
One was resting, his sleeping bag wrapped over his head to keep out the light and sprinkle of rain. Another, an older man named Robert whose shopping cart was overfilled with blankets that he gives to other homeless people, was using a push–broom with no handle to sweep clean the nearby sidewalk. The third, Nick, was sitting at a bench drinking a foil juice pouch and eating peanut butter and squeezable strawberry jam.
As the seasons shift, Robert is wary of the coming storms. That’s part of why he moved over to his current location at the Fill, where trees block some of the rain and wind, but this is only the latest in a long string of campsites.
For the six months that he’s been homeless, Robert said he was regularly chased out of one public space or another by police enforcing city ordinances that made sleeping overnight in public spaces illegal.
But, with no homeless shelter in Moses Lake, the city’s homeless had little choice, Robert said.
“We had no clue where to go,” Robert said. “And then the laws changed.”
On Sept. 4, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that city ordinances preventing the homeless from camping in public were cruel and unusual punishment if the city did not have room in homeless shelters. As the only shelters in Grant County are dedicated to homeless families with children, the decision opened the doors for homeless individuals to sleep in public spaces.
The Alder Street Fill in particular has become a focal point for public anger at the new visibility of the homeless. As Robert and Nick described it, public responses to their presence has often been an ugly manifestation of that anger, with some residents yelling insults at them and others who camp there.
“People can be cruel,” Nick said. “They haven’t been there, they don’t know what it’s like. Maybe they just can’t deal with their own insecurities, maybe they take the bad day they’ve had and throw it all at us.”
While both note the support given freely by both church groups and organizations like the Homeless Task Force of Grant County, which manages Moses Lake’s warming center during the winter, Robert and Nick said that unpleasant interactions with residents make them less likely to trust others in the community.
“A lot of people discriminate and yell names at us, and that makes me leery,” Robert said while stooping to pick broken glass off the ground and toss it into a nearby trash can.
Moses Lake Chief of Police Kevin Fuhr wrote in a social media post Monday that the department had received several complaints, particularly regarding the campsite Robert and Nick were occupying “and the safety concerns that it poses for pedestrians and children.”
For organizers who regularly work to provide services to the homeless, however, that characterization is overblown, said Sheila Chilson, CEO of Moses Lake Community Health Center and ex-chair of the Homeless Task Force.
“In the three years we’ve had the warming center open, we’ve had very few issues where we’ve needed to involve the police,” Chilson said. “I personally feel safe in the warming center. These individuals are dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues, which creates issues where they swing high and low, but I think the biggest part is treating people with dignity.”
Chilson said another common misconception is that the homeless will bus — or be bused — to Moses Lake if new resources are provided, a perception that isn’t reflected in the data. In the two years after the warming center opened in 2014, Moses Lake’s overall population grew 3.9 percent, according to U.S. Census data. Conversely, the unsheltered homeless population in Grant County actually decreased by almost 24 percent over the same time period, according to annual data collected by the Housing Authority of Grant County.
Robert lived in a home in the county until his mother died, he said. Unable to make mortgage payments, Robert has been homeless in the six months since the bank foreclosed on him, he said.
Nick is among the few that have come from out of the area — originally from Missouri, he traveled to the Olympia area to live with family. Finding himself in and out of work, he moved to Grant County to live with an aunt and find a job, he said, but, unable to find a job and eventually turned out by his aunt, he found himself living on the streets.
“Those few that have come here from out of town, it’s because there’s a connection here,” Chilson said.
While building and maintaining a homeless shelter would be a huge financial task, Chilson said, there are specific resources that the homeless need that could improve their quality of life, including garbage and hygiene services.
Robert and Nick said their biggest request would be work programs so they and others could provide for themselves.
“I won’t be homeless for long. I’m in between jobs, but I always bounce back on my feet,” Nick said before lowering his head. “If I couldn’t, I’d go crazy.”
Many people living on the streets also require support for medical conditions — in particular, Robert said, he encounters people that need seizure medication. Robert helps coordinate transportation for the homeless that need medical care, he said, teaching them how to navigate the bus system in Moses Lake and where to access food and clothing services.
“We provide for one another,” Robert said. “We’re a community.”