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CAMP HOPE: Yakima shelter's founder has much to say about successfully moving out of homelessness

Updated: Jan 8, 2022


Photo by Mark White, Dignity City

Camp Hope Founder and Director Mike Kay dishes up pizza to residents of the Yakima-based low-barrier shelter.

By Mark White Dignity City contributor

Mike Kay, a pastor and a former Oregon police officer, is the founder and current Director of Camp Hope, a unique, low-barrier shelter in Yakima. The 4-year-old camp, which offers barracks-style shelters, dormitories and on-site health services for up to 250 men, women and families — including people with pets — sits on municipal property adjacent to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

In early October, I spent a weekend at the camp, photographing and interviewing staff and residents. My conversation with Kay has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s cut to the chase. Tell me, what makes Camp Hope unique?

I think what makes this place unique is the relationship model that we follow. A lot of organizations focus on trying to get somebody from the time they come in the door out to what they call “permanent housing” as fast as they can. You've heard the term “rapid rehousing?” My problem with rapid rehousing is that for the majority of people, we've not fixed anything that caused the person to be homeless in the first place.

When we started doing this, and because we are low barrier, meaning a lot of our folks have been kicked out of places like the Union Gospel Mission, we've got to start peeling back all the layers of the trauma that's happened. When we really started doing this, I decided that I'm going to listen to these guys here and not try to invent a program and make them fit the program, but instead I would design a program that could be adaptable to anyone that comes in the door and make it not feel like a program.

That was the other feedback I got from people that were experiencing homelessness. Different organizations have programs that I have got to morph myself into, and that causes more stress, anxiety, and pressure. If I don't pass, then I've blown that chance with them forever and now I have to start all over again, which is why we started that whole Redemption Plan, Restoration Plan — plans that give residents another chance.

We can slowly, through relationship-building, take away some of those bad behaviors, those bad choices, and shape them into someone that will be successful and reintegrated back into normal society. Then you will be successful with the housing. I have to equip them with tools. I have to equip them with financial management. I have to equip them with coping skills. I have to teach some of them just how to communicate, that this is not a constant yelling and screaming match.

Some of them we have to rebuild trust with. We have to shift gears a lot between being the shelter staff and the advocates for them. What I found is, when people know that you care about them, then they'll really listen to you.

Give me one example of how Camp Hope has evolved based on the needs that you saw; for instance, a program that exists now that you hadn’t considered when you first started.

When we first started, we were just looking at traditional shelter models and listening to all these best practices. To be honest, I was listening to what was going on on your side of the mountain and trying to duplicate it here. What I found out is, that doesn't work. One, we don't have the resources, being a rural county. What really worked was making ourselves absolutely accessible to the people that are here.

For example, when we first started, we had the real rigid hours of case management, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Got to sign-up for your appointments. We got you an appointment with [Yakima Comprehensive Health Care and Mental Health] you figure out how to get there. Or, we got you a doctor’s appointment, you figure out how to get there. What we found is people weren’t very successful, even going to the appointments because of a myriad of issues. What we found is when we went with the relationship model, where if we make an appointment for them that we don’t offer here on campus, that we’ll take them there at least for the first few appointments. This way we can help them understand what the doctor’s saying, we can advocate for them with the doctor and help assess what they really need. It also helps us cut out some of the folks who are just chasing pills.

The big evolution for us was when we decided that instead of trying to figure out how to get people to go to the mental health appointments is working out our relationship with Yakima Comprehensive, where they have an office here on-site. They’re here five days a week. Literally, some of the people that would normally have two or three appointments with comprehensive and have to figure out how to travel across town to get it, now they can walk 20 feet and they’re able to meet with their provider.

Don’t you ever get criticized for enabling people that way though?

