The homeless encampment along East Second Avenue, near Interstate 90, has been growing all year.
By Thursday morning, more than 300 people were living there, said Julie Garcia, who runs the camp through her Jewels Helping Hands organization. Tents and vehicles cover the full block between Ray and Ralph streets, on property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Called Camp Hope, it grew into existence following protests at City Hall and after the city closed its temporary warming shelter at the convention center in early January, which was its last effort at any kind of warming shelter this winter.
The tents, the campfires, the RVs and cars, the tarps – the whole existence of Camp Hope has been a sign of a broken system.
Now, seemingly suddenly but actually following months and months of effort, collaboration and conflict, a long-overdue change at Camp Hope – and in the city’s overall shelter system – seems imminent.
The city has asked for bids for a shelter operator, and while there hasn’t been an official announcement of the specific location, the plan is to add a 250-bed facility to the system, with room for more when needed.
If the plan holds up – and doesn’t come with cuts elsewhere or other poison pills – the increase would be a major addition to the system’s capacity.
New state funding targeted at creating outreach teams to help move people off WSDOT property and into housing may also help facilitate change at Camp Hope.
“We do believe there are conversations going on where the city may be closing in on a facility,” said Mike Gribner, regional administrator for WSDOT.
WSDOT has not acted to remove the campers because there has not been anywhere for them to go, Gribner said.
Though the presence of the camp has raised concerns among neighbors, without sufficient shelter during some of the coldest months of the year, the agency has been unwilling to simply drive the people away.
As soon as that changes, however, the agency does want the camp to be cleared.
“It will be done in the most humane way possible, when we know they have a place to go,” Gribner said.
‘We’re OK with that’
One tool available to help facilitate that may be funding in the just-passed supplemental state budget, which includes $45 million to create outreach teams that connect with people camping on WSDOT rights of way and help them develop a plan to move into shelter and services.
It’s one piece of a massive increase in funding aimed at reducing homelessness and expanding affordable housing throughout the state. The outreach project is not intended as a simple sweep, but an effort that ensures people are “transitioned” off of public property and into housing.
“It’s not just a question of shutting down the camp,” said Lisa Brown, director of the state Commerce Department, speaking generally about the program and not specifically about Camp Hope. “It’s, ‘How can the people in the camp be moved into better circumstances?’ ”
Camp Hope has persisted because there simply have not been better circumstances. Gribner said his agency is not equipped to handle such an encampment, but plans to move people away were repeatedly scratched in recent months, because of insufficient shelter.
As soon as there is space, though, the camp will need to go.
“And we’re OK with that,” said Garcia of Jewels Helping Hands, who praised the agency for its patience. “They’ve been unbelievably understanding. They could have chased us out on the first day.”
Garcia has been putting pressure on City Hall to do a better job on this issue for years.
Meanwhile, a group of downtown business owners has been putting a different kind of pressure on City Hall – one focused primarily on treating homelessness as an issue of blight and crime, attacking the City Council for somehow preventing police from addressing the problem, and loudly opposing the expansion of services.
Following months of conducting its own private study, though, that group, which calls itself Hello for Good, seems to have evolved.
It recently sent city officials its ideas for addressing the problem and the report from a consultant, which included a wide range of proposals.
While there remains an emphasis on the ways that the issue affects those who aren’t homeless, it also includes the recognition of the fact that more services are needed, including additional shelter, outreach teams and treatment for behavioral health and addiction, as well as improvements to the coordination of the current system.
Garcia – who was on the opposite side of that group for a long time – now says they’ve come up with a positive plan.
“It’s good,” she said.
Hope for an end?
The city of Spokane has issued a request for proposals for an operator for a low-barrier, 32,500-square-foot overnight shelter with 250 beds, and a capacity to shelter more when needed.
The RFP, which does not identify a specific property, also says the facility will provide daytime services, such as bathrooms and showers, meals and access to a range of services.
Brian Coddington, spokesman for Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration, said the city isn’t ready to make any announcements about a location, but it’s hopeful about being able to do so in the near future.
Such proposals are often exceedingly difficult to finalize, because they involve different parties and interests, and because there are so many challenges associated with opening a new shelter.
Garcia is concerned that a big warehouse might not be the right solution for some of the people who are camping out, or that it might be accompanied with cuts elsewhere in the system. She is going to propose an alternative or complement to the city, she said, based on using pallet shelters, which are something like tiny homes.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people are living in tents and vehicles at Camp Hope. It’s no kind of solution. It is tangible, visible proof of a lack of one. If there is something in the offing that would give the people there a place to go – rather than just being urged to go away – then it would truly be progress.
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