Aug 11, 2022 11 min read

Inside Spokane’s divided response to the Camp Hope cooling shelter

Inside Spokane’s divided response to the Camp Hope cooling shelter
(Left photo by Erick Doxey)

This article builds on our coverage of Camp Hope and the cooling shelter erected in late July during the six-day heatwave. Here, we dive deeper into how city, state and local nonprofits responded to the heat emergency. For background on this issue check out this article.

What’s new:

  • Internal city emails obtained by RANGE show opposition to the city administration’s response and frustration with the administration’s lack of engagement in solutions relevant to Camp Hope residents.
  • Mayor Nadine Woodward spoke with RANGE and shared her priorities for Camp Hope, which are focused on the impacts to local businesses and the neighborhood and moving people out of the encampment and into shelters.
  • Insight into the attempts by city council and local nonprofits to work on solutions during the heat emergency and the challenges collaborating on solutions for Camp Hope.

What hasn’t changed:

  • The cooling shelter remains functional at Camp Hope.
  • The city hasn’t yet fined the Washington State Department of Transportation for allowing the tent, which it deemed an unauthorized building.
  • No decisions have been made on whether a lease will be granted for the temporary operation of the cooling center.  

Spokane’s Camp Hope is the largest encampment of unhoused people in the state at more than 600 people and growing. Its location on a state owned right-of-way has shaken loose more than $24 million in state funding designed to move people from the encampment off of the side of the freeway on I-90 east of downtown and into more appropriate shelter. While the city has submitted a plan to spend that money and find housing solutions for the people who live there, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has never visited the camp.

“I have driven around Camp Hope, but I have not gone into Camp Hope,” Woodward said in a phone interview with RANGE. “I’ve certainly heard the stories though and seen the video, but I've not been at the camp.”

Instead, the mayor said she’s focused on the camp’s impact on the surrounding area and the concerns of business owners, neighbors and the road construction crew that has complained of theft at the ongoing Thor/Freya construction site. “The bulk of my energy and time has been spent meeting with those businesses, listening to them, as well as the neighborhood.”

When asked whether she considered the people living at Camp Hope to be her constituents, Woodward replied: “I don't know if that's a question that really is something that I can answer. I think that encampment has been populated with people who are not from here.”

The mayor said she was relying on anecdotal reports from emergency responders and service providers that most Camp Hope residents came here from elsewhere. The most recent survey of homelessness in the community — the 2022 point-in-time count conducted by the city in collaboration with other regional governments and nonprofits — found that nearly three-quarters of unhoused people said they were previously living in Spokane County.

“Whether or not I consider them constituents — they're here,” Woodward said. “So, we have to be able to connect them to services and offer them a better space than where they are right now, which is absolutely inhumane. It is not compassionate, nor is it healthy. That encampment is a public health and a public safety risk and we need to move them out of that encampment and into a better place.”

The Woodward administration’s focus on the camp’s neighbors and getting people out of Camp Hope has left a major gap when it comes to protecting and caring for the people at Camp Hope through the extreme weather. Internal city communication obtained by RANGE and subsequent interviews with city and nonprofit leaders show the city administration’s unwillingness to work on solutions for Camp Hope residents during the heat emergency.

In the wake of the deadly June 2021 heatwave, the city council passed a law requiring the city administration to prepare heat shelter plans when temperatures are forecast to hit 95 degrees or more for two consecutive days. The week before the late July heatwave, city council president Breean Beggs said he started asking the administration for their extreme-heat cooling shelter plan. Beggs said the administration told them the plan was to extend library hours to offer cooling options there.

From the beginning, Beggs said the council was concerned the plans were inadequate. “It doesn't deal with people in the neighborhoods and it doesn't deal with homeless people,” Beggs said. “Homeless people are not really set up to go to the library for extended hours and I don't think the libraries would really like 600 people from Camp Hope descending on them.”

Despite complaints from city council and local service providers about the inadequacy of the plan, the city administration stuck to it. “We don't own [the Camp Hope] property, which has been the ongoing challenge with that encampment since day one,” said Mayor Nadine Woodward. “We were told by the state it was illegal. I don't think we wanted to take on the liability of a structure that the state deemed illegal. A good question for the state would be to find out why they didn't erect something on their own property to offer a cooling option for people who are residing on their property.”

Mike Gribner, the eastern region director for WSDOT, said the continued presence and growth of Camp Hope, and the construction of the cooling shelter, has put the agency in a tough spot. “The more the agency permits and acknowledges and accepts the location, the more difficult it will be for the encampment to come to some kind of reasonable outcome/solution,” Gribner said.

