WENATCHEE — Glenn Wilson doesn’t have a job in the traditional sense of the word, but the work he does is making an impact for many in the homeless community.
Wilson, 61, is the de facto leader of a homeless camp on South Columbia Street, and the unofficial position — which includes acting as a liaison with the property owner, paying for and maintaining onsite portable toilets, bringing back food bank items and cleaning up trash and graffiti — keeps him busy.
“I rigged the whole freaking thing, and I’ve been keeping it clean since and getting tents up in here and trying to keep the peace with the people best I can,” he said. “I’m the oldest person on this premises — that’s why they left me in charge. Somebody gives you a hard time, you call me.”
Wilson still talks with a bluntness characteristic of his native New York despite living in Wenatchee for the past two decades, but that tough exterior breaks down when he talks about his role in the camp.
“I just try to do my job, you know? I’m here for a reason,” he said pointing toward the sky. “It’s like a little community here. That’s what it is when it comes down to it. We’re all here for each other, or try to be anyway.”
The camp sits just south of where Stevens Street connects with the George Sellar Bridge and next door to the Salvation Army Social Service Office. It was established about three months ago after the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns the property, allowed people to stay there.
David Bierschbach, WSDOT North Central region administrator, said the department’s current direction is that it cannot remove a homeless encampment if it poses no immediate safety risk or does not damage WSDOT property.
“The experience in clearing homeless encampments is they move to another site, then another site, and eventually end up back to where they were previously,” Bierschbach said. “Rather than multiple agencies expending resources continually clearing encampments, and making the situation of those involved more difficult, this direction was put in place.”
He added that the South Columbia encampment has not had any reported property damage or public safety hazards to the public and that the residents have kept the area clean.
Wilson’s girlfriend, Vanessa Alcantara, 40, said she was one of the first individuals to start cleaning up the site.
“It’s common sense,” she said. “They’re not gonna want you on the property if you’re going to be messy,” she said.
The camp was originally just four people but has since grown to about 30 people, six dogs, three cats and just over 20 tents. There are also a handful of vehicles parked outside the camp that people use for shelter.
The camp is a mixture of different ages (though minors aren’t allowed), and it’s far from a free-for-all. Wilson tries to shut things down by around midnight, for example. And, though sobriety isn’t required in the camp, those using drugs can’t do so out in the open.
There are locks on the portable toilets, for example, which Wilson mostly pays for from his disability checks, though he also uses the $8 rent a few residents pay him each month.
A fence and gate enclose the property, and residents have installed a homemade fire pit, a coffee station, a storage tent and wooden foundations for tents. Those who don’t have items like a sleeping bag or tarp, can take from the stock Wilson keeps on hand. Residents also frequently donate items they don’t need or want to each other.
Wilson is also prepping for the future. He’s working on a bike rack, which would be chained up at night to prevent theft, and he keeps an empty tent open for the next person who wants to stay at the camp but doesn’t have their own shelter.
Bierschbach, the WSDOT administrator, said the camp has painted over nearby graffiti. He added the residents also keep the area clean and that maintenance crews pick up trash bags there each Monday.
WENATCHEE — Wenatchee officials say a homeless camp on South Columbia Street would likely be disbanded if a low-barrier shelter is built nearby.
“The City of Wenatchee has communicated that this location for the encampment is preferable to other locations, such as public parks,” he said. “Shelters and other services will be available in this area soon, and the city has communicated its preference that WSDOT not relocate the people experiencing homelessness in this encampment.”
Larger than past camps
Wenatchee Community Development Director Glen DeVries, who works on homeless and housing issues for the city, said the camp is a lot bigger than previous camps in the area.
Jorge Castañeda, who has been voluntarily serving the area’s homeless population for just over a year, has seen camps start, get pushed out and start again — but this one is the biggest he’s even seen.
He added that the camp seems to have rules for its residents, and that those who don’t follow them are disciplined. “If a thief gets caught, the thief gets punished. It's what you would call street justice,” he said, adding that it doesn’t mean they don’t care and look out for each other.
Regardless of the camp’s unique qualities, it also has some of the characteristics Castañeda says are common among the homeless community.
“That’s the thing with the homeless community, they’re very aware that they are, for lack of a better term, an eyesore on the community. So they hide," he said. "And they’re hiding not just from society, but they're hiding their addiction, they're hiding a lot of things. They're hiding themselves in more than one sense.”
