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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A quick end to Camp Hope is probably not on the horizon

A group of people including Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, third from left, help push the dumpster back into place at Camp Hope, homeless encampment in Spokane in this file photo from Thursday, July 14, 2022. A fence is going to be erected around the camp and an 8 p.m. curfew will be enforced.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
A group of people including Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, third from left, help push the dumpster back into place at Camp Hope, homeless encampment in Spokane in this file photo from Thursday, July 14, 2022. A fence is going to be erected around the camp and an 8 p.m. curfew will be enforced. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Winter is coming.

But we’re already facing a cold reality: The odds are beyond long that Camp Hope will be gone, and the 650 or so residents housed, by the time the snow flies.

People are working on it. There is progress. But the problem is too big, and the solutions too few, for that kind of turnaround. If you could move every single human being out of Camp Hope tomorrow, there would be nowhere for hundreds of them to go.

That’s true despite the fact that there are two housing projects nearing reality – each dragging significant baggage – as well as the beginning of an outreach program to identify what each camper needs and prepare them to move into housing.

It’s true despite the fact that millions in state funding have been distributed, and there is more available. And it’s true despite the expectations, high hopes and wishful thinking expressed in early July, when the Department of Commerce announced an infusion of $24 million to address the crisis. At that point, some people believed Camp Hope would be gone in a matter of weeks.

But. The problem is too large. The solutions are too few. And the political leadership – which has been the albatross around the city’s neck as the emergency has spiraled out of control – remains mostly AWOL.

Tedd Kelleher, the Department of Commerce housing assistance official overseeing the funding, when asked last week if the camp would persist through the winter, sighed heavily and said, “I sure hope not.”

But he acknowledged that there isn’t sufficient housing available, even with two new projects coming on line. And those working directly with people living at Camp Hope see a winter deadline as basically impossible.

The lack of housing is a simple, bottom-line problem in a situation shot through with complexity and challenges. The state funding comes with a requirement that the money be used to move people into better situations; Kelleher does not have a hard-and-fast deadline and does not foresee a moment when the cleanup crews come in and begin driving people off.

Still, he, like everyone, wants to see a solution to the problems of Camp Hope as quickly as possible.

“It’s just not OK,” he said.

The biggest chunk of state funding so far, a combined $14 million, will go to the Catholic Charities Catalyst project, to turn a Quality Inn into an emergency supportive housing project for 87 people. The project plan is detailed and well thought out, with a plan for staffing and services, and it’s a referral-based project with requirements for sobriety and other rules.

It’s a high-barrier shelter in other words, though the raging NIMBY response from neighbors has been built on a refusal to accept that and an insistence that the charity and city and everyone else are lying. (One neighbor told a Catholic Charities official at a meeting this week – where neighbors shouted, jeered, booed, laughed, talked over speakers, and mocked those trying to explain the project – “We’re coming after you.”)

In the face of this, the state and Catholic Charities remain committed to the project, which would be a vital addition to the housing shortfall.

The city’s Trent shelter – so long in the works and still far short of anything like the plan outlined by Catholic Charities – is meant to house 150 people, but even as it nears opening there are so few details about how the place will operate that skepticism runs very high. Many people now living in Camp Hope have said they wouldn’t use it.

Still, any water is welcome in a desert.

But between those projects, that’s 237 beds.

What about the rest of the camp?

Empire Health Foundation, which earlier this year produced a detailed, comprehensive proposal based on engagement with a wide range of community partners, is trying to answer that question. The foundation is nearing a contract with the state to coordinate outreach services at the camp, in partnership with Jewels Helping Hands, Compassionate Addiction Treatment and Revive Counseling Spokane.

That effort will entail engaging with the campers individually, identifying what they would need to succeed in housing, and addressing what services might be available and where they might be able to live.

“It’s 600 different stories,” said Zeke Smith, president of Empire Health Foundation.

Smith said he feels great urgency to try and bring Camp Hope to an end by moving people into housing. But there is a no-room-at-the-inn obstacle.

“We just don’t have a system right now that can accommodate 600 or so individuals and whatever needs they might have,” he said.

And so part of his outreach work will be learning what kinds of housing solutions might work for the people now at Camp Hope – and finding ways to bring those to reality.

Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, said that the vast majority of the people at Camp Hope are ready to move somewhere else and understand they can’t stay camped there indefinitely.

The problems associated with the camp are many. It’s not safe or healthy for anyone to live there. Problems with crime and drug use abound. A tangle of bureaucratic conflict among camp operators, state officials and the city has produced continual conflict. Neighbors hate it, of course, and complain of crime.

As Kelleher said, it’s not OK. It will be even less OK in the winter.

Even Garcia – who helped start the camp as a much-smaller protest at City Hall – wants to see it come to an end. She insists that, though the camp has been there far too long, that an expectation of permanence is not setting in among those living there.

“We’ve been telling them Camp Hope is not forever,” she said last week. “Ninety-nine percent of Camp Hope is ready and willing to move into something better.”

But there isn’t something better out there for most of Camp Hope right now.

Not yet.

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