Inside the competing timelines for Camp Hope and the values shaping the future for the encampment’s residents.
How can we continue to let the hundreds of people living at Camp Hope disrupt the lives of the 20,000 people and 18,000 businesses in the East Central neighborhood? That’s the question business and community leaders at an East Spokane Business Association (ESBA) press conference in late-October demanded of the state agencies working at Camp Hope. The neighborhood has suffered enough, they said. It’s time for Camp Hope to go.
Those working with the state to move people out of Camp Hope say they’re working as fast as they can to safely transition people into more permanent and supportive housing, and that a sweep itself would delay an already laborious process and cause more suffering than it would alleviate.
That fundamental disagreement — not that Camp Hope needs to be cleared, but how abruptly — has led to months of escalating tensions, competing talking points, competing leadership groups convening separate meetings (and press conferences) and has culminated in the threat of a lawsuit pitting the County against the State and its local partners — and at the end of last week, a countersuit filed to prevent a sweep on behalf of the residents of Camp Hope.
The dirt lot that used to be homes
Since December 2021, this vacant dirt lot a couple miles east of downtown Spokane has hosted a hodgepodge of tents, RVs and cars. The land is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and the houses that used to sit here were razed nearly a decade ago to make place for a freeway expansion — the latest infrastructure project coming almost exactly 50 years after the construction of Interstate 90 first displaced a huge portion of this historically diverse community.
The encampment started as a protest at city hall demanding better access to housing and shelter options. The people now making their home on state land moved there after the city pledged to sweep that encampment. Now, nearly a year later, the encampment spread across a city block has become a community flashpoint that’s increasingly drawing statewide and national attention to Spokane.
During the depths of summer, the camp swelled to about 700 people. State officials say there’s about 450 people currently residing at the encampment, after going through a badging process in mid-October, which required each person remaining on the encampment to fill out a needs assessment and sign a Good Neighbor Agreement. Service providers say more than 100 people have moved from the encampment into housing in the past month.
But city and county leadership aren’t content to allow the camp to persist without deadlines for removal. They want it gone sometime between mid-November and early-December. And, they’ve declared a state of emergency on October 25 to dedicate additional local resources to moving people off of the encampment.
As the city and county pursue an expedited shutdown of the camp, they are centering the impact the camp has had on the East Central neighborhood. Their answer to the question posed by ESBA is: Within the next month.
The state, on the other hand, has shunned deadlines and pleaded for patience from the community, as well as the city and county. They argue that disrupting the process they have in place to clear the camp will backfire. Instead of getting into stable housing, they believe the unhoused people at the camp will scatter throughout the community, undoing any progress towards getting them stable and into durable housing options.
At the center of each approach is a debate about who gets to be a member of the community in Spokane.
Mayor Woodward told RANGE that she’s not sure she considers the people living at the encampment constituents because she believes many aren’t from the community. Leaders at the county and with the city administration have focused their response on the challenges the camp is causing in the surrounding neighborhood and argued that moving people indoors during the winter is an act of compassion.
In this approach, the people living at Camp Hope are the creators of the crisis afflicting the East Central community and the solutions come from government leadership. “My community is in crisis,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said. “I'm an elected official and it's amazing that since I got involved things are starting to happen.”
In the camp community, which includes people living there, service providers and the state agencies supporting services for the camp, the encampment is less the cause of a crisis than it is the result of many crises. It starts at the macro-level with the region’s crushing housing costs and lack of supportive services, and trickles down to individual struggles stemming from trauma, untreated mental health challenges and substance addiction.
For the people trying to get out of crisis and into housing, the encampment offers stability and access to services they can’t easily access on the street. And, it’s given people a sense of community and self-determination they haven’t found in shelters. So, supporters of the state’s work to slowly decommission the camp want to start from the inside of the camp, meet people where they are and have permanent and supportive housing options in place before pushing people off the encampment.
Coming up with plans to address each of these crises relies in large part on who leaders are listening to and which community they are centering in their response.