The Wenatchee Police Department has received 23 calls to the area since Sept. 7. The majority have been trespassing complaints, mostly from nearby businesses, but there have also been calls for things like aid, verbal argument and simple assault and malicious mischief. Police also recently recovered a stolen vehicle there, and someone also burglarized The Salvation Army and stole some frozen food on Oct. 15. (Police have no suspects.)
Wilson said other than one domestic violence incident, there haven’t been issues with violence, and that the people who have caused problems are not individuals staying in the camp.
“They were from the east side. They came to harass us, you know?” he said. “So I told them, ‘Don’t let the gate hit you where the good lord split you. Close the gate behind you.”
Capt. Edgar Reinfeld of the Wenatchee Police Department said the number of calls police have received are “inordinately high” but that the number of calls the police get about a homeless camp often depend on how visible the camp is.
“I think we’re getting more calls because of behavior in conjunction with the businesses that are very concerned. They’re just not tolerating anything. There are two businesses in particular that are calling frequently because they’ve had enough.”
Ken Reister, the co-owner of Jack's Motorsports Services, located across the street from the camp, said the camp has been disruptive for business.
“We've noticed, when it's gotten real bad here in the last couple of months, our business has slowed down,” he said. “We have customers who won’t come down here. They don’t feel safe, believe it or not.”
He estimated about a 10% revenue loss due to individuals not wanting to come to the shop. He added that individuals have also crawled under the fence in an attempt to get to the water faucet and that the business’s sign was tagged recently.
“I've talked to people in the camp, and you know what — they don't want to be helped. That’s the sad part,” Reister said. “It’s disturbing that (the police) can't do a thing.”
‘It’s a relief’
For many, the camp has provided some relief from the danger and stress of living on the streets.
“Living on the street, you gotta move every 24 hours — the cops are bothering you or somebody’s saying you gotta move,” Wilson said. “We got a two-bedroom tent. Packing this up every day, going up and down — I'm 60 years old, it's bad.”
Before establishing the camp, Wilson and Alcantara would start their days around 5:30 a.m., when they would pack their tent and belongings. They usually alternated between staying by the river and under the overpass.
“It’s a relief because we’re not having to jump everywhere back and forth,” Alcantara said. “Going up and down all day in the summer time got to be really exhausting.”
The couple were planning on moving in together when Alcantara was evicted after violating her lease for having her son and sister stay with her.
“I couldn’t get them to leave,” she said. “And it’s your own family; you don’t want to put them on the streets. But now I’m out here with them.” Both her son, 22, and her sister also live in the camp. Her younger two children are with their father.
That was 19 months ago. Since then, Wilson and Alcantara said they’ve been on a housing waiting list with Community Action and that a rental voucher they received isn’t enough to cover the available units they have seen. Both are on disability and food stamps.
“I can’t afford the rent that they’re charging people. It’s the first time I’ve been homeless in my life,” Wilson said. “It’s hard, but I’m adjusting.”
Evan Stevens, who’s been homeless for the past 40 years, arrived in Wenatchee from Oregon about a month ago. Although he lives in a vehicle outside of the camp, he said visits to the camp have been pleasant.
“It’s better than what I’ve seen before,” he said. “It’s clean, and everybody respects everybody. It’s pretty awesome.”
Alcantara’s sister, Amanda Tontate, marked her two-year anniversary of being homeless at the end of November. She became homeless after leaving an abusive partner of nine years.
Although she said she’s doing a lot better now that she’s out of the relationship, it’s difficult being apart from her daughters, 9 and 14, who are with a friend in Waterville and a foster family in Idaho, respectively. Her son lives in the camp as well.
She said the camp community is like a family and that she feels safer living there.
“Before I stayed here, I was out there and there were a lot of situations that weren’t good,” Tontate said. “I was always having to look around and have some sort of weapon with me, you know a crowbar or a knife or something. I couldn’t sleep. Here I’m able to actually sleep and wake up and not feel like I’m gonna be harmed in any way.”
She said she wished people would put themselves in the shoes of people who are experiencing homelessness.
“We all have our own different stories to tell, and some of them are good and some of them are bad,” Tontate said. “We’re actually pretty decent people. There are situations I see everyday where people who have got homes are ungrateful. We’re here and we’re grateful for each other and everything we do have.”