That’s my criticism of it, and yes, we do get that criticism. You’re enabling them, but the idea is many of these are people are on the last rung of the ladder. If we don’t help them at that level, the next step is that they just fall off into society. Then they become a problem with the criminal justice system or whatever. What we found is by creating these partnerships with them, people are starting to get their mental health back. That fog starts to clear and now we can start working on housing, jobs, all that kind of stuff. It really bothers me that these best practices that we hear all the time from places like Seattle and over here is, there’s only two schools of thought: There’s either, You can do everything for them or You do nothing for them. You just make the services available. We’re trying to hit that sweet spot in the middle, where once we get them going, we find that people, once they get into that pattern of meeting with their counselor, meeting with their mental health worker, they stay consistent on that, which slowly [frees] us from having to go with them, to giving them gentle reminders, to the point where we’re completely out of it and we’re getting reports.

Tell me about your relationship with Yakima Comprehensive.

We share a database... If you are a resident here, Mental Health can put in your profile, "Met with so and so, he's doing well, or we changed his medications," or whatever. Then my staff could pull these up on their iPads and actually see what's going on with you in real-time. That helps us manage stuff, too, when medications get changed and maybe you don't react as well to the medications. Instead of telling you, "Beat it!" we actually have that information so we can call your case manager at Comprehensive and say, "So and so’s not doing well on the new medication."

As you developed this approach, was there a model out there that you followed, or did it evolve organically?

No, it came organically. Some of the stuff we got from traditional shelters, but I really tried to work really hard to be accessible to my folks and have a relationship with them. As an example, we brought in the drug dog. That came from the residents saying, "Hey, there's people that are bypassing the searches," and "I'm not able to maintain my sobriety. Why don't we have a drug dog here?"

"Great,” I said. “Well, tell me what that would look like?" Do we do it like law enforcement does where we just show up and say you're all subject to search? Do we give people a chance to turn over what they've got and do a redemption? The residents helped design that plan. What I found, is by them having a say in these decisions to a certain extent, they don't really buck any of the policies or procedures.

A drug dog? What does that look like?

When I was in law enforcement, that's what I did, I handled a narcotics dog. So we went and actually got a narcotics dog that was given to us by one of our donors.

Honestly, when we run the dog, we'll usually find maybe a bubble pipe or somebody new who has a $10 sack of meth or whatever that they snuck in. But we've never really found large amounts of drugs. People see that we just use it as a deterrent more than a punitive thing.

I'm looking at the big picture of Yakima. According to the Yakima County Point-in-Time Report about 650 folks here experienced homelessness in 2020, about 25 percent of them unsheltered. What's driving the homeless situation in Yakima?

Well, some people will tell you it's the lack of affordable housing. Really, in Yakima, we don't have any significant low-income housing, it would probably be a better way to put it. There are some groups that are working on apartment buildings and so on. I really think that we have to continue on our path of trying to get people from street homelessness into a shelter, then into transitional housing.

Like what we're doing with our Tiny Homes Program or even with Hope House, Faith House, any of those, where someone can graduate from the shelter. Now, they've got a little bit of income. They're renting a room with communal living or they're staying in a tiny home or whatever. With those wraparound services with them still, then they graduate from that into their permanent housing. That's been a much, much more successful model, at least for us than this rapid rehousing stuff.

I hear you saying loudly and clearly that you don’t see the housing crisis as driving homelessness. Then what are the triggers of homelessness here?

Well, my triggers with homelessness goes back to trauma, whether it's the adverse childhood experiences or choices they made as adults. We have women here that have been — they've just been trafficked, abused, beaten. We have guys that have been trafficked, abused, beaten. We have a huge human trafficking issue here in Yakima. We have a huge issue of drugs, for a small community. We have a huge gang violence issue. We have all the high crime of a major city without the resources.

The biggest thing that I see with our folks is there is one real mental health provider here. And in this particular community, mental health is a dirty word, so we're trying to fix that, too. They assume anybody with a mental health issue is that violent homeless person chasing you down the street with a sword type of thing, but we don't find that. We just find people that have different traumas.

A couple of stories that I've heard in speaking with your residents here is that many people here have severe health issues, whether it's diabetes, cancer, immune disorders, broken backs — all kinds of pretty serious issues.