A neighborhood in crisis
As the camp has grown to occupy the city block of WSDOT land, so has crime. According to Spokane Police Department statistics, there’s been a particularly large increase in property crimes like burglary, larceny and vehicle theft, which have spiked in the quarter-mile radius of the camp. City-wide property crime is increasing, according to SPD’s CompStat data. Still, the city-wide 23% increase in property crime in 2022 compared to 2021, is dwarfed in comparison by the 138% increase in the vicinity of Camp Hope.
Jesse Smith has experienced the challenges an increased presence of unhoused people has brought to the area. Smith, the manager of the Fred Meyer a couple blocks away from the camp, ran through a litany of crimes he says have become a regular occurrence at the store, including: drug use in the bathroom, theft, prostitution and death threats to himself and his family.
Smith said he now lives in fear, taking different routes home from work because he’s afraid he might be followed. Other employees, he said, have just plain quit.
Stories like Smith’s are common in the area. ESBA has collected more than a dozen that echo concerns about crime, drugs and filth associated with the camp.
That crime doesn’t just affect the surrounding community, it also impacts the people living on the encampment. Crime has had devastating impacts within the camp community. Service providers tell terrifying stories of sexual assault and theft within the camp is rampant. As security guard Timothy Morgan put it, “the ones that come here to die are trying to overrun the ones trying to live.” Still, people have chosen to join this community because it feels safer than being alone out on the streets. And, residents have told me that the services and structure offered at the camp give them a path to stability.
But, ESBA and neighborhood business and residents argue that any progress to stability within the encampment doesn’t outweigh the instability the encampment is causing to the surrounding community.
Tables and timelines
With resentment in the neighborhood simmering and threatening to boil over, Knezovich believes he can remove the encampment and get people into better housing options. “We want to do everything we can to convince people: Why in the world would you want to live in these conditions when we can give you a better place to live?” Knezovich said.
That’s why Knezovich is leading a new emergency operations center with the backing of an emergency declaration by both the city and county. This operations center, which the county and city say they modeled after their COVID-19 response, allows the authorities to bypass bureaucratic controls on things like purchases and contracting. The command post also creates a unified structure that city and county staff can report to as they identify their strategy to disband the camp.
This emergency center is running parallel to the state’s ongoing Camp Hope response. Since the legislature passed the Rights-of-Way initiative last spring, the state has been plotting the closure of the encampment. Over the summer and into fall, the state has spent more than $10 million in projects to move people off of Camp Hope and has another $15 million in planned spending. The largest share is paying for the renovation and operation of a transitional housing project at the former Quality Inn in the West Hills. State money has also paid for security and fencing at the encampment, peer navigators who work with camp residents to connect them to housing and services and coordination of the effort by Empire Health Foundation (EHF).
The funding for the effort to move people from Camp Hope into housing comes from state legislation created during last winter’s legislative session. So far, the “Rights-of-Way Initiative” has pledged more than $143 million to projects addressing encampments along highways across the state.
In late May, state agency leaders reached out to Mayor Nadine Woodward and Council President Breean Beggs to propose a meeting to discuss the available state funding. At that point, the encampment was believed to house about 400 people. The letter reads in part: “The current situation poses significant public health and safety concerns for people who have taken shelter there…. We should also recognize the hazards and concerns to the adjacent businesses and neighborhood.”
On June 21, the Commerce Department put out requests for proposals asking the city, county and other local municipalities to identify how they would like the more than $24 million in state funding to be spent. After the state extended its initial response deadline by 20 days, the city submitted their plan to utilize the funding on July 21 (detailed and linked here in reporting by Greg Mason).
The county — which is pushing to expedite the process now — balked at the short timeline Commerce set for proposals this summer. “Homelessness and the need for temporary, transitional, and permanent affordable housing units is an ongoing issue that the region has been grappling with for several years,” the commissioners wrote in a letter to Commerce. “It is disheartening to see that the State seems to think this issue may be addressed in the span of less than one month,” they wrote, referencing the time the state gave local municipalities to come up with a funding plan.
Now, the county is saying the state hasn’t acted fast enough.
After the city’s plan was submitted in late-July, state funding started flowing into housing projects. By September, state funding was bringing additional services to the camp. The projects that state money is funding haven’t been without controversy. The most expensive piece, the conversion of a West Hills Quality Inn into supportive housing, sparked fierce backlash.
