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News / Northwest

Last residents leave Camp Hope, once the largest homeless encampment in Washington

By Emry Dinman, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 9, 2023, 7:27pm

SPOKANE — Camp Hope has closed.

For 18 months, the camp has been the center of a political firestorm, a frequent subject of law enforcement scrutiny, a chronic nuisance for neighboring residences and businesses, and a tenuous home for many. Now, three weeks before a June 30 deadline agreed to by state and city officials, Camp Hope is closed.

Julie Garcia, founder of Jewels Helping Hands and a controversial leader of the 2021 protest in front of Spokane City Hall that led to Camp Hope’s creation, marked the closing of a long chapter in the city’s homelessness response.

“We did it,” Garcia said to applause. “It was done in collaboration with a lot of folks, and it was done with Right of Way funding by the Department of Commerce, and the folks standing among you, the peers with lived experience — they’re the true heroes of closing this camp.”

Notably missing was Mayor Nadine Woodward, who has long pushed for a swift end to the tent city and accused Garcia and state officials of intentional delays. She learned of the camp’s early closure from reporters seeking comment, and initially scheduled a press conference inside the camp.

She then changed her plans and told reporters she would be waiting outside a nearby restaurant to answer questions.

“I didn’t want this to be disrupted,” she said, before adding, “by people who just want to disrupt.”

Woodward expressed disappointment that she had not been informed that Camp Hope would be closing ahead of schedule, but was glad to see it closed.

“We have people that are no longer living in a field because there are better options for them,” she said. “This has been a long time to get to this place.”

Woodward highlighted the difficult conditions in the camp and how it affected neighboring businesses and property values in the East Central neighborhood. She also pointed to the creation of the Trent Resource and Assistance Center , one of her key initiatives as mayor, and the services available there. She unveiled plans to introduce a virtual court at the shelter, allowing guests to address outstanding legal issues without needing to find transportation, which is a common challenge for the homeless.

Once the largest tent city in the state, the East Central lot is now empty, and the people staying there are gone. Some are living in shelters such as the Trent center, about 100 have gone to the Catholic Charities-managed Catalyst Project and dozens have found transitional or permanent housing.

A few are in jail, some are sleeping in a car and three have died. Of hundreds more, it’s not clear where they’ve gone.

“We didn’t help everybody,” Garcia said Friday. “There were people who fell through the cracks, and we will reengage those folks and try to make a better day for them, too.”

It had been clear for weeks that the camp would soon be closing, notwithstanding the June 30 deadline agreed to after the city sued the state Department of Transportation, which owns the site. Spokane Superior Court Judge Marla Polin had ordered both parties to agree on a closure plan. From a peak of more than 600 people last summer, the population had plummeted to 50 by April. By June 2, the state reported only 15 people remained.

Some of the last people staying at Camp Hope were able to move in as others transitioned out of Catalyst, Garcia said, while a recently opened sobering facility through Compassion Addiction Treatment has helped others prepare to move into other housing or shelter. In other cases, service providers were able to identify affordable housing.

Garcia claims the progress was made in spite of Woodward and city officials.

“With the city staying to themselves and us service providers able to actually work, we’ve been able to put our nose to the ground and get people housed,” she said Thursday afternoon, as the last two people were clearing their belongings from the site.

For her part, Woodward accused state agencies of dragging their feet, saying the lack of notice of the day’s closing of Camp Hope was “indicative to how they behave during these meetings.”

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Garcia acknowledges that it’s been a long slog to clear Camp Hope, and points to the low vacancy rate in Spokane and a lack of mental health or addiction treatment services. Regional state transportation department spokesman Ryan Overton noted that $24 million in state funds as part of the Right of Way Safety Initiative, meant to close encampments around highways by providing housing or shelter to those living there, didn’t start flowing until August.

Camp Hope will not be the end of the work, Garcia noted. State funds will continue to be available to support those going through intermediary stages on their path out of homelessness, or those whose location is unclear after leaving the camp .

“Now we have to actually go into the community and seek them out,” she said.

Some things have changed since December 2021, when dozens of tents were erected in front of City Hall as protesters decried the lack of shelters without sobriety requirements. The Trent shelter, a central initiative by the Woodward administration, is now the city’s largest such shelter. It currently houses up to 350 people on a regular basis, though its future is uncertain. City spokesman Brian Coddington recently said the capacity might decrease to 250 amid worries about the facility’s long-term financial sustainability.

“But we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation come winter this year,” Garcia said. “We don’t have enough beds for the people experiencing homelessness.”

Overton said WSDOT does not intend to allow another encampment to form on state property and will be retaining security personnel and working with law enforcement. He stopped short of saying there won’t be another Camp Hope, but said he hopes the state will be able to work with local law enforcement and city officials in the future.

“Our goal all along had always been to close the camp permanently, but do so in a safe, humane way,” he said. “That is a positive outcome for all, and that’s where we’re at today.”