Last fall, nearly 500 people lived in Camp Hope in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. As of earlier this month, fewer than 70 remained.
But that progress wasn’t enough for the city of Spokane. Last week, the city filed suit against the state Department of Transportation, which owns the property Camp Hope sits on. In its complaint, the city asks the Spokane County Superior Court to declare the encampment a nuisance property and force its final clearing.
It’s the latest in an ongoing dispute among state, local and county officials over the encampment, which has sat east of downtown Spokane near I-90 since late 2021.
A Spokane County Superior Court judge sought to end the stalemate last week by forcing all parties to work together on a plan to close the encampment. But the judge also allowed service providers working at the encampment to continue providing meals and other services to remaining residents.
All sides say they will work together, but have held onto their contrasting narratives concerning the encampment.
The city, including Mayor Nadine Woodward, maintains the state's refusal to provide a firm timeline to close Camp Hope, has prolonged the negative impact on residents and business owners in the surrounding neighborhood. In its complaint, the city cites examples of crime and other safety issues in and around the camp.
City officials said in a news release the urgency to pursue legal action came after a March 17 fire that injured two camp residents.
“It was time to take action,” said Brian Coddington, spokesman for the city of Spokane. “It reached the point that it’s no longer safe for those people living there, and it’s no longer safe for those living around it.”
WSDOT and service providers contracted to operate Camp Hope said the lawsuit was an unpleasant surprise, as they were close to moving the last camp residents into transitional or permanent housing. While WSDOT agrees the encampment needs to close, transportation officials emphasized it shouldn’t be done without addressing underlying issues.
“It [the lawsuit] gives the opportunity for the city to come in and sweep it,” said Ryan Overton, a WSDOT spokesman. “It doesn’t solve the root cause of homelessness within the city of Spokane or Spokane County. It just moves it to another location.”
Who’s still at Camp Hope?
During the summer months, some estimate, upward of 600 people lived in the encampment, which began in late 2021 as a protest encampment at Spokane City Hall over the availability of shelter beds.
The encampment relocated to the WSDOT property, which made it later eligible for funding through the state’s Right of Way Initiative, which aims to help move residents living in state-owned right-of-ways into other housing.
By last fall, when Jewels Helping Hands, a nonprofit managing Camp Hope, implemented a badging process to ensure unauthorized individuals weren’t entering, there was a firmer count of 467 people. A fence was installed around the property, one of several safety measures the organization implemented.
Service providers working at the encampment say they need more time to secure transitional or permanent housing for the remaining 65 residents.
The remaining population includes people the advocates define as chronically unhoused. The majority have been without a home for least a year, and a sizable portion have spent five or more years unhoused, said Zeke Smith of Empire Health Foundation, which has a state contract to oversee outreach efforts at Camp Hope.
Many of the remaining residents are also dealing with mental and physical health concerns and prolonged substance use, Smith added. Some have a criminal history.
“When you put those factors together across this population, you have a population … really challenged [to get into] the limited housing options we have in Spokane to address their needs,” Smith said.
Like Seattle and other cities across the U.S., Spokane County has a number of nonprofit programs that provide supportive housing for those with mental and physical health challenges, including substance abuse.
Among those who have already left the encampment, more than 80 ended up in The Catalyst, a new transitional housing facility in a former motel off Interstate 90, southwest of downtown Spokane.
The $15 million used to acquire the former motel, renovate the property and to fund the first year of operation came from a $25 million state fund from the state Department of Commerce to address homelessness issues in the city of Spokane and Spokane County.
At The Catalyst, each resident has a private room and bathroom — there are rooms for couples and families — and access to both health services and community programming, from art to karaoke. They also receive three meals a day cooked on-site.
The Catalyst is Catholic Charities Eastern Washington’s entrance into transitional housing. Such housing is for people who need more than what an emergency shelter can offer but haven’t been able to secure permanent housing, said Dawn Kinder, chief stabilization officer at Catholic Charities Eastern Washington.
“Getting out of the shelter is difficult unless you’re on a waitlist for an apartment,” she said.
Catholic Charities plan to run The Catalyst long after Camp Hope closes, but former encampment residents have helped the organization learn how to efficiently offer transitional housing services at a larger scale, Kinder said.
According to data from Empire Health Foundation, just a small number of the 400 former residents of Camp Hope — 17 — have secured permanent housing. Others are staying with friends and family, at a hotel, serving time in jail, staying in an emergency shelter or living in their cars.
But more than half of the 400 are unaccounted for.
Smith said that last fall, when city and county officials threatened to sweep the camp, many reacted by leaving without any indication of where they were going. Providers want to track those former residents and continue to provide needed services, including helping them move into a more secure housing situation, Smith said.
For the city of Spokane, having so many former Camp Hope residents unaccounted for eliminates a core argument for keeping an open timeline for the encampment’s closure: providing a central location to serve Spokane’s unhoused population.
“People are already being pushed into the neighborhoods,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington.
Coddington said 150 former Camp Hope residents reported staying or receiving services at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC), which opened last year. He also noted that one of the service agencies working at Camp Hope, Revive Counseling Services, provides the same services at TRAC. That’s one reason the city believes it has the resources — and shelter space — to better support the remaining residents of Camp Hope.
“The city can make a connection [with Camp Hope residents] when there’s a more controlled environment with regular meals,” he said.
On Thursday, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Marla Polin ruled the city met the requirements to declare the encampment a nuisance property and that it had the right to seek relief.
However, Polin stopped short of granting the city’s request for abatement or immediate action, which allows service providers to continue to operate Camp Hope and provide various services to the remaining residents.
The meat of the ruling, however, was the judge’s desire for the city and WSDOT to work together on a plan to close the camp. Polin asked for that plan to be presented at an April 19 hearing.
Both sides declared the ruling a victory. The city of Spokane, in a news release, said the ruling was a significant step forward to an imminent closure of Camp Hope. City officials reiterated their belief that Spokane’s existing shelter system can serve residents better than encampments.
“At some point, you reach a place you need to make a decision and move people into those other options,” Coddington said. “Any of those options is better than living in a field.”
WSDOT called it a favorable outcome because the judge is allowing service providers to continue operating Camp Hope, and it’s a step toward the collaboration WSDOT had wanted.
“At this point, a collaborative effort would help close the camp faster than having a second lawsuit being held on top of us,” said Overton, referencing a similar lawsuit filed by Spokane County last year that the county eventually dropped.
Smith of the Empire Health Foundation says there is plenty of work ahead even when Camp Hope closes. With a recent county count showing more than 1,700 unhoused residents in the Spokane area during one night in February 2022, the area needs more transitional and permanent housing options.
Emergency shelters certainly play a crucial role — ensuring those unhoused are protected from weather and other elements – but Smith said they’re not a replacement for housing.
He and other service providers maintain Spokane County needs more transitional housing and permanent supportive housing that addresses people’s need for both housing and healthcare.
“This is a complex problem and requires complex and broad solutions to mitigate and address it,” Smith said.
This story has been edited to clarify that the relocation of the encampment to state-owned land made it later eligible for state money. The original version of this story incorrectly said that the relocation to its current location was due to the availability of that money, and that WSDOT granted permission for organizers to relocate the encampment to the state agency's property.
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