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'Paying for Spokane's homeless crisis?' | Local non-profits and city leaders at odds

What started as a protest last winter turned into a massive homeless encampment on Department of Transportation land within city limits.

SPOKANE, Wash. — It has become the symbol of homelessness in Spokane, a sprawling camp of tents and broken down RVs along I-90, known as Camp Hope.

What started as a protest last winter took on a life of its own on Department of Transportation land within city limits. Homeless advocates like Jewels Helping Hands say the process of moving people into more permanent housing is a slow one.

At its peak, 650-700 people were staying there. It’s now closer to 450. 

Homeless advocates like Jewels Helping Hands say the process of moving people into more permanent housing is a slow one.

"There's nowhere for them to go if we don't start housing them," Jewels Founder Julie Garcia said. "The numbers just increase every single year."

But, the city of Spokane hit a setback in early November when the Hope House women's shelter announced it would be forced to close at the end of January because of budget shortfall.

"Unfortunately, the need is great and the funds weren't there," said Rae-Lynn Barden of Volunteers of America, which operates Hope House.

The closure will mean more than 80 women currently staying at the shelter will be forced elsewhere, and up to 35 employees could also be left without a job.

"To put another roadblock for them, it's really devastating," Barden said.

City leaders tell KREM 2 there may still be hope to find enough funding for Hope House, as the 2023 budget is still being finalized. 

But homeless advocates across the city believe as Spokane's population continues to boom, and the homeless population increases, leaders need to start focusing more on long-term housing solutions, instead of just shelter beds.

Still, the brand new Trent Avenue shelter is filling an important need for nightly bed space. It's also now being touted as a resource center, a model city leaders are borrowing from Houston, Texas.

"When we went to Houston, that's what they do when they address encampments," said Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward. "They have navigation centers, and they move people indoors into a navigation center with the expectation that you're going to be assessed there, you're going to be connected to services. And that is where you wait out your housing options. "

But, despite the new shelter, Camp Hope remains. 

The mayor says DOT's refusal to clear it has cost Spokane taxpayers more than $500,000 in garbage cleanup, private security and police overtime. 

"We have spent now over $600,000 on their property and the impact the activity on their property is having on the neighborhood and on businesses.”

Earlier this year, Washington state legislators approved $144 million specifically to tackle homelessness in state-owned rights-of-way, like the one where Camp Hope now sits.

WSDOT's Right of Way Safety Initiative provides local agencies with federal funds from the Department of Commerce to be used on projects, such as providing shelter and housing options. According to WSDOT's letter, there are four actions that allow encampments like the one near I-90 to be removed from state right of way: 

  • The offering of shelter and services to people living there (local jurisdiction and service/outreach providers; funding offered by Commerce)
  • Secure storage of their belongings (local jurisdiction and service/outreach providers) 
  • Safety and security for people on-site and work crews (local law enforcement and Washington State Patrol)
  • Restoration and cleanup of the property (WSDOT) 

Of the $25 million allocated to Spokane County, $14 million went to the Catholic Charities Catalyst transitional housing project at the old Quality Inn on Sunset Hill.

Empire Health received almost $3.5 million for services at Camp Hope and assessments to get people staying there into permanent housing. That includes $1.1 million that went to Jewels Helping Hands.

The city of Spokane is also in talk with Commerce to finalize $1.5 million for 30 beds at the new Trent shelter, although the mayor says at least one request to pay for facility improvements like indoor bathrooms, showers and kitchen space was denied. 

The mayor has also faced direct criticism from the Department of Commerce for how Spokane is responding to its growing homeless crisis.

“Commerce hasn't been critical of any other city outside of Spokane, and hasn't blamed any site, any city outside of Spokane for their homeless issue based on an administration or a mayor. I think it's political," Woodward said. 

KREM 2 reached out to the Department of Commerce with the mayor's claim that the city is being treated differently for political reasons.

The Department of Commerce sent the following response:

"Spokane is not being singled out. We are doing this work in 5 counties and multiple communities and challenges exist everywhere. What is unique about Spokane is that its encampment, on state right of way, is the largest in the state which makes it an exceptional challenge."

The mayor is also critical of certain organizations receiving a portion of Commerce funding.

"I think it's interesting to know that Jewel's Helping Hands is the non-profit that started the protest against the city for not having enough low barrier beds and now they're benefiting from that protest by getting a million dollars from commerce," Woodward said.

But Garcia said she is simply helping a homeless population that city leaders ignored for too long. And she says politics between agencies is hindering progress. 

"If I had a magic wand and could just wave it over everything, I'd take the homeless services out of control of the city and put it in control of a non-profit like the Houston model, where it doesn't change with every political climate," Garcia said. 

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