Washington’s largest homeless encampment faces an uncertain future

With the state planning to spend $24 million on relocation, residents of Camp Hope aspire to self determination and continued community.

 

The supply tent at Camp Hope in Spokane, Washington.

This story was originally published by RANGE Media and is republished here by permission.

In early July, an unrelenting sun beat down on the tents, RVs and cars of Camp Hope. Covering a full city block just off of Interstate 90 a couple miles east of downtown Spokane, Camp Hope is home to more than 600 people, making it the largest encampment on state land in Washington. And while “camp” is in the name, this block houses more people than any of Spokane County’s incorporated towns and one of its cities.

Attempts at making a home and community are ever present in the camp. Pallets have been nailed together and stood on end to create fences. Makeshift gardens of potted flowers wilt in the heat outside tightly packed clusters of tents. The main dirt thoroughfare buzzes with people, cars and dogs. Halfway down this main street a supply tent acts as a sort of general store.

Angel, who has a shaved head and wears a tie-dye gray tank top, helps organize the supply tent. She also lives in it. She lifts the flap to the inside, where food, clothing and other supplies are neatly ordered in crates. Boxes are set on top of stepping stones that line the dirt floor and keep the area dry. Angel maintains a running list of community needs that she shares with volunteers who support the camp.

As she takes a break from her work, Angel reflects on the challenges the community faces. “Everybody’s pulling [their] weight, and adding to pulling one another down in a sort of chain reaction,” she said. They have created something of their own and have pride in their community, but with so many struggling with mental health and addiction, Angel said she believes campers need more support to build and retain life skills.

“These people have prepared themselves — these are their homes — that’s how everybody feels,” she said. “If we’re going to have to move off the lot, there’s going to be a lot of sadness with tentmates and so forth. I’m not sure any of us are prepared for what’s to come.”

Angel is photographed outside her home on Thursday, July 14, 2022 at Camp Hope in Spokane. She helps run the supply tent at Camp Hope.

What’s to come  — more than $24 million in state funding and the relocation of the camp’s residents — is a testament to the endurance of the Camp Hope community and the intractability of the homelessness crisis in Spokane and across Washington. It’s money that’s coming from the state, not for homelessness in general, but specifically for the residents of this camp. On the heavily trafficked roadside, this large and still growing community of unhoused people has forced a response. Now, they’re waiting to see if that response reflects their needs as individuals and as a community.

THIS ITERATION OF Camp Hope started as a protest at Spokane City Hall against the city’s lack of shelter beds in December 2021. Then, with winter weather bearing down on the region, a notice of an imminent sweep from law enforcement, and insufficient options for shelter, the protest camp moved on to a Washington Department of Transportation lot just off the highway.

“They were scared that all their things were going to be taken and destroyed” if they stayed at city hall, said Julie Garcia, the executive director of Jewels Helping Hands and a driving force behind Camp Hope. “This plot of land had already had people experiencing homelessness on it,” she said. “We came where we knew they’d at least be safe through the winter spell.”

An initial population of less than 100 has grown along with the alfalfa and dandelions on nearby lots. Now, tents are so tightly placed it's hard to get around without tripping over something. Other campers occupy nearby lots, some waiting for the opportunity to move in. Service providers regularly visit the camp to connect residents with services like addiction treatment and healthcare. A dozen port-a-potties line the sidewalk and, on the day we visited, a shower trailer was available for residents to use.

The combination of on-site services and a tight-knit community has drawn people experiencing homelessness to the encampment. Heather, who was wearing a Seahawks jersey and large sunglasses, said she moved to the camp in February to escape an abusive relationship. “The only other option is downtown and that’s scarier than here,” she says. “This seems to be more homey.”

A sense of shared ownership has evolved as the community has grown. Every Sunday at noon residents gather for a safety meeting where they can raise community concerns and sign up for shifts patrolling the camp in security t-shirts. The self-policing of the camp is one of ways people have created a community at Camp Hope. The camp has a few basic rules: no open drug use, no fighting and no stealing from each other or the neighbors, Garcia said.