“We will not, cannot, permit activity that's deemed illegal, so we denied them the opportunity to get a permit because the situation is a trespass,” Gribner said. “But we also communicated, and we have communicated all along, the need for a humane response. If you need to protect your people, we're not going to stop you from doing that.”

With the city and state both focused on their potential liability and limiting their exposure, Empire Health Foundation (EHF) stepped in to provide Jewels Helping Hands, a nonprofit that helps Camp Hope function, the financial backing to operate the tent. Zeke Smith, president of EHF, said the organization’s focus was on limiting harm to the residents.

“My interest has been, A: How can we make sure to keep [the cooling center] up while it is serving a critical need for the population there, and B: Is there any way for us to try to do that so that we can minimize the disruption and the anxiety that's happening for people out there?”

Smith said that EHF filled the void in cooling shelter access because the organization sees Camp Hope, and the issue of homelessness more generally, as one of the most pressing issues facing the Inland Northwest. Before the heatwave, EHF had convened local service providers to work on recommendations for the city to spend coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan on homelessness services and housing. EHF had also previously provided financial support to have more port-a-potties on site at Camp Hope. “[As I] paid more and more attention to what was happening out at Camp Hope, spent some time out there, [EHF] provided support where it was clear that other folks weren't,” Smith said.

The Woodward administration’s refusal to provide a cooling shelter at or near Camp Hope frustrated city staff. On July 28, one day after the cooling shelter at Camp Hope was completed and the second day of 100+ degree temperatures, the city council’s manager of housing and homeless initiatives, Meagan Vincello, raised concerns about how the city’s response would impact people living at Camp Hope and the lack of engagement by the Woodward administration on the issue. In an email sent to the mayor, her cabinet, the fire chief, fire marshal and city council, Vincello wrote:

“Let me begin this email by stating that I am concerned by the lack of response to my previous email. We are currently in the middle of a public health emergency for citizens who are living unsheltered within our community, and it is our responsibility to make sure we are accommodating their needs and providing adequate solutions to those individuals most affected by inclement weather.

Two days ago, [city council intergovernmental affairs] Erik Poulsen and I sat down with [the mayor’s policy advisor] Collin Tracy and [city administrator] Johnnie Perkins to discuss concerns surrounding the effects of our CURRENT heat index on Camp Hope residents. Our concern was based on the fact that over half of the Point-In-Time count's unsheltered population is currently residing within Camp Hope, and the closest cooling shelter is located approximately 1.2 miles away. This is not adequate accommodation from my perspective, or from the perspective of individuals living within the encampment, or service providers working with this population. Within this plan, we at City are either asking individuals to: (a) leave their only possessions, take a bus to a cooling shelter, and to do so at the risk that their possessions are stolen; or, (b) we are asking for them to pack up their belongings, take a bus with all of their belongings to the cooling shelter, and then make it back to Camp Hope before dark to re-set up their tent if there is still space available. Neither of these options are viable, appropriate, or should be considered provision of adequate accommodation.”

Vincello continued, outlining three solutions that would directly serve Camp Hope residents in extreme heat: opening The Hive, which is four blocks away, as a cooling shelter; the city working with WSDOT to figure out how to approve a temporary lease on the land by Empire Health Foundation for operation of the cooling center; or shutting down the city-owned road between the encampment and the current cooling shelter and setting up a cooling facility in the road, which the city owns.

None of those plans were adopted by the city administration. City Communications Director Brian Coddington wrote in an email in response to questions about why these measures weren’t adopted:

“Several options were discussed, including the ones mentioned. The approaches taken during this and previous weather events have been based on lessons learned, the ability to accommodate needs across the city within reasonable proximity to where people are located, and the resources available to meet those needs citywide.

Space at The HIVE was not available during the needed times and the parking lot similarly required individuals leaving the site.

There is an ongoing conversation with WSDOT about how the state agency might be able to accomplish a lease agreement with a third party. The City has opted not to take on the lease and assume all liability from WSDOT or any third-party activities onsite as requested by WSDOT.

Closing the roadway was not viewed as a practical solution given the even more elevated temperatures on pavement. Additionally, the structure was erected before the City became aware of it and the permitting discussion started.”

Mayor Woodward stood by the library cooling plans and offered some thoughts on what could have worked better. “I think there could have been a better effort to try to transport them to the library,” Woodward said. “Maybe there could have been an effort by the operator of that encampment where there could have been more security to make sure that items weren't stolen.”

