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Homeless get cold shoulder

by Tom Hasslinger
| November 29, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - The good news is that it raised sleeping bags.

The bad news is it asked the people it was trying to help to leave.

Firstly, Steve Bell, the man who slept outside the Harding Center on Nov. 19, compiled 350 sleeping bags, blankets and jackets he donated to the Fresh Start warming center. Bell's overnight sleep was part of Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week - a tribute to the area's homeless population who face the cold night after night.

But those Bell was trying to help couldn't camp out with him. Against city ordinances, the Harding Center didn't make an allowance for actual homeless people when it worked out its deal with Bell that allowed him to use their property to deliver his message.

"That's the irony, isn't it?" Bell said. "If you had a home you could spend the night there, if you didn't have a home, you couldn't."

Instead, up to 50 homeless people who showed up were directed to spend the night at the Fresh Start warming center. The general public could, however. One of Bell's friends, who wished to have his name withheld, camped out.

"That was the deal," said Bell, who didn't think it would prove to be an issue since he never expected homeless people to show up and join him in the sleepout. "That was just my deal with the Harding Center."

The Harding Center did not return messages to The Press.

Sleeping or camping out in the city is a misdemeanor offense under trespassing or panhandling statutes, but is rarely enforced. Rather, officers generally direct homeless to the area warming shelters, according to Police Sgt. Christie Wood.

Police didn't get involved Nov. 19 , but by 10:30 that night, around four hours after the event started, the homeless people were directed to Fresh Start.

"I was under the impression that they wouldn't allow it and we needed an alternative plan," said Jeff Brooks, Fresh Start board member, who worked with Patty McGruder, outreach worker for Dirne Community Health Center, to open the warming center after they learned of that the homeless couldn't sleep over.

The first time hosting the event, Bell's goal is to raise 2,000 sleeping bags for the Kootenai County homeless population some agencies estimate have reached that high.

The last point in time count tallied 700 homeless people last January, but that was just a one-day count on the people they could find. Bell wanted to raise awareness during the week honoring how many people have nowhere else to go come nightfall.

The get-together offered hot food, a fire and stories for those who came.

When the homeless people found out they couldn't stay, only a few complained, Bell said. McGruder knew the people. They would have screened the people had it become an issue on who could or couldn't stay.

"I guess the bottom line is it's pretty ironic how that worked out," Bell said, adding he was pleased with the raised items and the community support for the event.

Fresh Start opens when temperatures dip to 20 degrees at night. Lows Friday hovered in the upper 20s, and 22 people stayed at the warming center that night.

"We got a call from Patty McGruder saying things didn't pan out, and could we open early," said Fresh Start Executive Director Howard Martinson on the "unexpected" need. "So I did."

Bell, meanwhile, said he can't wait for next year.

He said he wants improve next year's event, making it even bigger. He said he isn't sure how he will plan it yet.

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