Every week Heather signs up for three-hour shifts where she walks around the camp and checks in on her community. “I see a lot of people who do help, and a lot of people who don’t at the same time,” she said. “If you walk around here, you’ll notice the way the tents are set up, sometimes it looks like a little neighborhood,” Heather said. “I’ve noticed that the ones that are like little neighborhoods have a tendency to help each other just like normal neighbors.”

“If you walk around here, you’ll notice the way the tents are set up, sometimes it looks like a little neighborhood.”

While bonds of community have been forged over the seven-plus months of Camp Hope’s existence, some unhoused people look down on the camp. One man who was younger than most of the others at the camp and who wouldn’t share his name, said that the conditions of the camp are awful and that he doesn’t consider himself part of the community.

As he stood at the fly of an open tent, with several people inside urging him not to talk to the media, the young man described his lifestyle and approach to Camp Hope. “I’m not like these people here,” he said. “I can find a place to stay, like on a couch or in someone’s garage. To me, tents are like for camping on a family vacation when I was a kid.”

Camp Hope has faced challenges maintaining community and has become a target for non-residents, according to Garcia. People in the community have reported being stolen from and sexually abused by people from outside the camp. Residents say they’re jeered and honked at by drivers passing by at all hours of the day.

The young man who looked down on the camp and its residents described his lifestyle as a cycle of stealing then getting drugs. He said someday he’d like to get clean, perhaps even by getting arrested and doing a few months in prison. But, when we mentioned there were addiction services available on site that day, he said he wasn’t interested. “I haven’t hit rock bottom yet,” he said.

For Heather, who is entrenched in the community, both in her own neighborhood of tents and as a security volunteer, seeing people at rock bottom is all too familiar. “I’ve helped three people come back from [overdosing],” by administering Narcan, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses, which the Spokane Regional Health Department was handing out to residents that day. “So that’s really rewarding, especially when two of them are my friends,” she said.

Cans of food sit on the table at the supply tent at Camp Hope.

THE PERSISTENCE AND GROWTH of Camp Hope has made it a primary target of the state’s initiative to disband encampments on Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) right-of-ways. At a meeting of the Spokane Homeless Coalition that brought together local service providers and government representatives at the Gathering House Cafe in Spokane’s Garland neighborhood, Alex Scott described the evolution and next steps of the state’s homelessness response.

“The sense of urgency from WSDOT and from Washington State Patrol around rights-of-way has been building for quite some time,” said Scott, the special assistant for federal policy to Director Lisa Brown at the Washington Department of Commerce. “The situation we’re in now is we’ve got a little more than $24 million earmarked for Spokane — the first priority for that funding is folks that are in Camp Hope.”

That $24 million is part of a $144 million state fund to address 11 encampments in five counties across Washington. Access to that money, which is being allocated by the Department of Commerce, depends on the ability of local governments to agree on a workable plan to spend the money and relocate the residents of Camp Hope. “The money isn’t a certainty for Spokane,” said Liz Rocca, the director of communications for Commerce. “It’s contingent on them giving us a viable plan.”

If the county and cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley can’t come up with a viable plan, Commerce could cut the cities and county out of the process and still fund housing projects and local service providers. “All options are on the table at this point,” said Scott. Those options include the state moving the money out of Spokane to other counties and municipalities that are coming up with plans to house people living in right-of-ways.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said that there’s already agreement between the Spokane City Council, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane Valley and Spokane County on some ways to use the funding, including purchasing a hotel near Sunset Highway and renovating the proposed Trent Shelter to improve privacy. Beggs said the main sticking point between the city council and Spokane Valley on one side, and Woodward and the county on the other, is a proposal to convert an RV park in Spokane into a location for safe parking and pallet shelters (Beggs said he can’t share the exact location).

Regardless of lingering disagreements, Beggs said he’s confident that Commerce will spend the money in Spokane. “I’ve heard from multiple sources that the governor is most concerned about Camp Hope,” Beggs said. “So, I think if there’s a viable plan, even if the mayor’s office doesn’t support it … I’ve got to believe that Commerce will spend that money here.”

