In Their Shoes

Spokane Police responding to rise in transient camps

SPOKANE, Wash. - Most of us in Spokane see the city's homeless crisis as we drive through downtown, passing panhandlers on the street. But most of the crisis lies in the shadows at homeless camps set up along the river and in the woods.

Just like these camps, Spokane's homeless crisis is out of sight, out of mind for so many -- and so are the answers on how to fix it. But these crises and these camps are often the only thing on the mind of Spokane police officers like senior patrolman Tim Ottmar, who took KXLY in for a day in his life.

"They find these areas and they get into the thick trees and they're out of sight, out of mind for awhile," said Ottmar, a neighborhood resource officer. "It's pretty horrific back there. I mean, human waste is everywhere, drug paraphenalia, and I was told by one camp that they deal with their garbage by digging a hole and burying it on this person's property."

Day in and day out, he and Sgt. Terry Preuninger meet people with their own stories and journeys to homelessness. In one day, we visited camps across Spokane, starting in Peaceful Valley and ending on private land near the Sunset Hill.

We covered five camps and uncovered why this problem has no easy solution.

"You have people that just need a little bit of help, and with a little bit of help, they will have themselves up and running and put themselves in a place where, pretty quickly, they'll be able to turn around and help other people," Preuninger said. "You have, at the other end of that spectrum, people that legitimately do not want to live a different way. They have chosen this lifestyle. You cannot put a stereotype to people right now that do not have a place to live."

Those are the people who are especially familiar with Ottmar, who says he often comes across the same campers year after year. This time, it's on private land near the Sunset Hill.

"A couple down below, I've been dealing with them for over two years and I hear the same story over and over," Ottmar said. "It's 'we're gonna be out of here in a week,' 'I've got my check coming in,' 'I've got housing ready,' and they just tell us the same story and that gets frustrating hearing the same story because they're not really trying to help themselves."

As a neighborhood resource officer, Ottmar goes where the calls are made -- and oftentimes, they lead him to homeless camps across the city. It's becoming a full-time job. Since the beginning of the year, Spokane Police have gotten 145 calls on homeless camps.

"Over the last three or four years, I've seen an increase in the homeless problem and it's probably gone to where my workload is 80-85% dealing with the homeless," Ottmar said.

Four years ago, he says, it was more like 5% of his workload.

Over the years, they've also seen the environment at homeless camps change.

"There's more to look at now, but we used to find usually alcohol would be, if there was any kind of chemical substance, or something in play," Preuninger said. "And now, if you've watched the different camps we've been at today, as large as they've been, you haven't seen any empty beer bottles or alcohol bottles of any kind, it's just drug paraphenalia."

"I can tell you right now, there are a lot of things we can be doing that could have a great impact in other places, but this is time consuming," Preuninger said. "And it does take resources away from other places."

It's hard to calculate the resources exactly. That's because the City of Spokane and Code Enforcement don't track how much it's costing them. Spokane Parks and Rec does.

Last year alone, that one department spent 1,666 hours picking up 131,680 pounds of debris from illegal campsites at parks across the city, costing the department $109,000.

All of this weighs on Ottmar and Preuninger, who come face-to-face with this crisis everyday -- so we ask them how they believe Spokane got here.

"I think the problem is getting worse because Spokane is so generous and we're giving too many resources out to people," Ottmar said. "They're hearing this throughout the country and they get on buses and they come here. Not all of them, a lot of them are local, but some of them, they do come up here and that's just an added drain to the city of Spokane."

We ask them a question they often ask themselves -- what can be done to fix this? The short answer: just like this crisis, it's not so simple.

"It's a multidimensional issue. Not pretending I have all the answers," Preuninger said. "There's not just two sides. It's not just that, they're either criminal, we're trying to criminalize the homeless or other people, or we're trying to help people. It's way more complex."

"I gotta believe there's a solution out there," Ottmar said. "I'm not sure what exactly it is, because it's a very complex problem. I don't think we've found the solution yet."

And it's not their job to figure that out, because for them, there are always more calls on more camps with more people to help.

Just like those camps, the solution isn't in plain sight just yet.


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