In late-August, West Hills neighborhood residents filled the Hampton Inn, loudly voicing their opposition to having the 100-plus unit Catholic Charities “Catalyst Project” in their neighborhood. Rather than defending the project, which was part of the city’s own proposal and is now cited by Sheriff Knezovich as an important source of housing as people move off Camp Hope, Mayor Woodward directed the angry crowd to vent their frustrations to the Commerce Department and Director Lisa Brown.
That statement, and the city’s declaration that the encampment was a nuisance property on September 8, blew open a growing rift between the city and state. In a September 10 letter, state officials admonished the city for blaming the state for Camp Hope and being an unwilling partner in housing solutions. "The city — starting with the Mayor — is more preoccupied by optics than action," the letter reads.
With the state and city publicly at loggerheads, a third-party, Sheriff Knezovich, entered the public fray a couple weeks later. In a September 22 letter to WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar, Knezovich blamed the state’s inaction for allowing the camp to persist and said he planned to clear the camp by mid-October. Knezovich said he’s been working on the issue with the mayor behind the scenes throughout the summer.
Amid the public disputes, the state started hosting operational meetings in September as Commerce began disbursing its funding. Those meetings, which happened with very little public awareness, are meant to work with partners and find alignment on the ongoing work to shrink and stabilize the camp. Empire Health Foundation, which Commerce awarded $3.5 million to serve as the lead organization supporting services at the Camp, has served as the state’s primary local contractor.
In late-September, the state erected a fence around the encampment in an attempt to prevent growth and promote safety for people in the camp and surrounding community. Following the fencing, the state implemented a badging system in mid-October that identifies who does and does not already live in the camp and restricts access to the encampment to people who already live there and service providers. Now, additional security patrols the camp and its footprint has shrunk. Port-a-potties and RVs that once stretched to the curb have been put inside the lot and the sidewalk has been restored on the northside of the encampment.
With incremental progress underway, weekly operational meetings between Empire Health Foundation, state, city and county officials got heated. “The state said we won't have any more meetings if the sheriff shows up,” Knezovich said. “They don't like me being at the table. They don't like hard questions. I gave them very hard questions and made some very harsh comments when they minimized things that they were being told [about crime at the encampment].”
Zeke Smith, the president of Empire Health Foundation, said the presence of local elected officials at these meetings “changed the tenor of the conversation.” Those meetings were “intended to be operational and intended to be about coordination across the different agencies,” he said. “The city requested those elected officials didn’t continue attending because they wanted to have a focus on operations and coordination.”
WSDOT’s eastern region administrator, Mike Gribner, echoed Smith’s comments and said that the operational meetings were becoming politicized. “It’s election season. The electeds, including the sheriff, were not adding anything productive to the conversation,” he said. Those operations meetings, which included questions like how to provide access to water and electricity to the camp, were never meant to be about politics, Gribner said. “We wanted to focus on operational alignment.”
Those weekly operational meetings have continued, but now there’s also a parallel operation headed by Knezovich. The sheriff is leading the county and city’s emergency operations center created by the October 25 emergency declaration. And, Knezovich said he believes that if the state and their partners will come to work under his leadership, they can close the encampment quickly.
“I could have taken great affront to being dismissed, but I went, ‘fine, just come to the table, let's work on this, get it done. I don't have time for childishness,’” Knezovich said. “If the state would just simply come on board, this [would be] wrapped up for this community in about four weeks, and there won't be a law enforcement action necessary.”
So far, the state has rejected the offer to come to Knezovich’s table. They say there’s no need to create two parallel operational structures and that they’re wary of engaging with the county with the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads. And, they don’t believe the timeline the county and city are proposing can work.
“The decommissioning of the camp comes down specifically to providing housing options,” Gribner said. “There aren’t enough housing options.”
The tortoise and the hare
As the city and county stand up their emergency operations center, and the state continues its work at Camp Hope, two key differences have emerged: The city and county want a near-term deadline for closing the camp and are willing to lean heavily on the shelter system to make that happen. On the other hand, the state has brushed away timelines and says its goal is to find more permanent housing options, like apartments and supportive housing, before moving people off of the camp. While each of the approaches has significant consequences for both the East Central neighborhood and Camp Hope community, these differences in each are as philosophical as they are practical.