AS POLICY MAKERS WORK on plans to fund alternatives to Camp Hope, residents shared mixed views about disbanding the camp and the alternatives available to them. Common themes emerged: people value community, they want independence, and are wary of large congregate shelters like the proposed Trent Shelter.

Those themes resonated with Hallie Burchinal, the executive director of Compassionate Addiction Treatment, who experienced homelessness for three years as a teenager. “The sense of autonomy and feeling like you’re part of a community is integral to anyone [whether] housed or experiencing homelessness,” she said. “Having that sense of being part of a community is what gives people connection and hope. As human beings we don’t move forward without that.”

Burchinal’s organization offers addiction treatment services to Camp Hope residents. “We are meeting people where they are, without judgment,” she said. “People don’t become homeless by choice, at the core of that almost always is trauma.” To help people build resilience, Burchinal said it’s important to offer them “the help that they feel they need” and not force them into services, treatment or shelters.

With so much invested in the community, many don’t want to see Camp Hope removed. A man who identified himself as Mayo, expressed skepticism that disbanding the camp would work. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to, honestly,” he says. “The truth is they should allocate this whole strip of land because we’re packed in here like sardines.”

Mayo, who wore a black denim vest, shared his perspective as someone who's lived on the streets for the better part of 26 years. “I don’t like shelters,” he said. “That’s how COVID spreads, other diseases spread and you’re in a confined space with other people.” Besides the health challenges, he also saw shelters as a place where you lose personal agency. “Once you’ve been out here a while — I do what I want,” he said.

Giving up his autonomy to live in a congregate shelter wasn’t a solution he said he would be on board with, but he did have some thoughts about helping people stay off the streets. “Honestly, the best solution for the homeless situation would be to prevent the homeless situation in the first place — and that’s fairly easy,” he said. “Most of the time people that become homeless for the first time, all they really need is time: a month or two to just exist and not be bothered by anybody. Any program that you go through, they’re constantly picking at you and that doesn’t work.”

“Most of the time people that become homeless for the first time, all they really need is time...”

One solution that residents said they prefer over congregate shelters is pallet shelters — small, semi-permanent structures that are climate controlled and can be locked. “I know a lot of people here don’t like shelters,” Heather said. “I don’t want to be told when I have to go to bed or when I have to be in.” 

Jessica Chavez plays with her two dogs, Scrappy and Lilly, on Thursday, July 14, 2022 at Camp Hope.

Surveys of 601 Camp Hope residents conducted by Jewels Helping Hands found that every camper would be willing to move into a pallet shelter or tiny home, and only 51 would be willing to go to a shelter, depending on the operator.

With a pallet house, Heather said she would be able to retain her independence in a safe and comfortable environment. “The pallet houses are what I'm super excited about,” she said. “I hope that that is what comes through.”

Heather said she is waiting to get her identification replaced and a cell phone, then she hopes to get a job at Amazon. “Then hopefully, eventually, I'd be able to step out of this tent or a pallet home” and feel like a member of society again, she said.

According to Garcia of Jewels Helping Hands, only two of the 600 campers surveyed had their core identification: an ID and Social Security card. Without those basic pieces of identification, people are unable to access services like housing vouchers or even fill out paperwork for employment.

For Shawn Williams, who spoke to us from the doorway of an RV, the most important next steps aren’t about shelter plans or new housing projects, but personal growth and opportunities. “Having the resources, that’s hope,” he said, referring to the service providers who set up booths at the camp that day. “That’s giving everybody the opportunity to see that there’s someone who cares.”

“To have somebody care about somebody gives them some kind of confidence,” said Williams. “It gives them some hope and gives them the opportunity to say: You know what, there is a chance for me.”

Carl Segerstrom is a reporter and editor at RANGE Media. Previously he was an assistant editor at High Country News. Additional reporting for this story was provided by Valerie Osier. The story was edited by Luke Baumgarten. 

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