Reason for hope or despair?
Lessons from the battle over Spokane’s ‘Camp Hope’ homeless encampment
Jeremy Lott | December 11, 2023
Camp Hope was, for a time, the largest homeless encampment in the state of Washington, but it was much more than that as well. The encampment regularly made national headlines because it was a political tug of war, a conflict of visions and a small-scale humanitarian crisis rolled into one.
In this, the first of two parts, I will focus more on what happened. In Part Two, I will look more at why it happened and how the now-shuttered and cleaned up camp continues to leave a mark on how cities in Washington strain under the growing homeless problem especially in terms of politics. The situation offers lessons for how Western cities struggle to deal with the homeless crisis.
That it happened in Spokane and not, say, Tacoma mattered. Spokane is the second largest city in Washington and the de facto capital of eastern Washington. It has a population of just over 230,000, according to U.S. Census numbers, which puts it well behind Seattle’s almost 750,000 residents, although leagues ahead of any other cities east of the Cascades.
One of many points of conflict between Spokane City Council’s nonpartisan progressive majority and the nonpartisan but right-of-center Mayor Nadine Woodward had been what to do about the growing homeless problem. Spokane historically has not had a huge homeless population, because over time the homeless tend to migrate to the most moderate climate possible.
Spokane can have deadly cold winters and brutally hot summers compared to Seattle and other coastal cities in the state, and the difference had typically made it more convenient for many homeless persons to head westward.
According to the annual Continuum of Care survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Seattle and King County had 13,368 homeless persons in 2022, the third largest concentration of homeless in the country after Los Angeles and LA County (65,111) and New York City (61,840). Spokane city and county combined had 1,757 homeless persons that year.
While the eastern Washington city had some capacity to shelter the homeless, it was not nearly enough and emergency alternatives proved expensive when the temperature dropped. During a protracted snow and ice storm in December 2021, the Spokane Convention Center was used as a temporary shelter for the city’s still unsheltered homeless. They did more than $90,000 worth of damage to the facility in two weeks, leaving the city to pick up the tab.
City Council tasked the mayor with expanding shelter space. While that political hot potato was getting passed around, a different sort of conflict was brewing. Several homeless persons who had been camped out by city hall took a more DIY approach to the problem. The Washington State Department of Transportation owned a parcel of unused access land that abuts I-90 by Freya and Thor Streets where many homeless chose to make camp. Some PR genius decided to call it “Camp Hope.”
This was in the winter of 2021-2022. As the city warmed up, so did the camp. Just how much it grew is still a matter of dispute. WSDOT writes that “one point during the summer of 2022, it was estimated that more than 600 people were living at the site,” but that wasn’t a hard count. Empire Health Foundation, under contract with the state Department of Commerce, claimed to find “467 individuals in October 2022.” That number was called into question as well, which may be unfair. Because of the fluid nature of camp residency, even a hard count was always going to be an approximation.
The swelling population also brought much more crime, both to those in the camp and to the surrounding neighborhood. Affidavits that the city filed pointed to incidents of rape, drug dealing and sex trafficking in the camp. One camper was allegedly branded in a drug deal gone wrong. Property and violent crime nearby spiked, and the complaints caused the state to fence off the camp and institute a badge system and a curfew.
At the same time as Camp Hope was swelling in size, both the city and the state were doing some things to help ameliorate the problem. After months of debate, the Spokane City Council in June 2022 approved the lease of a former warehouse to be converted into a homeless shelter on East Trent Avenue that would house at least 100 homeless persons regularly and could surge to a capacity of 250 or so during extreme weather. The city also made moves to beef up the bed counts of local Catholic charities, with plenty of money from the state thrown in.
The state offers some measure of just how much taxpayer money Camp Hope cost. “In total, the state provided more than $25 million for housing and services to Spokane County and Camp Hope through the State’s Right of Way Safety Initiative, funded by the Legislature and Gov. (Jay) Inslee, plus supplemental funds through the Department of Commerce,” reported WSDOT, which counts as a good first entry on the ledger.
The transportation agency added, “Of that, the state provided nearly $15 million for the Catalyst Project run by Catholic Charities that supplied housing for nearly 100 individuals from Camp Hope,” at a cost of about $150,000 per head.
As fall and winter of 2022 came around, with the East Trent Avenue shelter opening and more Catholic Charities beds available, the number of campers drew down considerably, but still Camp Hope remained, because (as we’ll see in the next column) it had become a political football. There were several suits and countersuits that had to wind their way through the court system first.
The low point in the whole conflict likely came when sheriff’s deputies for the county were accused of “triggering” and “terrorizing” campers for walking through the camp in December 2022 with fliers telling the remaining residents that the camp would be closed at some point but that shelter and help were available. These officers were holding out offers of warm shelter at a very cold time of the year to campers whose heating was makeshift at best.
Then in March this year, an explosion and fire led to the hospitalization of two remaining campers. That did it. Not long after, Washington Superior Court Judge Marla Polin ordered the camp closed. Campers had completely cleared out by early June, but in some sense Camp Hope is still with us. It was an issue in the local Spokane elections, for instance.
The state of Washington says it resolved the issue in a “humane way,” but while the camp has closed it’s still a matter of contention whether the homeless are being properly housed – or just dispersed to other locations. And it remains to be seen whether the state and its cities have learned any lessons for dealing with homelessness in the future.
Jeremy Lott is a writer based in Washington state.