The approach that the Woodward administration, county commission and sheriff are taking relies on moving the bulk of people from the encampment to the Trent Shelter. Other options to expand housing in the community and connect people to those expanded options are also in the plan, but the Trent Shelter is the linchpin.
Under the emergency plan developed by the city and county, the shelter will add capacity for as many as 400 people. Trent would also offer expanded navigation services to get people into housing and other services like mental health and addiction treatment. Those services are already in place at Camp Hope.
It’s unclear how the recent replacement of the Guardians Foundation with Salvation Army as the shelter operator will impact the ability of the city to rapidly expand the center’s capacity from 150 to 400.
This plan puts the onus on Camp Hope residents to leave the area they’ve chosen to stay, accept the shelter being offered or eventually face arrest. By compelling people to move to the Trent Shelter, city and county leadership say they hope to provide Camp Hope residents a healthy environment where they can stay as sustainable housing options become available. “We want to do everything we can to convince people: Why in the world would you want to live in these conditions when we can give you a better place to live?” Knezovich said.
The approach is rooted in an opinion that Knezovich and Woodward recite frequently: The homeless in Spokane get too many handouts and don’t face enough accountability. Therefore, if options for shelter are available and people refuse to go, it’s time for the sheriff to step in and start arresting people..
It also comes from the vantage point of outsiders who have heard stories about the camp, but haven’t really engaged with people living at the encampment. Woodward’s only trip into the encampment came when she accompanied conservative media producer Jonathan Choe. Knezovich has declined invitations to the encampment from journalists and service providers.
Rather than engage directly with the camp, both Knezovich and Woodward have focused their efforts on the impacted community surrounding it, a community desperately begging for relief from the crime associated with the encampment.
State agency leaders and service providers to the camp, who have held press conferences at the camp and visited when the cameras aren’t there, don’t think the ‘take it or leave it’ approach is going to work. Instead of forcing camp residents to a place they may not choose to stay, like Trent, they want to meet them where they are, develop non-shelter housing options for everyone and get people straight from the camp and into housing. So, they are asking the community for patience and trying to highlight the incremental process being made at the encampment.
In the near-term, this slower process centers the needs of the individuals in the camp rather than the desires of the community surrounding it. The message is: Let us do this here, where we know we can reach them day after day, rather than risk residents scattering throughout the city.
The state hasn’t set any deadlines for removal of the camp and from all appearances doesn’t intend to. Instead, they’ve opted to trust the process that’s already underway. According to service providers at the camp, more than 100 people have moved from the encampment in the last five weeks by getting connected with housing or reconnected with family. Walking through and around the encampment, it’s clear that there’s more space on the lot between tents.
Over the past two weeks, service providers at Camp Hope have given more than 450 badges to people living on the camp. Those badges are required to enter the encampment, which has a security checkpoint at the gate. Getting those badges required residents to fill out a needs assessment and sign a good neighbor agreement, which sets out the rules required to keep a badge and stay eligible for entry into the encampment.
Ben Stuckart, the head of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium, former Spokane City Council President and runner-up to Woodward in the tight 2019 mayoral race, said the process to connect people to housing is underway but requires time and a toning down of the rhetoric about the camp. Right now, service providers are wading through the hundreds of needs assessments in order to match people to housing options that best fit their individual needs. And, there’s only so much housing available, Stuckart said.
What’s available in the near-term are beds for around 100 people at the Catalyst Project in the West Hills, which is scheduled to open December 1. This is a housing project Stuckart wanted to make clear was different than a congregate shelter, like Trent.
“People keep using the word shelter: It’s not a shelter, it’s transitional housing,” Stuckart said. “It's going to have more services in it than any other housing project we've ever seen in Spokane. It's going to have safety measures for the neighborhood and we're going to be screening people here at Camp Hope to make sure the right people get matched.”
