Homelessness, News, and Elections
"They don't want to solve homelessness," he said, "They just don't want to see it."
In the wake of the closure of Camp Hope on June 9, conservative leaning media published articles pointing out that visible homelessness on the streets of downtown Spokane had increased, hinting that Camp Hope was somehow at fault and that the money spent on the entire issue had been wasted. The Center Square article referenced below, “After millions spent, Spokane County frustrated to see homeless numbers increase” went further. It propped up the counterfactual myth of Spokane as a “receiving entity”—a place attracting crowds of mobile homeless people on account of supposedly lavish services, a lie puffed out in quotes from Spokane County Commissioners, Republicans Al French and Josh Kerns.
Municipal elections are already under way (August 1 Primary ballots due, November 7 for the General election). With at least two arguably “law and order” ballot measures teed up for the November ballot (more on those in later posts) a cynic might be excused for wondering if City of Spokane’s Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration and the monied interests that back her have any interest in actually addressing the roots of homelessness. After all, demonizing the homeless worked for her in 2019 (by a small electoral margin)—and her biggest supporter, local real estate magnate Larry Stone, bagged a lucrative lease for his quickly purchased warehouse, a lease paid by the taxpayers. Why couldn’t demonizing the homeless work again?
Below I’ve copied the response of Maurice Smith to these articles. Maurice worked closely with Julie Garcia and her organization, Jewels Helping Hands, at Camp Hope throughout its duration. He has been deeply involved with documenting the humanity and plight of the homeless for years before Camp Hope (see links below). He deserves a bigger soapbox, certainly a bigger soapbox than conservative reporters quoting the like of Al French and Josh Kerns on this issue.
Keep to the high ground,
Good Wednesday Afternoon Coalition Partners,
Lingering - even growing - homelessness following the closure of Camp Hope is creating no shortage of questions and even accusations (“It’s all that Camp’s fault”). Two recent articles seem to encompass some of these questions and deserve some responses as we seek to frame homelessness moving forward, while considering the possibility of a regional approach to addressing homelessness. So, here are a few of my thoughts on all three issues.
“If You Spend It, They Will Come”
The first article began like this: “(The Center Square) – Spokane County commissioners asked the hard questions and came up with few answers about the efficacy of millions of dollars spent on homelessness only to see more people on the street” (See “After Millions Spent, Spokane County Frustrated to See Homeless Numbers Increase”). The article centers on discussions by Spokane County Commissioners regarding rising homelessness, and highlights two issues. First, after spending large sums of money on homeless services, why are we not moving the needle? Why is homelessness increasing? Second, is Spokane a “receiving” City where people experiencing homelessness receive so much help that we’re attracting people experiencing homelessness from other communities? Here are my responses.
First, the reason homelessness is increasing despite the amount of money being spent is two fold. On the one hand, homelessness is a much larger issue than local officials and policymakers have been willing to embrace, and it’s growing despite the money currently being spent. On the other hand, most of what we’re spending is ineffective and is being wasted. EXAMPLE: The TRAC shelter is costing the City of Spokane roughly $14 million per year, or $40,000 per guest per year. For that amount of money, the 350 guests could have been placed into very decent apartments while receiving a living stipend for an entire year. Or, the 467 badged residents of Camp Hope could have received $30,000 in assistance, again, enough for a decent apartment and a smaller stipend . . . for a YEAR! Instead, we have a shelter we can’t afford in a warehouse with no facilities, and 350 people who aren’t being offered a meaningful exit ramp out of homelessness. Wasted.
Second, no, homeless people are not flocking to Spokane as a “receiving” City. Of the 467 badged residents of Camp Hope, 83% said they came from “greater Spokane” (within 20 miles of the City), while 70.7% said they came from the City of Spokane. These numbers were fairly consistent with the 2022 Point-In-Time Count which found that 74% of those interviewed said they came from Spokane County. 79% of those from Spokane County said they came from the City of Spokane. The vast majority of our homelessness is home-grown, NOT bussed in or attracted from other cities by the amazing benefits they’ll receive in Spokane.
