For 18 months, politics in Spokane has been animated by the existence of Camp Hope.
With the state’s largest tent city now closed, Mayor Nadine Woodward and former state Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown, who is running against Woodward, quickly moved to laud their respective roles in concluding a chapter in the city’s history and cast aspersions on the other.
What was needed all along was “collaboration instead of litigation,” Brown wrote in a Friday press release. At an impromptu press conference, Woodward argued the camp would have been closed long ago “if we had had the full cooperation of the state,” including the agency Brown led until recently.
Depending on the vantage point, community members, service providers, business owners and politically minded onlookers have just as stark disagreements as to who deserves more credit for decommissioning Camp Hope. Yet, amid increasing polarization and hyper-partisanship, many wonder how much voters will absorb the steps and blunders made by either side.
“It depends on which politician’s version gets the most airtime and is most convincing, as to how the closure of Camp Hope affects the election,” said Barry Barfield, administrator for the Spokane Homeless Coalition and a supporter of Brown’s candidacy.
Brown will be able to highlight her role shepherding state funding necessary to rehouse and provide services to hundreds from Camp Hope, Barfield noted, while Woodward can argue that she fought hard to close the camp as quickly as possible, and that it might still be there were it not for those efforts.
“I think both Nadine and Lisa have arguments that they can take credit for the closing of Camp Hope,” Barfield added. “I would say Nadine’s are weaker, but she has the bigger megaphone, so I think she might get her story out.”
Tom Hormel, current president of the Spokane Association of Realtors, a major political donor that recently announced its endorsement of Woodward, wonders if Brown’s role managing state money to clear Camp Hope might actually backfire. The state dedicated around $24 million to rehouse and provide services for the roughly 500 people staying at the tent city when the funds began flowing, which breaks out to around $48,000 per person.
“There are people in this city that don’t make $50,000 per year, and they made less money than we spent on each person at Camp Hope,” Hormel said.
Brown has previously rejected breaking down state spending on a per-person basis, pointing to a contract to operate the Catalyst Project shelter and associated services for years to come, with a possibility of the property becoming available as affordable housing in the future. Still, the large amount of taxpayer money spent likely will be used in the coming election, Hormel noted.
However, Hormel isn’t certain voters will necessarily remember Camp Hope come November, let alone be swayed by either candidate’s messaging around the issue.
“I tell people all the time, one of the greatest things we have as humans is a short-term memory. It’s also one of the worst things about us,” he said.
“The problem we have in Spokane is we have a lot of partisan politics,” he said. “The voters will digest it as the parties tell them it happened. Both parties are going to feel the brunt of it.”
Some are confident that Camp Hope still will be top of mind come November, however. City Council president candidate Kim Plese, whose strong fundraising suggests she is the conservative frontrunner in a three-way race with Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson and fellow-conservative Andy Rathbun, said that voters regularly tell her that homelessness is a major concern.
“I’ve started doorbelling, and the homeless situation and Camp Hope gets brought up almost every single time. It’s surprising to me,” she said. “A lot of the people call Camp Hope ‘Camp Lisa’ because they feel that Lisa Brown is the reason why Camp Hope existed for so long.”
She points out that the homeless population in Spokane has continued to grow, and doubts that the issue will be less pertinent in five months, even with Camp Hope closed.
Margo Hill, associate professor of urban and regional planning at Eastern Washington University, believes how the candidates responded to Camp Hope was deeply revealing.
“How we deal with our homeless really shows people’s character and what they’re willing to do for folks that live in poverty,” she said. “We need leadership that is going to meet people where they’re at.”
She praised Brown for leading a large agency as important as Commerce and for the programs that agency funded that helped to close Camp Hope. But, like Hormel, she wonders if voters will be swayed.
“Unfortunately, I think voters are still very polarized, and you see the real estate folks that are supporting Nadine Woodward, they wouldn’t even take a meeting with Lisa Brown,” she said, referring to the Spokane Association of Realtors, who endorsed Woodward without interviewing other candidates.
In a brief interview, Spokane Association of Realtors CEO Tiffany Claxton-Standley said that the organization regularly endorses incumbents without interviewing their opponents and that they had done so in the past with state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, as well as Brown during prior re-election runs for state Senate.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, doubts Camp Hope itself will be on the minds of most voters come November. But with Spokane County’s homeless population increasing by an estimated 36% since last year, more than a third of which reported to be unsheltered, he doesn’t doubt that the broader issue of homelessness will continue to be an animating issue.