In addition to the 100 spaces at the Catalyst Project, Stuckart said the housing authority has about 50 housing vouchers that will soon be available to Camp Hope residents and potentially house 100 more residents. After those two hundred or so housing options are exhausted, there isn’t much on the horizon for the remaining 200-plus people at the encampment, Stuckart said.
For his part, Knezovich said he thinks the creation of the emergency operations center will grease the skids on Spokane’s tight housing market and help get people vouchers and places to live. “That’s the magic of the EOC,” he said. “It cuts through all the red tape, it truly does. We can get the vouchers, we can get them handed out in very short order.”
It’s important to understand, though, that a housing voucher isn’t a golden ticket for housing. Once vouchers are issued, the people who have them need to find landlords willing to rent to them. For many in the camp, who either have past evictions or criminal records, that process can be incredibly challenging to successfully navigate.
Knezovich also believes many will take the opportunity to reunite with their families using bus passes. “This doesn't all automatically come to rest on the shelter; this is multifaceted and people need to start thinking outside the box,” Knezovich said.
Service providers say this is already happening. They issue around 1,000 local bus passes to camp residents each week and that they have demand for more. They also say they support and offer resources to people who can and want to reunite with their families.
Stuckart isn’t convinced that housing beyond the identified 200 or so units is going to become available in the next few weeks or even months, regardless of how the county and city marshal their emergency resources. And, he’s concerned that the rush to clear the encampment will keep people on the street, which is generally far more expensive than getting people into housing.
In Houston, where Mayor Woodward, Commissioner Mary Kuney and other local delegates traveled last week to learn about that city’s highly celebrated homelessness response, local government officials emphasize the savings that come from housing people. “It is costing you more money to walk by somebody on the streets of Spokane who’s homeless than it is just to put them in housing with wrap-around support services,” said Marc Eichenbaum, who works for Houston’s Mayor on homeless initiatives, in an interview with former Spokane City CFO Gavin Cooley for an ongoing series called “Housing and Help”.
Stuckart implored the city and county to back off their plans to close the camp in short order and asked that the people who work on housing and homelessness get time to work with the people at the encampment. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to take 400 people and find them housing,” he said. “We're looking for long term solutions for people because that's, one, the right thing to do, and two, it saves taxpayer money.”
Voices from the camp
As the war of words escalates between government officials, information filters into the camp in drips and drabs. The day after the city and county held a press conference to announce the camp would be cleared sometime between mid-November and December, a camp resident approached Julie Garcia, the founder and executive director of Jewels Helping Hands and de-facto leader of the Camp Hope community, and asked her if there would be a sweep. As different people jockeyed for Garcia’s attention, Garcia tried to assuage the woman’s concern.
While some people in the encampment follow and worry about camp news, others are less engaged. RANGE asked Jason, who was waiting to get a picture for his identification, what he thought he would do if he had to choose between going to the Trent shelter or possibly facing arrest. “I haven’t seen the shelter, so I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
Jason isn’t sure what the future holds, but he said the three months he’s spent at the camp have helped him start to get his life on the right track. “It’s nice getting situated,” he said. For Jason, the biggest difference between living at the encampment and on the streets has been the support he’s gotten from Jewels Helping Hands and the other service providers on site. “This is my most stable housing in a minute,” Jason said.
For Teresa Montanez, the additional services coming to the camp have helped her get treatment. She said she’s now taking Suboxone, a drug that reduces urges for opioids like heroin, fentanyl and oxycontin by blocking the opiate receptors in your brain. She’s also in the process of getting her birth certificate so she can eventually get identification. Until then, she doesn’t have much in the way of housing options.
If she were to go to Trent, she’d have to be separated from her partner. “He has really bad social anxiety,” Montanez said. “At the end of the day it’s just too much for him.” Still, she isn’t looking forward to the prospect of a cold winter at Camp Hope as an alternative. “In tents, it’s brutal,” she said. And, it can get really expensive trying to get propane to stay warm.
“An apartment would be nice, but more realistically maybe a hotel — somewhere with running toilets, water and a shower” Montanez said. “It’s hard to take a mobile shower in winter.”
Jimmy, who’s lived in Spokane for the last 12 years and lost his job shortly before the pandemic, has a housing voucher but hasn’t been able to secure a place to rent. “I’ve been trying, but it hasn’t been good,” he said. “I just can’t get places to rent.”