“Remember, You Wanted This”
The second recent article that caught my attention, “Open Drug Use, Naked People, Stabbings: Closure of Camp Hope Rocks Downtown Businesses”, came via KHQ (FOX28). The article centered on the increased number of homeless downtown as a result of Camp Hope closing. Reading it, I couldn't help but . . . smile. No, I don't think it's funny or humorous. Rather, it's the smile of "I told you so." In my interactions with the City over the months of Camp Hope, I repeatedly warned that if they forced the closure of Camp Hope, the residents would have nowhere to go but downtown. But they insisted that the Camp be closed IMMEDIATELY. To expedite that imagined process, back in September, City and County officials threatened to close the Camp by mid-October. As a result of those threatened closures, over 200 residents left the camp (the unsheltered homeless take law enforcement threats seriously and generally don't wait around to see what happens next). Again, in December, when law enforcement INSISTED on visiting the Camp and handing out flyers declaring "This Camp Is Closing," another 200 people left the camp in the two weeks following those visits. So, some 400 people left the camp (I document this in detail in my forthcoming book, "A Place To Exist: The True and Untold Story of Camp Hope and Homelessness In Spokane"). Guess where they went. Yep, downtown. They didn't head downtown the day after the Camp closed on June 9. They had left long before that, due to the City's (and County's) threats to "close that nuisance camp."
So, downtown businesses are now experiencing the consequences of the City (and County) Administration's policies and actions . . . and blaming it all on Camp Hope. From the perspective of City leaders, the Camp was "the problem" when it existed, and it apparently is "the problem" now because it doesn't exist. It’s past time for City and County officials to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and quit blaming it on others. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
A friend of mine, who has been involved in homeless leadership in Spokane, once told me, "They don't want to solve homelessness," he said, "They just don't want to see it." Harsh, but true. Camp Hope could have had a much larger impact than the 216 unsheltered homeless we were able to place into housing if the City (and County) had simply left us alone to do our job, or had actually leaned in to help. But they chose to be obstructionist, rather than constructionist. They chose to blast, rather than to build. And the consequences of their choices and threats are now on the streets of downtown Spokane. And they're still blaming Camp Hope, its organizers (of which I was one), and its residents . . . when they should be looking in the mirror. The "man in the mirror" (or the woman) is the problem.
There's a great scene in the first "Jack Reacher" movie with Tom Cruise where he is about to take on 3 antagonists in an alley fight behind a bar. Just before the first punch is thrown, Reacher looks the leading antagonist in the eye and says, "Remember, you wanted this" (I’ll leave it to you to imagine how it ended). All I can say to City and County officials who pined for the closure of Camp Hope is to quote Jack Reacher, “Remember, you wanted this.”
Finally, I spent time this week talking with Gavin Cooley about the proposed regional homeless authority that is now being discussed by local elected officials. I believe Spokane is at a tipping point when it comes to homelessness and homeless policy and services, and I believe a regional coordinated policy under a separate umbrella entity is the best pathway forward. We talked about the discussed goal of cutting regional homelessness by 40% in two years. I countered by suggesting that the goal be re-focused on eliminating unsheltered homelessness in two years (not reducing, but eliminating), getting the 955 unsheltered homeless off of City streets, out of City parks, and into appropriate housing and services. And eliminating unsheltered homelessness in two years would effectively reduce overall homelessness by 40%. That would be my recommendation for a specific targeted goal.
We also talked about the vision of a “navigation campus” (as opposed to a warehouse) like “the Beacon” in Houston, a campus spanning 2 or 3 acres, where those experiencing homelessness could do laundry, take a shower, get a real meal (prepared on-site in an actual kitchen), get a bed if they need one, and be assigned to a Peer Navigator who can help them work on their exit ramp out of homelessness.
These are very achievable goals, but not if we nit-pick it to death, or put the same people in charge of the new entity who got us into this mess in the first place. It’s time to “do different,” unless we want to be having these same conversations at a higher frustration level a year from now. That’s the problem with tipping points - if they don’t tip forward, the alternative all too often is backward. And I don’t want to go backward. Do you?
Yours for the Shalom of Our Community,
“We can’t change what we don’t love;
We can’t love what we don’t know;
And we can’t know
what we’re unwilling to invest
with our time, our efforts, and