Remembrances and reckonings at Camp Hope

A community leader calls for reflection and action after two deaths this week.

A community leader calls for reflection and action after two deaths this week.

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Content warning: This article includes references to suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts you can call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8 or reach the eastern Washington regional crisis hotline 24/7 at (877) 266-1818.

Since state funding started flowing into Camp Hope last fall, resources have been on site to help people at the camp move into better situations. Housing navigators, peer support specialists, mental health and addiction counselors have each brought their skills and expertise to move more than 160 people from the camp to better options like transitional housing, shelters, permanent housing and reunification with families.

Today, for the people still living at the camp, there was a different need: healing.

Grief counselors talked to staff and the two dozen or so remaining people living there after two people from the camp died earlier this week. On Monday afternoon, a camp resident known as “Bigs” was found dead from an apparent suicide. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, an original camp resident, Mark, died in hospice care.

At RANGE we believe in uplifting the stories of these community members — we’ll be expanding on the power of obituaries as a way of showing who we value as a community in a forthcoming editorial. We also believe in a reckoning for the decisions made by governmental officials and that impact the lives of people like Bigs and Mark. That belief is fundamental to our accountability reporting on the city, state and region’s homelessness and housing policies.

The following is a remembrance and call to action from Maurice Smith. Smith has spent uncounted hours at the encampment as both a camp manager for Jewels Helping Hands and a documentary filmmaker whose My Road Leads Home series chronicles homeless issues in Spokane. This was originally shared via email to the Spokane Homeless Coalition and is being republished with Smith’s permission.

By Maurice Smith

It’s been a tough 24 hours at Camp Hope. We lost two of our friends, both to unresolved homelessness, but for two different reasons. Here are their stories:


We called him “Bigs” (his “street name” in the Camp) because, well, he was big. Sort of a gentle giant if you will. His tent was located in the “C” quadrant of Camp Hope. Bigs had been a resident of the Camp for about 9 months. The Camp was his community, and his tent in “C” quadrant was his home. He was quiet and kept to himself for the most part. He seldom (if ever) left the Camp. The last time I saw Bigs was last week when he was helping another Camp resident deal with the death of one of her puppies. “You’ve got a big heart,” was the last thing I remember saying to him.

Monday evening my phone rang and it was Ken Crary, Jewels Chief of Operations at the Camp. “I wanted you to know before you heard it on the news,” he said. “Bigs committed suicide. He hung himself in his tent. S**** and I found him this afternoon.” Heartbreak is often a silent response to unforeseen tragedy. It was for me at that moment.

We’re not exactly sure when Bigs hung himself (sometime over the weekend). We’re still filling in holes in our knowledge of events. It seems that he had told friends and staff that he would be gone for a couple of days (so no one would go looking for him), and that if he didn’t see them again, he wanted to let them know that he loved them. Having covered his bases, he quietly slipped into his tent . . . and hung himself.

After learning the news (I was home since my shift as Camp Day Manager was over for the day), I took a long reflective walk on the Centennial Trail. It’s one of the ways I work on my own personal Shalom . . . or to weep when someone I love loses theirs. I reflected on the reality that Bigs wasn’t a “nuisance.” He was simply another of our Campers working his way through the journey we call “homelessness.” I reflected on how the eventual Coroners Report will probably say something like “Death From Asphyxiation By Hanging,” or some other official wording for this type of event. But, on deeper reflection, I concluded that the Report won’t list his true cause of death. The truth is that Bigs died of hopelessness. Camp Hope was his community. His tent was his home. We were his family. And all of these were being threatened by a City Administration that, having found a local judge who would declare the Camp a “nuisance property” (and its residents “nuisances”), was determined to close the Camp and force the remaining residents (about 25) to leave and go to a shelter, or back onto the street. If forced out of the Camp – his home for the past nine months – Bigs had nowhere to go. No community. No home. No hope. And that’s a terrible darkness to stare into.

Let me be clear. City homeless policy, including using Courts, law enforcement, and threats of sweeps and forcible removal, as a tool of homeless policy has consequences. One of those consequences has a name. We called him “Bigs.” And he deserved a better policy than the one forced on him and so many others.


The other person we lost was Mark. He passed away at 2 AM this morning at Holy Family Hospital. Mark was one of the original Camp Hope residents, going back over a year now. As the months passed, Mark came to the attention of Jewels Helping Hands staff and he was hired to work for JHH and run the mobile shower trailer. Five months ago, Mark got housing. Three months ago, he started chemo. And you can figure out the rest.

At the beginning of my documentary work (4 years ago!) I heard the Director of a homeless services agency say that the chronically homeless individuals they were placing into housing had been homeless for an average of 11 years, but that the majority of them would be dead within three years of getting housed. Why? Because homelessness is a journey that takes a heavy toll on people. Poor nutrition, poor health care, undiagnosed and untreated medical conditions, exposure to the elements, compromised immune system, and other co-occurring factors take a toll on the individual. Once they get housing, move from survival mode to maintenance mode, and even get their substance abuse issues under control, their underlying medical conditions which have accumulated over the years now come to the surface. Think of homelessness like a cancer that, if found early, is very treatable, even curable. I know. My prostate cancer was found early, treated, and I’m now cancer free. But if left untreated, it grows and eventually proves fatal. Mark’s journey through homelessness resulted in housing, but it also resulted in failing health and a cancer that took his life this morning at 2 AM. But he didn’t pass homeless or alone. He had a home, and he passed with JHH staff present to assure him that he was loved.

So, yes, it’s been a tough 24 hours at Camp Hope. If there are any lessons to be gained from the experience, they should include these.

  • First, we need a better homeless policy than using threats, courts, and law enforcement to enforce a misguided policy that uproots people from the community they are in and forces them into options (like large congregate shelters) that are not appropriate for them.
  • Second, we need more and better mental health options for those (like Bigs) who are struggling with both homelessness and mental health challenges (including, but not limited to, hopelessness).
  • Third, we need to get those experiencing homelessness (like Mark) housed sooner rather than later and provide them with the supportive services they need (like health care) to heal, prosper, and grow.

What we don’t need is another 24-hours like the last 24.

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