At Camp Hope, Jimmy’s been working with a peer navigator who helped him get the housing voucher and is working with him to find housing with that voucher. Without the option to get into an apartment or other permanent and private housing options, Jimmy said the alternative of moving to the Trent shelter doesn’t feel like progress. “They’re just shuffling people to another shelter, I don’t see that solving anything,” he said.
Instead, Jimmy is hoping he can navigate the tight housing market and get into a place of his own. A place he can take a shower and lock behind him when he goes to work. “If I had a home base, things would be a lot better,” he said. “Not only would I feel better about myself, things would actually be better. It’s hard when you’re always stressed.”
Navigating a crisis
Lydia Cicarelli and Danny Beard both work with Spokane’s homeless community. Cicarelli is a peer navigator for Revive with a caseload of 35 residents at Camp Hope who she’s helping connect to services and housing options. Beard is the vice president of ESBA and director of strategic partnerships for Union Gospel Mission.
Both are dedicated to serving the homeless community, and they've come to very different conclusions about what’s needed at Camp Hope.
Cicarelli spends “pretty much all day, every day” at the encampment connecting people with resources like housing, unemployment and mental health and addiction treatment. And, she’s had some success so far. “There's a lot of people down here willing to work and we have good relationships with employers,” she said, while standing outside the tent shelter at Camp Hope. “There's been quite a few people that have gotten jobs down here that are getting up and going to work while living in Camp Hope.”
Beard said he regularly travels down to the encampment to observe, but he’s never been inside. Over the last month or so, he’s seen progress as the fences have gone up and additional security has been added. “There is improvement, 100%,” Beard told RANGE after an ESBA press conference. “If it was the bad apples that were getting removed from there, then it's been successful. I think there's more of a calmness.”
In Beard’s mind, though, that’s not enough to justify keeping the camp around. “Our side at the ESBA is no matter what they do out there, it's not code and it's really not helping the people get to a better place,” he said. Beard said he believes accountability is key to helping people move out of homelessness. “I believe from my experiences out there, that there's enablement taking place and I guarantee and know for a fact until maybe recently there was little to no accountability,” he said. “In my opinion, true compassion has an element of accountability.”
So, Beard said, people should be offered housing if it's available, taken into treatment, reconnected with family or if none of those options work, moved to the Trent shelter. At that facility, he believes people can get connected with the help they need and get moving in the right direction. If they don’t choose that option, Beard believes they should face consequences. “Here's the one that's a little struggle for some people: If you don't want any of those services… we have to arrest you. Because, basically, we can't help you.”
Cicarelli doesn’t think people will stay at Trent and that her job connecting people to meaningful opportunities for housing, treatment and employment will become harder if the camp is swept. “We cannot help them if we cannot find them,” Cicarelli said. “Solving the ‘homeless problem’ is not going to happen if people scatter and we can't get a hold of them.”
Cicarelli said she expects people to disperse if faced with the ultimatum of being arrested or going to the shelter. “A general consensus [with Trent] is there's a lot of people that don't want to go,” she said. “They have trauma with shelters. They're sleeping in a bunk next to a stranger. They have no privacy. There's a lot of people who would not be willing to go, especially if they're trying to make it a center with 400 beds. People don't feel safe in shelters. At least they can zip a tent.”
Rather than push people into the shelter, Cicarelli wants to keep trying to help people where they are. “It's pretty difficult to get them into housing if there's no housing,” she said. “Landlords are very picky after COVID. There's a lot of people applying to apartments that get snapped up real quick.”
Cicarelli helps the people on her caseload get housing ready by doing things like getting identification, paying off court fees and shepherding them through community court. Of the 35 people on her case load, she said all but three are engaged with her on a daily basis. If more housing becomes available, she believes her clients will be eager to move in. Still, she’s worried that the progress she’s making with Camp Hope residents won’t continue if the camp is cleared.
Regardless of the choices made by politicians, Cicarelli knows what she and her peers in the support community will do. “We'll keep fighting,” she said. “We don't give up. We don't give up on people and we don't give up on what we're doing.”