Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the protest in front of city hall that spawned Camp Hope.
One winter has come and gone, and another has almost arrived, with the camp’s 433 residents facing heavy snow and bitter cold.
The camp shouldn’t be open a year later, said Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who alleges it could have been closed by now if the Washington State Department of Commerce wasn’t dragging its feet.
“People in Camp Hope don’t have to be out there in the cold and freezing temperatures,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review. “There has been no sense of urgency whatsoever from the state on this.”
In a recent interview, however, Commerce director Lisa Brown flatly rejected Woodward’s characterization of the work her agency has done funding efforts to house people.
“It’s preposterous, frankly,” she said. “The team works really hard, and they care a lot.”
In July, the city submitted a plan to use funds approved by the Legislature to house more than 650 people, more than the total living at Camp Hope at the time the proposal was submitted.
Sufficient housing to move the residents of Camp Hope is available on short notice, city spokesperson Brian Coddington said.
If Commerce agreed to provide the funding today, the rest of the city’s proposed beds could be available by the end of the year, he added.
Instead, Woodward accuses Commerce of lacking urgency and calls on the agency to come back to the table to find immediate solutions to house the city’s homeless.
“We had a plan to provide housing units for the individuals in the encampment, and four months later that plan hasn’t been funded or executed,” she said. “(Commerce has) only agreed to certain elements of the plan, which gets us very few units.”
Tedd Kelleher, the Commerce Department’s housing policy director , argued that the city’s proposal did not meet the requirements set by the Legislature for the funding.
“The city’s proposal made a contribution to the process, and we value that, and it did not fulfill what we were required to do,” he said.
“The Legislature is very serious about this not being primarily temporary shelter, especially congregant shelter.”
Coddington disputed that claim, pointing to the plan the city put forward in July, which proposed funding 653 beds. Just under half of those would be in permanent housing.
In either case, Commerce has been dedicating millions of dollars of state funds to house Camp Hope residents, the majority of which has gone to solutions proposed by Spokane city leaders.
On Friday, Commerce announced an infusion of nearly $5 million to get the residents of Camp Hope into shelter and longer-term housing, adding to previous commitments of around $18.8 million.
Friday’s announcement marks the final round of funds for Spokane through the state’s Rights of Way Safety Initiative, unless the Legislature dedicates more money in the upcoming session.
The provision in the state budget had originally allocated about $45 million to provide housing and services to people living in state-owned rights of way in five counties, including Spokane’s Camp Hope. Realizing that $45 million wouldn’t be sufficient to solve the problem, Commerce added funds from other related programs, bringing the total to $145 million, Brown said.
Those funds were then distributed to five counties based on their homeless population as counted in the yearly point-in-time count, with Spokane County being offered around $24 million. As of Friday, all has been pledged to particular projects. More than 70% of those funds have been dedicated to projects proposed by the city of Spokane, according to a news release.
All told, Commerce estimates it will directly fund about 326 beds for Spokane’s homeless population, though this is well below the 653 in the proposal submitted by Spokane in the summer.
Still, officials at Commerce say they have made significant strides in Spokane County.
Though King, Pierce and Thurston counties have been offered more money than Spokane County, Commerce has acted more quickly to house Camp Hope residents than those anywhere else in the state, Kelleher said.
When the largest part of Commerce’s efforts in Spokane County, the 100-bed Catalyst Project, comes online next week, 130 beds will have been added to house the homeless, Kelleher said. No other county will have had more than 100 beds added in that time.
It is more typical for similar projects to take two or three years, Brown said, not a matter of months.
There were a number of roadblocks in place that prevented Commerce from moving quicker, she added.
While the agency quickly moved forward with the Catalyst Project, considering it “lower risk, higher reward,” a census of Camp Hope’s population was necessary before moving forward with other projects tailored to particular needs.
Woodward questioned the time it took to conduct those assessments, given that Commerce got involved with Camp Hope in the summer.
“The contract with Empire Health to do the assessments didn’t get signed until, like, the end of September, three months later,” she said. “I thought the whole point of the legislation and the funding to address these encampments was to rapidly move people out of them.”
If action taken to move encampments off of rights of way in Spokane feels slower than it has elsewhere in the state, that’s entirely due to the size of Camp Hope, Kelleher said.
“We’ve had some success (closing camps) in other counties, but that’s because with 30 beds we can actually close something down,” he said. “That’s not the case here.”
Although Commerce projects it will be bringing hundreds of beds online, Brown said additional funds will be needed to provide enough housing to close Camp Hope for good.
She said Commerce has advocated for the Legislature to dedicate more funds during the upcoming session.
Though Brown rejected that the state was dragging its feet on Camp Hope, she said she believed the camp could be closed before the end of 2023.
“We would like to have the camp closed already,” Brown said. “However, if, by acting responsibly and really assessing the needs and do it right, we don’t have Camp Hope next winter, that’s a really good thing for this community.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022 to correct the title of Tedd Kelleher. He is the housing policy director for the Washington Department of Commerce.
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