Through the heatwave, and as temperatures continue to reach dangerous highs for people living unhoused, there’s been an overall lack of collaboration and leadership in addressing solutions for Camp Hope, and the various groups working to resolve issues have at times bypassed the city administration entirely.

State agencies have allowed the cooling shelter to remain, and gave EHF $500,000 to start the process of moving people from the camp into better housing options. The city council has allocated funding to reimburse EHF for funding the tent, but stopped short of entering a lease agreement to legitimize the structure.

The Woodward administration has chosen not to provide support for Camp Hope, but instead focused on engaging with the state about how the funding to move the encampment will be spent.

One of the main projects the city has been working on as an alternative to Camp Hope is a new shelter on East Trent Avenue. It’s unclear how effective shelter based alternatives to Camp Hope will be — only 51 of 601 Camp Hope residents surveyed by Jewels Helping Hands said they’d go to a shelter, and even then, it would depend on who is operating the shelter.

As each government entity has carved out its own piece of the puzzle, there’s been a sense of disconnection among those working on solutions for Camp Hope. Council president Beggs said he’s tried to bring people together to work on solutions through the heatwave. “I've been successful in the sense that nobody has taken down the tent,” Beggs said. “But I have not been successful in getting them to sign an agreement with each other [to authorize the shelter].

“It would be helpful for the mayor to be more involved in those conversations and her staff,” he said. “City council has clearly set policy on these issues, and in my opinion, the administration has not been implementing either the letter or the spirit of the policies.”

Mayor Woodward said that the onus for the future of the cooling shelter at Camp Hope lies not with the city, but with WSDOT because they own the land. “I think the state should take on that responsibility,” Woodward said.

“They have taken very little responsibility or accountability for this encampment on their property. The city of Spokane is paying for the garbage removal,” Woodward said. “We have paid for the security at that encampment and we've paid for police overtime. I’m a little frustrated the state has not taken on any accountability for the encampment, or the behavior of the individuals in that encampment or the impact that it's had on the neighboring businesses and neighborhoods.”

For EHF president Smith, the disconnection and lack of anyone stepping up to take a leading role has been a major setback in working on solutions for Camp Hope. “It feels like there has not been the kind of coordination and leadership that would be necessary to pull all the different parts together, to be able to effectively address the needs of folks at Camp Hope,” Smith said.

That has led to frustration over the continuing efforts to get the cooling shelter permitted. It remains unpermitted as of August 11. “I am working on getting folks to support the use of the shelter as a transition/navigation center to coordinate and provide outreach, engagement, case management, and services within the [state funded] initiative, but the city administration continues to be unwilling to work together on this issue,” Smith said. “I still have hope this can change, but no evidence it will.”

And while the status of the shelter is unclear, the weather is not. Temperatures have been consistently in the mid-90s and the current long-range forecast is predicting Spokane will once again top 100 degrees next week.

Underlying the conflict surrounding the cooling center and the future of Camp Hope is an intangible issue that may prove more important than any single piece of public policy or intergovernmental squabbling: trust. Many of the dozens of people RANGE has interviewed at Camp Hope don’t have faith in the institutions debating and shaping their future. We’ve heard stories of violence and dehumanizing treatment at shelters, waiting months for a housing voucher only to find out your paperwork was lost, losing jobs because of harassment from police and an overall sense that society doesn’t value Camp Hope residents as human beings.

Those sentiments have been confirmed by service providers who, told us: “A lot of [Camp Hope residents] have just been treated so poorly by the systems in place to help them, so they've lost hope. You have to work a long time to build trust.”

Residents have also told us that they welcome any opportunities to speak with the city government and share their perspectives and needs. “They sit downtown and claim they know what we want,” said Chris Senn, a veteran who was raised in Spokane. “We've all said, ‘come out and talk to us.’ Let's have a great conversation. We know what you’ve got in the budget. Let us tell you what we actually need. You can't just sit downtown and automatically know what we need.”

One person who has many of the people at Camp Hope’s trust is Julie Garcia, the founder and executive director of Jewels Helping Hands. It’s a trust earned by fishing trash out of port-a-potty toilets, being a constant presence at the encampment and defending their existence when others don’t offer a lifeline.

When the message coming to the camp was that the cooling center was to be removed as temperatures remained in triple-digits on Monday, August 1, Garcia was incensed. “All we’re doing is trying to keep these people alive,” she said.

Garcia said uncertainty over the tent, and the city administration’s efforts to have it removed would likely set back any efforts to relocate the more than 600 residents of Camp Hope. “All they’re doing is making them so sad and angry that they’ll never want to participate again,” she said. “The only thing they did today was to scare them.”

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