Still uncertain whether the Rainbow Family will gather in the woods north of Spokane, public officials, business owners and social workers nevertheless held three large meetings Thursday and tried to plan.
They debated how to strike the right balance between preserving public health and safety, and respecting the rights of visitors while meeting their needs. They debunked rumors and shared information. They viewed a slide show of last year's gathering in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Dillon, Mont.
Meanwhile, there was no word from longtime Rainbows about where the annual gathering of possibly 20,000 hippies and free spirits will be. No word either on where they will meet Sunday for their Spring Council to make that decision.
The Rainbows decide by consensus after hearing from scouts who have been looking at sites on U.S. Forest Service land in Idaho and Washington. "It still could be in southern Idaho," said Carla Newbre, a crisis counselor from Eugene, Ore., who has gone to gatherings for 22 years. "The scouts are still talking to each other and still out looking."
On the Rainbow online message board, people begged for information on where the July 1-7 encampment would be. Other messages announced a holding camp in the Okanogan National Forest between Tonasket and Republic. "Currently we have around 30 brothers and sisters there waiting around to find out the gathering site," one message said. "We need all the brother and sister energy we can get, so come on out."
With reports of Rainbow people already arriving in Spokane, the city parks department has devised a plan for temporarily opening High Bridge Park near downtown for camping. But for now, the park will remain closed to camping until a need becomes more clear, said Taylor Bressler, Spokane parks operations manager. If needed, the parks department will bring in portable toilets and hand-washing stations, and temporarily allow overnight stays. The road to the Vinegar Flats neighborhood along Latah Creek will be barricaded to prevent through traffic.
Spokane Police Capt. Steve Braun said his agency views the Rainbows only as "a large influx of visitors." "We don't see this as a large crime wave. We see this as a people- managing challenge," Braun said.
Part of the challenge will be ensuring that Rainbows who visit or camp in Spokane don't become crime victims themselves, Braun said. That was a concern raised by Eric Robison, who lives near High Bridge Park and said it's a haven for sex predators and drug abusers. "I wouldn't camp there overnight," Robison said.
Bressler said brush has been cleared from the park in recent years so police can better monitor visitors. Still, police would have to step up patrols to prevent crime during an encampment, Bressler said. The idea of directing campers to High Bridge Park "has been run by the mayor. It has been run by the chief" of the Spokane Police Department, Braun said.
Although travelers are expected to camp at High Bridge, shelters are rolling out extra mattresses for the Rainbows. The Hope House at 111 W. Third has seven new bunk beds, and can take up to 28 women nightly. The beds were added after staff had to turn away women for more than a week.
The shelter, opened to aid potential serial killer victims, asks few questions of its residents, so director Diane Leigland is unsure why her agency is so busy. But she can think of no other cause but the Rainbow gathering. "When we turn people away in the summertime, something's going on," Leigland said. Mark Curtis, operations director for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said the business group will add 25 percent more security officers on downtown streets during the Rainbow gathering.
Newport Police Chief Bill Clark told business owners they should view the gathering as an opportunity. Alarmed by U.S. Forest Service warnings about the impact Rainbows have on communities, Clark said he recently took a fact-finding trip to Dillon.
Merchants there told him the Rainbows are not a group to fear. "The business impact in Dillon was extremely good," Clark said. "Grocery stores were big winners in this. So were fast-food places. So were restaurants." McDonald's in Dillon had its best month ever, he said.
Businesses also made money off federal agents who needed motel rooms, food and supplies after following the Rainbows to Montana. Widespread stories of bizarre schemes the Rainbows use to steal food from the Dillon Safeway store were rumor, Clark said. And some of the 23 shoplifting arrests during the Rainbow gathering were of local youths.
Clark said he didn't expect conflicts between Pend Oreille County residents and the Rainbows, if they come to his neck of the woods. "These (Rainbow) people are exercising their constitutional rights and we have a number of constitutionalists up there," Clark said. "I don't think they'll clash over that."
Clark said he's talked to perhaps two dozen Rainbows who have already come to Newport looking for the gathering. "None of them are giving me any garbage," he said.
Only local people were seen in High Bridge and People's Park on Thursday afternoon. One Spokane man, Tim Cabo, 36, said he'd been camping on a sandbar at the river's edge for 14 days. He said he was planning to attend the Rainbow gathering.
"I'm free bird, straight hippie, old school," he said. He recently encountered five people from Bellingham who camped with him for a night and said they were in the area on their way to the gathering. Spokane social service agencies say they're already helping people headed to the gathering.
The Salvation Army helped 22 people who said they were Rainbow members get food and clothes last Friday, said social services director Debbie Emery. Some also asked detailed questions about available services, hours of operation and requirements for aid, leading Emery to believe they were scouts. "We're telling them that services will be very limited" for non- Spokane residents, she said.
Al Brislain, director of the Spokane-based food bank, which supplies most northeast Washington emergency pantries, is also recommending limited aid. He's suggesting that Rainbow travelers be given a one-day supply of food, rather than the five-day baskets given to residents. Exceptions may be made for families with children, he said.
But limiting food supplies disturbed some social workers. After some people at an afternoon briefing recommended against delivering surplus bread to High Bridge campers, Gerriann Armstrong, manager of the Salvation Army's SAFE homeless shelter, objected.
"Some of us are going to feel compelled to help them out," she said. "I'm hearing we don't want a van with bread going down to where they're staying because we'll get labeled as this being a good place to come. But we don't want kids to starve to death." When told about all the planning for the Rainbows, Newbre, the longtime Rainbow from Eugene, said it sounded excessive.
"We're not asking for any of this," she said. She advised people not to give money to "street urchin" panhandlers.
"They are not needy. They are not starving and they will not starve at the gathering," she said. "Most of us extremely disapprove of the small number of our youngsters who do this."