A day in the life at a Clarkston homeless camp




On a Tuesday afternoon in January, the homeless camp behind the Clarkston Walmart is coated in layers of snow.

A jumble of partially-collapsed tent poles, weighed down by the previous night’s snowfall or toppled by wind, lie across the entrance to the camp. A few dogs trot through the dirt paths between tents, where most residents stay huddled trying to keep warm in the below-freezing temperatures.

A couple of people stand talking near the center of camp, where supplies and food are stored under a steel-frame canopy labeled “donation hut” with a “thank you” and smiley face drawn in the margins.

Sonny Hill rests while shoveling snow at the homeless camp in Clarkston, Washington. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

One resident, Sonny Hill, shovels snow from in front of a small blue tent he said he shares with his girlfriend. The tent is draped in a blanket and a layer of clear plastic. Hill said he’s trying to get more propane to stay warm.

A little ways down a dirt path is a burn barrel and stack of donated wood, which provide added warmth when propane heaters don’t do the job. The heaters are marked “indoor safe,” but one camp resident said there have still been two fires.

It’s been more than two months since camp residents moved to a strip of right-of-way owned by the city of Clarkston. The move came after the city closed Foster Park, where a small group of homeless residents were staying, and then Arnold Park after they moved there.

The city cited maintenance and winterization projects along with alleged vandalism and some parents’ concerns about interactions between homeless people and children as reasons for the closures.

A man holds a dog close to his chest

Scott Darrington holds his dog, Big Pimpin, tight within his jacket as he gets ready for a doctor’s appointment Friday, Jan. 12 in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Scott Darrington is one of the unofficial leaders within the camp. He came to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley from Moscow a few years ago to be near his daughter who also lives in the camp. Some local police have taken to calling it “tent city,” a moniker its residents disapprove of.

Darrington, who said he has a deformed heart and experiences seizures, will turn 47 this week. He said he was given three to five years to live. He said April will mark the start of year three.

Darrington and other camp leaders try to keep things clean, he said, and keep the peace between campers. It’s an increasingly difficult task as the number of camp residents grows — about 70 by the last headcount, he said. The camp is running out of space.

Sonny Hill shovels snow at the homeless camp in Clarkston, Washington. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

For the people who end up here, even the cheapest rentals are unaffordable. Darrington said he is medically retired and makes $943 a month.

“The cheapest rent I found is $675 and it’s just a one room, zero bath. It’s an RV space. So then I gotta find an RV to buy that I can afford and I just, I can’t do it,” he said.

Robert Ladd, another camper, said he has worked construction in the past but his current situation makes it hard for him to be completely dependable. He has gotten work from some local construction companies before, but said the people who would work with him are all retiring.

“I just need the opportunity and somebody that then can be understanding to the situation that I’m in and and have some leniency with me and my dependability until I can get established,” he said.

Dark clouds loom overhead as a resident of the homeless camp looks out on a large empty field to the west Thursday, Jan. 11, in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Unlike other spots where homeless residents might stay in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, the camp offers some degree of safety and resources. Campers can stay without being asked to leave. But conflicting personalities and the stresses of trying to get daily needs met, along with hostility from some valley residents, all takes a toll.

“We’re public enemy No. 1 right now,” Darrington said. “At least, that’s what it feels like.”

Campers are often subject to harassment, he said. Darrington and other camp residents talked about firecrackers thrown from the nearby parking lot at night. Darrington said he’s had cars swerve at him on a crosswalk and that some other campers have been hit. He said that harassment goes unreported.

“We have no way to prove it,” he said. “The cops don’t sit here and watch us all night long and we don’t have cameras.”

Darrington has no plans to leave, he said, though he suspects some people in the larger community would prefer if he did. His daughter is here, and this area is home to him.

“My family has been buried here for 150 years,” he said. “This is where I’m going to die to be with my family. So, I’m not leaving.”

Sonny Hill talks about life at camp as his breath becomes visible in the cold temperatures Tuesday in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Houseless residents also have support from many other community members, including local churches, nonprofits, businesses and individuals. Throughout the day, good Samaritans will visit, dropping off donations of food for humans and dogs, feminine hygiene products and other items.

Recently, the nonprofit Elves for the Homeless opened a warming center. Darrington said camp residents get enough to eat. Quality Behavioral Health provided tents and donated propane heaters that have helped residents warm their tents.

Despite that support, those groups have thus far been unable to fully address the needs of the Valley’s growing homeless population.

The closest homeless shelters for adults is transitional housing in Moscow, or 100 miles away in Spokane. Various groups are working to open a homeless shelter in Lewiston and low-income housing in Clarkston. However those projects are months or years from fruition, according to the groups.

While the valley’s homeless remain outside, most people at camp seem to agree their biggest needs are toilets, heat and somewhere to get rid of trash.

The city hasn’t interfered with residents camping at the site on account of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that makes it illegal to punish homeless people for sleeping or seeking shelter in public spaces when they don’t have other options.

