Couple hope to start tent city beneath Interstate 90

Tyler Tjomsland photo

Ralph “Doc” Harvey and his wife, Becky, hope to form a tent city under Interstate 90 at South Browne Street in Spokane, at the site of vacant tennis courts.

December 14, 2012 - Updated: 8:28 p.m.

Ralph “Doc” Harvey knows what it’s like to be homeless. He’s crammed into a too-small tent stacked on milk crates. He’s called a tent city home.

“For someone not homeless, just coming out on the street, it’s scary,” Harvey said, standing with his wife, Becky, under Interstate 90. “You don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to expect. They don’t know if someone’s going to rob them or even kill them.”

Harvey and his wife lived in a tent city in Seattle earlier this year; now, the couple has a vision for one in Spokane underneath I-90 on South Browne Street, a location already popular among the homeless. The large gathering of homeless people there has prompted the city to install several portable toilets to combat problems with human waste.

But city law may prevent the Harveys from achieving their vision of a tent city. The transient shelter ordinance prevents permits for tent cities lasting longer than 14 days, City Council President Ben Stuckart said.

Plus, the couple would need permission from the property owner, which in this case is the state Department of Transportation. Harvey said if the space under the freeway doesn’t work, they’ll look for another place large enough to hold 50 people.

Currently, there’s nothing there but tennis courts. The smell of urine is strong in the air. There’s graffiti on the walls. The sound of traffic on the freeway above echoes in the open space. But Harvey gestures to where he imagines a donation tent, a smoking corner, a kitchen. Becky said she and her husband, who plan to oversee the city, will uphold a set of strict rules – no drinking, no drugs, no criminals and no sex offenders.

The tent city will also provide a place for families to live, she added. There are only a few shelters in the Spokane area that house childless couples, separating them. For the Harveys, who are currently staying with a friend, that’s not an option. Ralph Harvey has cancer and was told by doctors that he could have a stroke or heart attack at any time.

“I need her,” Ralph said, hugging his wife.

There are an estimated 1,185 homeless people in Spokane, according to a census taken by the city of Spokane Human Services Department in January. About 130 are living on the streets. The city will take another survey next month.

“We need to take care of the problem,” Harvey said.

Stuckart will tell the couple by the end of today whether they’ve received a permit, but it would require policy changes for them to receive an extension.

“We want to work with the homeless population to get them into more permanent and transitional housing,” Stuckart said.

When the ordinance was written in 2007, research indicated that tent cities lasting longer than 14 days began targeting the “wrong elements,” Stuckart said: alcohol use, drug abuse and other crimes.

“I’m not opposed to tent cities,” Stuckart said. I don’t want to be seen as the guy who hates tent cities, but the proposal that they have is just not doable.”

Harvey said they only need 14 days to prove the model works.

“People don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” he said. “City Council, they don’t understand what’s going on. We’ve got to make them understand that in 14 days, what I can do. It’s a challenge for us.”

And if the permit isn’t approved, Harvey said he’ll be at the City Council meeting on Monday to change it. “We’re going to give them more of a challenge.”

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