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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The homeless crisis is not about one camp, and it’s bigger than most people realize

A resident in a snow-covered Camp Hope leaves her tent Wednesday. More than 400 Camp Hope residents are dealing with the snow collapsing their tents and the impact from the cold weather.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A resident in a snow-covered Camp Hope leaves her tent Wednesday. More than 400 Camp Hope residents are dealing with the snow collapsing their tents and the impact from the cold weather. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

There is a perverse political advantage for our local leadership in the Camp Hope crisis.

It is helping divert attention from the fact that homelessness is burgeoning out of control beyond the confines of that encampment, as well.

In a sense, turning the issue of Camp Hope – or the Catalyst Project – into a viper’s nest of accusations, threats, NIMBYism and empty posturing has a distinct upside for those who have mostly slept through this emergency. If the whole argument can be turned into something about several hundred people in a camp – or a hundred people receiving supportive housing – it obscures the actual scope of the problem.

Because our homeless population is not several hundred people at Camp Hope.

Nor is it the 1,700 or so people who were counted in the annual Point-in-Time count of street homeless and shelters earlier this year.

It is – according to a new, more thorough measurement employed by the state – more than 14,000.

Fourteen thousand, two hundred and forty-two, to be exact.

That’s the number of people in Spokane County who received some form of public assistance and were categorized as homeless for any period of time during January , according to the new Snapshot of Homelessness in Washington State from the Department of Commerce.

Is that what you would have guessed?

More than 14,000 human beings unhoused in this county?

It’s stunning. And yet people who work with the homeless aren’t shocked by it.

“The Snapshot report is the most comprehensive data source we have to identify the homelessness and unstably housed population in Washington,” said Emily Burgess, the managing director for the data and performance unit of the DOC housing division.

The department has done snapshots regularly since 2014, but it changed its methods last year to capture a wider range of data sources. Using information in various systems for public assistance and social services, the project looked for homelessness “flags” in the records of more than 2.6 million Washingtonians.

Statewide, it identified more than 141,000 homeless people, including 4,632 newly homeless, during January. Another 30,000 or so were considered “unstably housed” (that figure was 2,664 in Spokane County.)

The numbers were a large jump from previous years, chiefly because of the change in methodology, Burgess said.

“We feel it’s more accurate, although it is a significant increase,” she said. “I don’t think it was surprising to our communities” dealing with homelessness.

In this community, our discussion of the issue lately has been almost entirely focused on the Camp Hope crisis and the political conflict surrounding it. If the camp forced the problem into the community’s consciousness more forcefully than before, it also may have left a misleadingly singular image of the problem in the public mind.

The debates about the camp – as well as those about the Trent shelter and the promising Catalyst project – focus on figures in the hundreds. The folks overseeing the $25 million state effort to clear the camp, which is making steady progress in the face of continual obstruction from local elected officials and a raging storm of NIMBYism, said there were 433 people living there last week.

The Woodward administration believes there are fewer people there, and one of the points of contention has been its efforts to get a list of all the camp residents; it seems, in combination with the numbers game around the “flex” capacity at the Trent shelter, part of an effort to reach the point of claiming there are sufficient beds available in order to sweep the camp.

But there’s nothing anywhere in our system – nothing on the ground now, nothing planned and nothing even being discussed – that would establish anything like a system built to address a problem 32 times larger than Camp Hope.

The new Snapshot is not a census – not a single, perfect measurement of the size of our homeless population, a large part of which lives in a conditional, ever-changing state on the edge. It compasses the size of the problem in January .

It showed that the largest category among the county’s homeless population is single adults over age 25, at more than 9,400. But more than 3,500 people with children were included, both single parents and two-parent households.

Also, unsurprisingly, the survey revealed starkly higher homelessness among people of color. Native Americans comprised 16% of the county’s homeless population, African Americans made up 12% and Hispanic/Latino people accounted for 10%.

While it includes the chronically homeless street population, it also captures many other unhoused people who are less noticeable on the sidewalks: living with friends and relatives, sleeping in cars and cheap motel rooms, doubling up and tripling up with others.

And here’s something truly sobering: For as large as it is, the latest figure doesn’t include homeless people who are not in the public-assistance system in some fashion.

“It still could be an undercount,” Burgess said. “It likely is.”

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