Friday, June 9, 2023

Camp Hope: 18 months of trials, tribulations and, eventually, resolution

By Ryan Overton

It’s been a long journey with the Camp Hope homeless encampment. It’s evolved from a small protest in front of City Hall that got little attention on the east side of the state to become the state’s largest encampment and the focus of heated lawsuits. It was daunting, but we’re now grateful to say we’ve achieved our overall goal of closing the site and offering safe, meaningful housing to those living there.

Oftentimes in government we never know what the day will bring. Sharing news about emergency closures, collisions, construction, collecting public input on planned projects and serious events is unpredictable but pretty standard for WSDOT. Until late 2021 regularly talking about homeless encampments – at least in eastern Washington – was still pretty rare.

A look at Spokane’s Camp Hope in November 2022 (left) and June 2023. After much work and coordination, the camp closed on June 9.

Now that Camp Hope is resolved, we hope the city administration will re-focus their attention on creating a safe, stable, broad safety net for the thousands that continue to live unsheltered within city limits. The reality is that Camp Hope was a symbol of a much larger problem and has been on a trajectory to resolution for many, many months. The most recent point-in-time count done by the city of Spokane counted 2,390 people experiencing homelessness throughout Spokane County on a single night in February 2023. That’s an increase of 36% compared to the point-in-time count conducted in 2022. Of the 2,390 people experiencing homelessness in the most recent count, 955 individuals were identified as living outside, a 16% increase from 2022.

Lack of shelter space causes Camp Hope to grow on WSDOT site    

Camp Hope really started in December 2021, when a small group gathered outside of Spokane’s City Hall to protest the lack of available shelter bed space for unhoused individuals within the city of Spokane.

The size of the protest grew and after a few days, during which the city threatened to sweep the people living outside City Hall, the group of roughly 60 or so individuals relocated without permission to a parcel of state land controlled by WSDOT in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood.

We had not faced an encampment of this size before in Spokane, nor had we seen this issue on this type of land – non-active right of way (not along an existing highway). As a transportation agency we don’t have legal authority to remove people on our own. We rely on local partners to identify other housing or shelter options for people and help with outreach. We've seen from experience that people don’t just disappear after a sweep; they scatter and the challenges associated with encampments remain.

We hit countless roadblocks early on and, without any significant change in options or cooperation from the city, the size of Camp Hope continued to grow, eventually numbering an estimated 600+ by the summer of 2022.

The Right of Way Safety Initiative – a hand up, not hand outs

In late spring of 2022, the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee allocated money for a new approach to encampments on state rights of way, what is now known as the Right of Way Safety Initiative.

Three state agencies – WSDOT, the Department of Commerce and the Washington State Patrol – were tasked with carrying out this work in the initial five counties: King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane. Statewide, the legislative proviso and other funding provided $143 million for the work; Spokane’s share of that funding brought nearly $25 million to Spokane County to address encampments on state rights of way, also known as Camp Hope.

This work was based on what we had seen work best in other locations, both in our state and others: intensive social service outreach with the people living in the encampment to put them in touch with services and find the best housing for them from the available options. Every person living homeless has a different set of needs and challenges and there is no one-size-fits all solution, so working with each individual often brings about more lasting progress. The initiative funding also allowed for new housing to be created, one of the critical needs in resolving homeless encampments.

Service providers – Empire Health Foundation, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition, Jewels Helping Hands, Compassionate Addiction Treatment, Revive Counseling, Volunteers of America and i2 Strategies – were the backbone of this work with assistance from several state agencies. In addition to the three proviso partners, the state departments of Health, Licensing and Social and Health Services worked to help get the site occupants identification, birth certificates and sign them up for eligible programs – which are key to helping people find jobs and housing. Community volunteer and service groups – far too many to list here – also helped their Camp Hope neighbors by bringing food, clothing and assistance.

Additionally, WSDOT partnered with and funded two Pre-Employment Preparation Program trainings, which provided people from Camp Hope with hands-on training, job skills and certifications that can help them earn a livable wage once completing the program. Nearly 20 people graduated from two sessions.

The first Pre-Employment Preparation Program graduation held at the Northeast Community Center. The graduates, made up of people from Camp Hope, received hands-on training, job skills and certifications to help them earn a livable wage.

Closing Camp Hope

It took time to start the process to assess and assist the large number of people on site, but gradually people were offered services and new options and began to move out of Camp Hope – and numbers began to drop. A mix of options helped, including the Catalyst project run by Catholic Charities coming online in the latter half of 2022 (it currently houses more than 90 people), other housing options being developed, people reuniting with family through service providers, learning of assistance to help them find their own housing, or choosing to leave the site.

An initial provider count in the fall found 467 people living at Camp Hope. The first independent count completed by contractor i2-Strategies in December 2022 identified 198 people living at the site. By spring 2023, after working through the proven process of matching occupants with safe, secure housing options, it was clear the end was near.

As the work continued – including substantial state funds for increased service and housing options – relationships with the city and county grew complicated and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the tension and lawsuits. It made the work harder, but our focus to resolve the site never wavered. We also appreciate the work by city council members who helped address this issue, as well as the productive partnership with the new sheriff who took office in January.

On June 9, we reached our major milestone and achieved the goal we stated from the beginning: we permanently closed Camp Hope in a safe and humane way. WSDOT will now work to mitigate and repair the site until it is needed for the North Spokane Corridor construction.

Living up to the Camp Hope name

It’s been a long 18 months, and we’re constantly reminded that the most difficult work was done on-site by the service providers and those living unsheltered at Camp Hope. Through all the ups and downs, they kept working to find new options and solutions and do the hard work of taking risks and trying new things.

There were struggles. People at the site faced tremendous personal challenges and experienced major changes to their lives in receiving the services they needed along with the housing. At times the work felt impossible, but still it continued. Providers showed up day-in and day-out, worked together with those living at Camp Hope to overcome obstacles and, in the end, many received a second chance. Camp Hope became a different place, a place that lived up to its name – Hope.