A few years ago I sat in a meeting about counting homeless individuals in our community. I knew that Tri-County Love INC had been in contact with many people struggling to find housing. It was simple, understand the forms about homelessness and make sure to communicate with my staff about how to fill those forms out. Get them back to the agency in charge of this process.
While there, one of the police officers perks up that he would love another set of eyes down by the river as he counts in our homeless camp. I said, I’d have some time and therefore volunteered to assist. Fast forward a few years and this year was the third time I’ve been down to the various homeless camps in Ontario. No longer is there a sense of adventure or wonder while hiking looking for the latest camp site. It’s different.
This year Community In Action provided hydroflasks for every homeless person who completed the very basic survey. Love INC provided some granola bars to help open the doors of communication. These were great incentives to help open the doors of communication.
This year, it started with four of us meeting at the police department and reviewing who is homeless and where they ought to be. Then we drive. We drove under the bridge by Wal-Mart and saw what looked like the leftovers of a camp. It’s hard to say how long it might have been empty, but the tent was still standing. After some time you begin to recognize current camps and empty camps. Current camps can look clean and neat or like garbage dumps, but they will always have recent food, often light pieces of trash still nearby (if it’s messy) and clothes that look like they were placed out. Old camps often are trashed with broken tents, piles clothes and sleeping bags, no food, and heavy trash like old cans, bike parts, etc.
Word on the street was that a couple of people were living out of storage shed. Driving to various storage units and looking for certain individuals walking the street takes time and energy. But success was found at one of the storage units. We spent 20 minutes talking to a gentleman who definitely suffered, or maybe he enjoyed, some sort of mental illness.
A few moments later we found another gentleman walking into town from his campsite. He has spent 7 years homeless. Though, we didn’t see his camp site this year, I’m certain that it’s clean and well taken care of. He says it’s the most visible campsite he’s had, but I’ve still not seen it. He knows how to blend in both to the outskirts of town and once in town he’d look like an older retired man. He explained that he has no ties to our community and he’s looking to move when the weather gets better.
After driving for well over an hour with some success. It was time for the long hike. The Snake River has provided both the tree and brush cover, and the location for many homeless in our community. The hike can be close to 3-4 miles depending on how far one wants to travel.
The first encampment contains 3 tents and 2 shack type structures. Also was one tent that looked more like a trash heap than a tent. From what I can tell there can be as few as 3 people living in this community and in nice weather 12+. The community isn’t totally clean, but it’s not totally a mess either. There are places for trash, for using the bathroom, for tents, for cooking and for fires. The inhabitants don’t always get along, but have manager to find ways to stay together. My guess is that like any culture alcohol brings them together and in their life it’s not wine, craft beer or cocktails, but Steel Reserve. Empty cans can be found all over the place, except when times get desperate. Then the cans are carried to the nearest store and redeemed for cash.
Over the years it’s been sad to see one of the shacks slowly get destroyed. The first year I saw it, it was gorgeous (for a metal shack). It had metal sides, metal roof and insulated on the inside. The main door way was a 6 ft by 6ft square and was covered with wool blankets. On one side was a stove vent, not unlike something you’d see on your own home. Now it’s covered with tarps. I’m assuming the roof was leaking and that was the repair that was needed.
Moving down the trail we found two other campsites, along with a small collection of rusted bicycles, an old campsite, and old wet sleeping bags. Each campsite had it’s own distinctions based upon the owner. One site had alert wires around to warn of potential assailants, or guests. That site had quite the meal outside the tent. Eggs and bread lay outside waiting to be cooked and eaten.
The campsite was tidy and included the bathroom sink, for shaving and washing. Up on walking up to this campsite, a small dog barked alerting our presence (no doubt a cheap alarm). On one tree was a series of saws and tools for collecting firewood. A 20ft by 10 hut of tarps hung from various trees. Inside was a number of different containers and a tent for sleeping. Outside was everything an outdoorsman might need to live.
After hiking almost 3 miles, we all were tired and gave up exploring. Very few contacts were made in the campsites, but the mission was complete. For me the mission was to see what kind of people needed help out there, to document it and help churches know the best way to help those transients in our community. For our police officer this was intelligence on a community that causes a lot of problems in our town. Knowing who is sleeping and living outside Ontario gives an understanding of how one should handle these men. It also means keeping an eye out for possible fugitives and making sure there are no warrants out for anyone. For our social workers, they have a heads up about possible people they will be coming in contact with.
In the end, only one person was interested in living in a house or apartment. He is a young man who is working on his GED. If he finishes that will put him one step closer to getting off the streets and into an apartment. The rest of the people were quite content to be where they were. They enjoyed the freedom of their life or at least they liked is better than having a house or apartment. I’d like to say that next year we’ll have a few less, but many of the people and sites we have seen will likely be there until the men pass away or change their minds.
Enjoy a few other pictures from our time.