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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I poured my whole life into this place’: After 541 days living at Camp Hope, the homeless community’s final two residents reflect on what has been and what may come

Tracy and Justice Andino, two of the first residents to arrive at Camp Hope in December 2021 and now the last to leave, pack up their belongings Thursday at the now-closed homeless encampment located on state Department of Transportation property north of Interstate 90 in East Central Spokane.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A summer ago, Camp Hope had more people living in it than many rural Washington towns. By Thursday, hours before the gates would be closed for good, Tracy and Justice Andino – and their puppy, Buddy – were the last ones left.

It was quiet as they packed up their belongings: the tents and guitars and tarps and generator. Above, thunder clouds began to condense and cut through the June heat, and the humidity tamped down the dusty ground where hundreds of tents and trailers used to sit.

The Andinos found an apartment that they can pay for with help from a federal housing voucher, though they expected to be staying in a motel temporarily while new windows are installed and other renovations are finished. All that was left to do is clean up the last signs that the Andinos had called Camp Hope home.

They had been there from the beginning. For 541 days, through winters that dipped into the negatives, through a summer that peaked over 100 degrees, as the camp swelled from dozens to hundreds, through fires and explosions and a few deaths, they had been there on that lot next to the freeway.

During an uneasy stalemate that lasted 18 months, as officials told them they had to leave time and time again only to be unable or unwilling to force them to go, as state, city and county politicians clashed over the tent city’s existence, Camp Hope became an unexpected refuge for the Andinos.

They became homeless around four years ago, Justice said. He had not known that an ulcer had been growing and causing him to bleed internally until it caused him to collapse suddenly. In the hospital, he was told he almost died.

“So I was on real light-duty work,” he said. “My boss laid me off without laying me off. He just didn’t give me any hours.”

The Andinos were staying with a roommate, whose special needs son Tracy cared for at home. When the roommate moved unexpectedly, the Andinos lost a source of income from Tracy’s work and had to pay the entire rent by themselves.

“Everything just went out the window,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for it, and we had prior bills that we had to catch up on. Because I had been working, we were almost there. And then we just couldn’t.”

The Andinos packed up their two dogs and whatever belongings would fit into a van and left. They didn’t know where they could park, so they moved constantly, always worried about problems with the police. They slept during the day, but night brought its own dangers. As a couple who didn’t want to separate, shelter options were practically nonexistent.

“People that haven’t experienced homelessness, it’s hard to understand,” he said. “They don’t get the longevity of it. You know, it starts getting really hard, and it puts you in a different mindset. You start to forget about the normal ways of life.”

In December 2021, a friend told them about a protest brewing in front of Spokane City Hall, where dozens of tents had been erected. Justice joined during the day before returning to his van at night.

On Dec. 16, which happened to be that friend’s birthday, the tents were moved under threat of legal enforcement. They settled next to the freeway on a lot cleared about a decade ago to make room for the future North Spokane freeway connection to Interstate 90. Tracy joined that first day.

“I would come down and, you know, I was in transition, trying to find somewhere for us to go,” he said. “But we decided, what the hell? We’ll stay here. And we put everything into it.”

At first, the camp maintained an air of protest, Justice said, but the mood shifted as the camp grew.

Word spread that in this corner of Spokane, the homeless could stay in one place without fear of arrest. For some, the relative lack of rules attracted them, Justice said. For others, it was the relative stability.

The protest had started over a lack of low-barrier shelter, those facilities without restrictions like sobriety for guests. For some, there was nowhere else to go. The population swelled from around 80 to 300 to over 600.

“Sooner or later, everybody was showing up. It became overwhelming,” he said. “You don’t want to turn nobody away. You want to help everybody, but you can’t save the world.”

Inside the camp, there was conflict and “internal politics,” Justice said. There were also multiple fires. On one occasion, Justice had entered the tent of a friend who was attempting to make a cannabis concentrate with pressure and butane. He said he barely noticed his friend lighting a cigarette when his field of vision was swallowed by yellow, then orange, then red light.

The tent disintegrated in the explosion, releasing a lot of the heat quickly, but the melted plastic clung to Justice’s skin. He was hospitalized. Months after surgery, the backs of his hands are still cracked from the burns.

The Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office began flying drones and helicopters over the camp to search for suspects, but also to surveil the layout and tally those staying there, motivated in part by suspicions by city and county politicians that service providers like Jewels Helping Hands’ Julie Garcia were inflating the real population size. Garcia’s organization oversaw the camp.

At the end of September, internal security measures were implemented at the camp, including curfews, fencing and a badge system to register those living there. While still living in the tent city, Justice got a job working security there.

“On of the hardest things I had to deal with was, basically, the people bringing in drugs and stuff like that,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for it.”

There were overdose deaths and near misses. Justice and other security personnel carried cans of Narcan, though he admitted to being afraid of using it to reverse an opioid overdose. A woman who had seemed dead sprung upright in a gurney and started screaming after someone else revived her with a dose, he said.

“From that day forward, every time I hear somebody screaming for Narcan, I get scared,” he said. “Not even fire bothers me anymore.”

In November, the Andinos’ van caught fire, which spread to nearby tents and other combustibles. Firefighters reportedly had to cut through the exterior fencing with mechanical saws to gain access for a firetruck and hose lines. During the search, firefighters located Buddy beneath bedding on the floor.

Much of their belongings were destroyed in the fire, though Justice noted he was able to save the important things, like photos of his mother. He briefly choked up as he mentioned this.

Justice becomes emotional when he speaks about the past few years, and he’s quick to apologize when he has trouble speaking. Despite the difficulty and the stress, he chokes up when he considers that he is leaving Camp Hope for good.

Even with a new start in sight, he is nervous about what comes next: the responsibilities that will come when he’s not focused on surviving. He’s scared about having something to lose.

“I’m just so used to this,” he said. “I poured my whole life into this place.”