Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Camp Hope is shrinking, no thanks to political grandstanding

A crowd gathers for a panel discussion at the Spokane Homeless Coalition’s October meeting at Camp Hope on Thursday morning.  (Quinn Welsch/Spokesman-Review)
A crowd gathers for a panel discussion at the Spokane Homeless Coalition’s October meeting at Camp Hope on Thursday morning. (Quinn Welsch/Spokesman-Review)

Here is something you probably won’t hear from the sheriff, the county commissioners, the prosecutor, the mayor or the chief of police: Camp Hope is shrinking, no thanks to any of them.

The state-funded effort to move people from the East Central Neighborhood encampment along Interstate 90 is proceeding, even as the aforementioned public officials grandstand, bluster, threaten and try to undermine it. Around 180 people have left the camp – some to the Trent shelter, some to transitional housing, some to family members, some just away, according to an update on camp conditions by documentarian and camp security official Maurice Smith.

Importantly, the people have not been simply scooted off to recamp under one of the crowded viaducts downtown or along a riverbank.

“While politicians threaten and argue over who should sue who, while offering no actual solutions,” Smith wrote in his update, “we’re moving ahead with the actual solutions our unsheltered homeless friends need to move forward with their lives.”

The Camp Hope population is down from a peak of 623 in July to 443 this week, he said. This comes as the state’s $24 million operation to move the campers into housing continues, though the effort is flocked on all sides by a storm of chaos and confusion sown by the very public officials whose long-running failures brought us to this pass.

Monday’s news that an employee of the Guardian Foundation, which operates two shelters for the city and oversaw the convention center debacle last winter, is believed to have embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars landed like the arrival of another plague in a series of them.

It’s still early, but the case looks like an accountability fiasco, both for the Guardians and the accountability mayor.

With every passing day, some new effort to undermine the success of the state’s work to clear Camp Hope comes from some new corner of local politics – threats to sue, or drive away the homeless, or fine the state, or huff and puff, or whatever. These efforts all amount to politicians stomping their feet and demanding – without any attempt to offer a practical way forward – an immediate, simplistic end to the camp.

This rush to the microphones began with the unhinged letter and news conference a couple weeks ago from Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who had never even set foot in Camp Hope, threatening to personally drive people out and put them on buses out of town.

This has been accompanied by threats from Mayor Nadine Woodward and then Chief Craig Meidl to use city nuisance laws against the camp – apropos for an administration that seems to regard homeless people as roadside junk. The chorus was then joined by the county commission and Prosecutor Larry Haskell, making their own threats and setting their own absurd deadlines.

All are demanding a faster closure of the camp than is remotely realistic, unless the goal is just to spread people to new homeless camps. There is simply not enough available housing to move them all immediately, and the city’s claims to the contrary are absurd – they are based on the idea that hundreds of people would go to the Trent shelter, well beyond the number of beds there.

It’s hard to know exactly what these blusterers think is going to happen if they get their way. Some of them, no doubt, are in the grip of the wishful-thinking problem with homelessness – the simplistic and satisfying idea that if some stern father figure just puts his foot down, all will be well. Some want to peacock before the election, because running against homeless people is, sadly, a safe way to get votes.

A conspiratorial thinker might wonder whether they see that the state is beginning to make progress – progress that these politicians have done almost nothing to aid and have actually tried to obstruct – and want to claim some credit for making it happen down the road.

Whatever it is, what they have combined to produce is a disastrous failure of community leadership. It compounds years of inaction on homelessness, fosters division instead of unified effort, leans on threats instead of cooperation, and deepens enmity among those who should be partners.

One part of this sorry stew – which bubbles up in whisper campaigns and Facebook rants – has been a narrative smearing those who are actually trying to help bring a positive end to Camp Hope as cynical money grubbers, getting rich on the homeless.

These claims are so common in anti-homelessness circles – and stated explicitly in the sheriff’s letter to the state – that it was really something to learn this week that if anyone affiliated with homeless services had stolen public funds for personal gain, it was a former Guardians employee.

The Guardians have been the mayor’s ride-or-die on homeless services, the recipients of multimillion-dollar contracts to run the Cannon Street shelter and Trent. Months after the plan for the Trent shelter was developed, it remains hardly more than a concrete warehouse, resembling an offseason expo barn at the fairgrounds – a symbol of the deep insincerity of the administration’s efforts.

It’s too soon to say much with certainty about the embezzlement case, but it does seem that the allegations were quite slow to make their way to the right authorities, and they call into question the oversight and level of due diligence practiced by the Guardians and the Woodward administration.

The Guardians apparently saw the first signs of trouble last summer; it wasn’t until the end of September that the police and officials at City Hall were alerted. Yet it was only this week, after two City Council members alerted the public, that the accountability mayor announced she was ordering an internal audit and the police department said it had assigned a detective to the case.

Meanwhile, the difficult, important work of bringing Camp Hope to an effective, humane closure continues. Some campers have been moved into housing, outreach workers continue to identify solutions for those remaining, and security procedures and rules are being enhanced to deal with the very real problems of crime and safety.

The bloviators and blusterers who are rushing out to make demands and stomp their feet will, no doubt, take credit for any progress that occurs at the camp. But make no mistake: The positive steps at Camp Hope are not the result of demand letters and news conferences and false deadlines.

They’re coming from the people on the ground whose efforts the big talkers are doing their best to undermine.

More from this author