Giving voice to the unhoused during a crushing heatwave

Here’s how RANGE Media provided critical reporting for the Camp Hope community during the Pacific Northwest heatwave.
Camp Hope residents resting at cooling tent.
The interior of the cooling tent at Camp Hope in Spokane, Wash. on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Erick Doxey for RANGE Media)

To commemorate World News Day 2022, Indiegraf is publishing two stories: a closer look at the Camp Hope reporting process from RANGE Media reporter Carl Stegerstrom and an example of solidarity journalism and community involvement from The Discourse’s Lauren Kaljur.

In late July, during our regular Monday news meeting, RANGE Media’s three-person newsroom in Spokane, Wash., tossed around story ideas for the week’s coverage. We discussed topics scheduled for future coverage, like upcoming primary elections and cuts to the police department’s domestic violence task force.

But lurking on everyone’s mind in the Pacific Northwest was a searing heat wave steadily arriving in the region. Just last year, at least 20 people died in our community from a record heatwave — and that was before Spokane hosted the largest homeless encampment in the region.

Toward the end of the meeting, we decided our heatwave coverage would focus on Camp Hope, a 600-person encampment on a dirt lot off Interstate 90 a couple miles east of downtown Spokane. I set off to the encampment after the meeting, grabbing some essentials like ice, water and Gatorade to donate to the people living there. Throughout our coverage, RANGE also provided direct aid to the encampment and publicized their needs. As an organization built on community engagement, we weren’t sheepish about participating in mutual aid for this vulnerable population.

Car trunk full of bottled water, Gatorade and ice.
One round of supplies the RANGE team pulled together to donate to Camp Hope. (Photo by Carl Segerstrom)

At RANGE, we were already covering the unhoused population differently than other news outlets. We’d recently published a piece on the community ties that bind Camp Hope. In writing that story, we’d featured the voices of people within the camp rather than the voices of police, business owners and advocates featured in most local media reports. Our goal was and remains to write and report from and for the encampment.

On the first day, we looked into a rumor circulating on social media that the neighbors providing water for the encampment were being harassed by the police and pressured to close their tap (they provide water through a 600-foot garden hose). What we found wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. Neighbor Donna Russel said she’d talked to the Spokane police but the conversations had been respectful and cordial. And they didn’t change her mind about offering the camp a lifeline. “I wasn’t brought up to be stingy, that’s not who I am,” Russell said.

After the coverage that first day, with the worst of the heat wave still to come and the community of 600-plus without any adequate means to cool off, I decided to spend the rest of the week reporting from the camp. It seemed clear this was the community most in need during this extreme weather, and it was unclear where that help would come from. So, for about four hours each day for the rest of the week, I spent time talking with people around Camp Hope about how they were making it through the heat and posted nightly dispatches.

As RANGE reported from the encampment, several influential story lines emerged. One was the city’s refusal to provide direct heat relief to the people living at the camp. Rather than work out solutions with camp organizers (who have clashed with the city in the past), the city developed and implemented a cooling center plan —  with the closest cooling center more than a mile away. We reported on why that option didn’t actually provide meaningful relief for the people at Camp Hope.

Cooling tent at Camp Hope.
The cooling tent at Camp Hope after it was set up, but before rented swamp coolers became available. (Photo by Carl Segerstrom)

That story soon evolved into a deeper, co-reported investigation into the city’s response. RANGE received internal emails that showed the city was threatening legal action against the state for allowing a local non-profit to operate a cooling center on the lot adjacent to the encampment. So, we dug into the city’s challenge to the state and internal voices in city hall pushing the city to provide cooling aid to the encampment.

While we covered the evolving power struggle over whether to provide and allow support for Camp Hope, we worked to ensure the voices of those impacted remained prominent. As the heat worsened and tents amplified the already oppressive heat, residents at Camp Hope told us that existing theft problems on the camp were making things worse. The fear of leaving your stuff behind only to have it stolen was preventing people from seeking cooling options both on camp and in the community. We also found ways to go beyond the pervasive narrative of trauma to highlight how people at the encampment find hope. All of our reporting was driven by approaching people, asking them to talk and then seeing what they wanted talk about.

Throughout our reporting we noticed an influx of attention to our coverage and community support at Camp Hope. Organizers at the camp told us they’d never received so many donations. RANGE had one of our biggest ever increases in subscribers and paid members in the weeks during and following our Camp Hope coverage — clearly showing the broader community’s appetite for coverage that centers the voice and experience of the unhoused community.

In the weeks since the mid-summer heat wave, RANGE has continued to report on Camp Hope. Our focus remains on the experience of people living in the camp and how they are impacted by the city. As it currently stands, the city and state are making some progress towards a resolution, while a new interloper, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, has entered the melee by threatening to sweep the camp himself. After announcing plans to sweep the encampment, the sheriff’s office also blocked me from attending Knezovich’s press conference, a move that we at RANGE feel is undemocratic and politically motivated.

The experience of reporting from Camp Hope was not a revelation or breakthrough in our reporting. It’s part of the fabric of who we are and what we are trying to do at RANGE. By giving voice to those too often left voiceless in conversations, and working alongside our community to help those in need, RANGE is showing there’s an appetite for community-based journalism that empowers people to engage in democracy and support one another.

This story was produced to mark World News Day 2022 on Sept. 28 when over 500 newsrooms and media support organizations united in a global campaign to show the value of fact-based journalism.

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