Surrounded by vast farmland and enjoying majestic sunsets, Spokane is the largest city in Eastern Washington. It’s home to Gonzaga University, an abundance of outdoor activities, and the population is booming — including at a place called, “Camp Hope.”
Organizers say more than 600 homeless people live here in tents, RVs, and all kinds of makeshift structures. Just a few miles outside of downtown, they consider it the state’s biggest encampment.
For nearly a week I experienced firsthand the wide spectrum of the homeless crisis. And was reminded again that is no one-size–fits-all or quick solutions.
“Now I’ve tried to go get IDs, a social security card, and all that,” says Army veteran Chris Senn, who now lives in a tent.
“This is just a bump in my road. And I’ll get through it,” says Tyler Wadsworth, who lives in an RV.
Walking through this camp is like a maze. There are so many different paths to take — it you’re not careful, you can easily get lost.
There’s a giant cooling tent across the street, with a hose that stretches all the way to Donna Russell’s back yard. I am not going to turn my back against anybody,” says Russell. The camp pays her to keep the water flowing 24/7 — $250 a month, plus all her costs for water and garbage.
There are portable toilets, and the city provides weekly trash pickup. It’s also a one-stop shop for church groups and nonprofits offering a range of services, including meals and medical checkups.
Robert Moody lives in one of the RV’s and leads the volunteer security detail. There are strict rules, banning illegal drug use, stealing, and fighting.
I watched him kick out some alleged drug-dealers who were targeting residents: “Who gave him the f***ing pills. Whoever did, you get the f*** out now. He’s fifteen f***ing years old!”
For those who violate the rules, there’s an area across the street for “time outs.”
Robert Passion is accused of burning down tents at Camp Hope and causing other problems. He’s spent time at Eastern State Hospital, the region’s psychiatric institution. But he’s been out on his own for years. For now he’ll have to live in the field across the street. “A lot of those things said about me are lies,” says Passion.
A woman who goes by “Cynthia” calls the people here her family and lifeline. But she says most days it’s still hard because her future is uncertain: “I’m old and I’m alone. They have very good intentions, but it’s such a big job.”
Maurice Smith, the camp’s facilities manager, acknowledges all the challenges and concerns: “Do we have drug addicts? Of course. Do we have mentally ill people? Yes, we do.”
Smith is also a seminary-trained pastor, who says his calling is clear: “We don’t want to see anyone die. So this camp keeps people alive.”
The problem is no one has permission to be here since the camp is on land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
Critics say the camp is spiraling out of control. Neighbors and business owners are complaining about a surge in property crimes and retail theft in the area connected to the camp.
“We have number of pictures and videos of them coming on to our property, stealing stuff from our porch our back yard,” says neighbor Juan Rodriguez.
While the vast majority of people here are from Spokane, city officials say a crush of homeless are also moving in from outside the city, including sex-offenders and felons with active warrants.
“We’ve had a number of domestic violence, assaults, rapes,” says Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. He says they’re constantly responding to drug overdoses. “We’ve had threats made against individual providers — firefighters, paramedics coming in to rescue people that are in trouble,” says Schaeffer.
Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren emphasizes that not all homeless are criminals. But he says Camp Hope is straining city resources: “We’ve seen almost a doubling in our calls for service within a quarter mile radius,” says Lundgren.
Spokane Police Department now provides dedicated patrols just for this neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of prostitution going in and out of the camp,” says Corporal Erin Blessing, who says her job is now more complicated than ever. “We want to show compassion, but what do you do when they refuse all services that they offer,” asks Blessing.
One woman is being either praised or blamed for all this, depending who you ask. Julie Garcia runs Jewels Helping Hands, one of several homeless non-profits in the city. This past December, she says all this started with the best of intentions.
“We will not expand any tents outside of this one block,” says Garcia. “There were no men’s beds or women’s beds available.”
So she orchestrated a protest outside Spokane City Hall intended to shame and pressure elected officials into building more housing for people living on the streets. After the city warned of an impending clearing, everyone moved their tents to the WSDOT property.
“This camp has more services provided to it than every shelter in this town. And I care for more people than any shelter in this town,” says Garcia.
But Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward says this is illegal. “They have held the city hostage,” she says. Woodward who is a former local television anchor, but she says she’s never covered anything like this in her journalism career.
“Biggest challenge I think our city is facing right now,” says Woodward. She recently visited Camp Hope and says they’re still trying to broker a reasonable solution.
Complicating matters, the mayor says she doesn’t have the authority to clear the encampment until WSDOT files a trespass complaint. “
So far, the agency has not done that and wouldn’t tell me why. Instead pointing me to the signs that make it obvious. A spokesperson declined an on-camera interview, but sent me a statement that reads in part, “We do not have law enforcement authority or services. We rely on other jurisdictions.”
In other words, WSDOT is pointing the finger at City Hall.
Woodward pushes back, “We don’t own it. We can’t enforce on it.” She says, “They have thrown up their hands and taken no responsibility or accountability.”
While elected officials and state leaders continue to play the blame game, frustrated neighbors and business owners say they’re caught in the middle of this jurisdictional stalemate.
Across the street at the Tapio Business Park, many businesses renting space at this office complex are now adding extra security.
“I have a building engineer who is cleaning up needles and fecal matter every morning,” says Katie Bohr, Tapio’s property manager.
Laura Salas manages Salas Real Estate and says people from the camp are also behaving in an obscene manner. “There’s a guy with his privates out walking on the sidewalk,” she says.
Katy Bruya represents a business coalition called Hello for Good. She says that even if a sweep happened tomorrow, campers would likely overwhelm other parts of Spokane already dealing with encampments.
“We don’t want to see downtown turn into what all of those other cities’ downtowns are that we hear about on the news,” She says.
Camp Hope organizers says the vast majority of campers are willing to take pallet shelters if the city or state would give them land and money to build on the outskirts of the city.
According to Spokane County’s Point-in-Time Count released in May, there are 1,757 homeless people in Spokane County — up 13% in the past two years. It’s likely even higher since the tally only included people in emergency shelters and transitional housing, not on the streets.
The Mayor hopes her city gets state money this year to build out a new shelter not that far from Camp Hope. Even then, there would not be enough beds for all the people living at camp hope. And convincing many of them to move in will be another challenge.
“I’d rather stay in my RV because at shelters there’s more drama,” says Markise Jones.
Garcia, as well as a resident of Camp Hope, Smith, believes that until a realistic exit strategy is in place, they still have leverage, at least until the end of the year. But they don’t want to be here forever.
“Getting into a homeless camp is a lot easier than getting out of a homeless camp,” says Smith. Garcia adds, “It just takes somebody to encourage them to keep going, and believe in them, and show them it can be done.”
I asked Mayor Woodard how she plans to prevent this from happening again. She responded, “That’s a really good question.”