However, Clarkston city leaders also have opposed the addition of portable toilets or other services that they say could be a liability issue.

One of the closest bathrooms is at the nearby Walmart, roughly 700 feet away. The store closes between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. It’s less than ideal for campers, some of whom have gotten trespassing violations and others who have disabilities.

Local businesses, meanwhile, have expressed concerns over camp residents using their customer restrooms and depositing human waste in their dumpsters.

Scott Darrington steps out of a tent at camp with his dog, Big Pimpin. Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Darrington said without the portable toilets, campers have been slowly building a reserve of composting toilets.

“I think we got 12 right now,” he said. “Basically all it is, is you have a 2½-gallon bucket inside of a 3-gallon bucket with a plastic toilet seat.”

John “Cowboy” Parke lives at the camp and moved to the valley in 1987. He said he feels like homeless residents’ hands are tied by the lack of resources.

“They’re not really helping,” he said. “I feel it’s setting us up to fail.”

Parke isn’t the only one who feels that way.

“We’re out of the way,” said 31-year-old Dylan “Montana” Evenson. “They don’t have to deal with us because they put the weight on other people’s shoulders.”

Clarkston city administrator Steve Austin said city staff know homeless residents feel they’re being pushed from one place to another and don’t want to continue that trend. The city is looking to other government agencies to collaborate on a solution, he said.

“We know from their self reporting that they have been pushed off other public property, in other jurisdictions,” he said. “[The valley has] the designation as being a metropolitan area… we want this to be everybody’s solution.”

A woman walks in snow at a houseless camp with snowy hills in the background.

A resident walks through the snow-covered homeless camp on Friday, Jan. 12, in the aftermath of snow coming down the previous night in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Clarkston officials say their options are limited. The city doesn’t get funding from the state for homeless services, as those go through Asotin County. The city proper is only a little over 2 square miles, said Mayor Monika Lawrence, and the city doesn’t own any vacant buildings.

“There’s been a misconception that vacant properties in the port area belong to the city,” Lawrence said. “But that’s not true.”

City officials have been in talks with other entities including representatives from Asotin County and the city of Lewiston since last year, said police Chief Joel Hastings.

“Our neighbors were asked if they had places that they could help with, pieces of property in their jurisdictions,” he said. “We probably talked about that all the way back in October, November, and have yet to receive any help from a neighbor.”

A homeless resident pets a dog at the homeless camp in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Washington law would allow the local churches to host an encampment, Austin said, but most have declined to provide services on their own property, and none are offering to host a permanent encampment.

“We’ve found from a lot of these people, in talking to them, they will stop short at allowing that encampment to move close to their residence,” Austin said.

While city officials wait on neighboring communities, life at the camp remains a struggle. Some homeless residents are unable to work and can’t afford housing on disability stipends.

Many, such as Parke, are homeless in part because of mental health struggles, substance use disorder or both. In Parke’s case, he said, it’s both.

“The thing about being homeless is you get caught in a rut. And unless you catch yourself, you get stuck. So, I’m in the process of trying to get unstuck,” he said.

It’s a difficult environment from which to get unstuck, he said. Evenson said he also struggles with substance use and mental health and would like to see a permanent shelter with showers and restrooms so homeless residents can maintain their hygiene.

Dylan Evenson walks through the homeless camp in Clarkston. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

“I can’t even heal my wounds when I get them,” he said, lifting his hand to reveal a scabbed knuckle.

Having an address would also help residents with getting things like identification and having easier access to other services and opportunities, campers say.

Nancy Caskey, 54, said she first became homeless because of run-ins with the law and drug use. She said she’s sober now but can’t work because of her Hodgkin lymphoma.

“They keep chasing us out from wherever we go,” Caskey said. “Unless you have some place to put us, you’re going to find us everywhere. People look down on us like we’re crap, and we’re not. We’re just people trying to live.”

Nancy Caskey plays with her dog, Moose, as Scott Darrington looks on. (Credit: August Frank / The Lewiston Tribune)

Mayor Lawrence said she thinks homelessness is the community’s biggest hurdle. Not everyone in the valley has accepted that it’s something they’ll need to deal with, she said, and they can’t just force homeless people to leave.

“First, you have to resign yourself to the fact that this is what we have to deal with. and I think everybody hasn’t done that yet,” she said. “It’s gonna take some time to understand that this problem isn’t going to go away.”

Austin said he applauds the work of local businesses and their willingness to help.

“Sometimes I wish that some of our government leaders would take a cue from the business side of things,” he said.

Officials said they also know there is a limited window to make use of the outpouring of community support.

“It’s not going to sustain forever. So while it’s still new, and they’re excited about helping, we need to grab that,” said Hastings. “In a year or two, I mean, there’s a fatigue that happens.”

Homeless residents at the camp say they just want to be seen as people.

“If people would just look at us like we’re human beings and not a problem,” Parke said. “Help us figure out a solution. We all want a solution.”

This report is made in partnership with Northwest Public Broadcasting, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.