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Shawn Vestal: Of the forking paths at Camp Hope, one produced results

Aerial photos from the Department of Transportation show the shrinking Camp Hope from November to February.  (Department of Transportation)

At some point in the last several months, one of our local social media wags began referring to Camp Hope as Camp Brown.

This was part and parcel of the effort to weaponize the encampment against Lisa Brown – the former state Commerce Department director and presumed soon-to-be candidate for Spokane mayor.

The prospect of Brown’s candidacy has burbled under the surface of so much of the public discussion regarding Camp Hope. Those who cheered the former sheriff’s unhinged last stand – his claim that he was going to sweep the camp and investigate those who were helping people there – had been trying to hang the camp around Brown’s neck as a political liability for a long time.

It’s hard to forget the image of Mayor Nadine Woodward standing before a crowd of West Hills residents – furious about a housing project that her own administration had proposed – telling them where to direct their ire: “Lisa Brown.”

Now that Brown has announced her departure from Commerce, and with the conventional wisdom settled at the near-certainty of a mayoral announcement, the forking paths taken by the city and the state with regard to Camp Hope are more instructive and relevant than ever.

One of them worked, and one didn’t.

Starting last fall, the city pushed to use police, code enforcement and the bully pulpit to sweep the camp, part of a devotion to wishful thinking predicated upon inflicting suffering to end homelessness.

Commerce, on the other hand, deployed around $25 million in legislative funding to clear the camp gradually – operating on the principle that it would move people not just away, but into housing.

The city, focused on the frustrations of East Central residents and business owners, battled Commerce in court, using city code in an attempt to treat the people in the camp like a row of rusting autos parked in a front yard. The sheriff cranked up the pressure. He threatened an imminent sweep, sent in deputies to intimidate camp residents, and accused people involved in helping camp residents of fraud – wild claims that have not yet been supported by any evidence.

From autumn into winter, the prospect of a sweep loomed, the court battles ground on pointlessly, the rushed and chaotic Trent shelter opened, and the would-be sweepers kept moving their deadlines.

No sweep came. The city lost, or backed down, in court. The former sheriff moved to Wyoming.

The Commerce project, on the other hand, proceeded steadily, without threats or grandstanding. Under the direction of the Empire Health Foundation, Jewels Helping Hands and several other partners, Camp Hope brought in services beyond anything on offer – even still – at the Trent shelter.

Fences were erected, security people hired and ID cards distributed. The Commerce-funded Catalyst project opened in a former West Hills hotel. Case workers helped camp residents get the help they needed and directed them toward housing.

Camp Hope steadily shrank. It didn’t happen as quickly as everyone wanted, and the successes remain – like everything with homelessness – complicated with challenges. But it happened and it’s still happening.

The most recent count at the camp is 108. That’s down from 124 in late January and down by more than 500 from its peak last year, when it was the largest homeless encampment in the state. The physical size of the camp shrunk as well, with officials moving the fences in to create a smaller secured space. There are now 65 tents or tent-like structures there and a dozen RVs, both down from just last month.

Instead of helping, the city took the path of conflict, blame, threats and accusation – and it fizzled. Commerce and Brown, on the other hand, kept the focus on the real, human task, avoided grandstanding, and made progress.

The job isn’t finished. Zeke Smith, president of Empire Health Foundation, said that the final residents in the camp will be some of the most difficult to house. Many have medical issues or other problems that make the current range of housing options impossible for them.

And a decent number of those who left – perhaps half, Smith estimated – were not moved into housing, but simply left and remain homeless, part of the overall challenge the community will still face when the camp is finally closed.

The best path forward on that overall problem is also the hardest path forward: Unify the regional response to homelessness and eliminate the forking paths.

The effort by a trio of former Condon administration officials – Gavin Cooley, Rick Romero and Theresa Sanders – to pull local governments together and initiate a 90-day process to investigate and design a potential regional homelessness authority is the brightest hope our region has for truly addressing this crisis.

Those officials are still trying to secure agreement among government leaders, which is no easy task, and if they do, there is an even more daunting challenge ahead to bring together the many parties – including the many service providers and the existing bureaucracies.

If that comes to fruition, it would mean our chief response to homelessness is moved out of City Hall and depoliticized to a degree. No one would be so foolish as to predict that homelessness, and Camp Hope in particular, won’t be fodder for campaign claims as we head toward November, but it will change the nature of the debate entirely.

But as that effort proceeds, and as we await an announcement from Brown, we should keep in mind the very distinct approaches to the crisis of Camp Hope.

One worked, and one didn’t.

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