That's why, with us, it's so important, having a nurse here, at least one day a week, is really big because she can do some of the minor stuff. Having the relationship we have at Yakima Memorial Hospital is really big, too, because we work really hard on our relationship with their Emergency Room. They know if we bring somebody there, we've exhausted all the other resources. So it's not just another “homeless person” looking for a warm place to go, bogging down services, especially with the pandemic.

We have other providers like Farm Workers Clinic, and Neighborhood Health that work really hard to try and get people in at some level and some of them are better than others. The biggest thing we want people to have is a choice.

I'm really trying to find providers that will take their time to know people and know what's going on.

What you're describing to me is something that’s going to be difficult to scale because you're dealing with a lot of one-on-one relationships that take six months, eight months, two years, maybe a whole lifetime. Homelessness is a crisis in the country now, it’s a massive crisis in Seattle. How do you scale this model?

Well, I think the way we bring this model to that gigantic problem is to ask them, “Can you do what we're doing?” We are a “second chance” employer, which means we take folks here who were previously homeless, continue to develop skills with them, where they can then pursue the one-on-one relationships. They were homeless, so there is an “empathy” factor already there.

Then the second piece is creating an atmosphere, where it's not about this person equals how many dollars you get. That's really what's broken with our system in this state — the more people you have, the more money you should be able to get to do it. We have one provider here in the area that a lot of their staff makes — especially upper managers — $300,000 plus. OK, but what if they didn't make that much at the upper end? How many more people could you afford to have actually working with people?

That’s a pretty big culture shift you’re asking of traditional shelters and providers.

To me, it's a slow scale, but what we're doing right now as a society is not working, and the reason it's a crisis is because it's not working, and all we're doing is throwing money at it. What I've told people here is that if out of 100 percent of our population, we get 25- or 30 percent of them this year [to] go into permanent housing and they don't come back, that's the big thing. Why we have a crisis is we're showing data where we took so and so from the street, we rapid rehoused him. OK, there's a win, but we don't ever track that he came back into the system four months later just as broken before, but now he's got a fresh eviction on his record, and he's even more disenchanted with the services and he feels down and yada, yada, yada. What we want to do with our model is take our time. Some people are faster at going through the cycle than others, but be able to take people from the street to the shelter from the shelter to transitional houses and then into permanent housing. Then we've fixed you, for lack of a better term. Now we can focus on this next group that's coming in. Does that make sense?

Yes. And it's hard to scale.

It is hard to scale. But I know some providers, they don't hire you unless you've got a bachelor's degree, but the problem is they don't pay what a bachelor's degree should pay. So you create even more broken relationships with people because you have somebody that comes in, maybe for 2 to 6 months, then they leave. And the people are going, "Well, wait a second. When you came to work here, you said, you cared about me. You wanted to be with me. You wanted to help me with at this. Now you're gone somewhere and you don't ever speak to me again." Now we've actually created another low-level trauma.

You mentioned your relationship with the health providers and the hospital. What about the police?

Having come from law enforcement, I can say that homelessness can bog down a patrol unit. There were no resources available because shelters closed their gates at 5 o'clock, 6 six o'clock. When we started this, I came up with the concept of our “hot team,” which was that police officers had our resources available to them 24/7, that they could call us and say, "Hey, I've just come across so and so. He's in the doorway of ABC Coffee Company. He'd like to go to a shelter." We’d say, "Great, we'll be right down to pick him up."

We show up, we pick you up, we bring all your belongings. We bring your dog, we bring your shopping cart, whatever is there, we bring you to a shelter. We've evolved that, to if you want to go to Union Gospel Mission and you're not on their sanction list, we'll take you there. We'll take you to the YWCA if you're a woman and they'll accept you. We'll take you to a detox bed now, we'll take you to a mental health stability bed if that's where they decided you need to go.

What we found is that now the police know we have such a culture, whether we're talking with the sheriff's department or whatever, that this is a safe place for people to go. It's not uncommon to see the police … drop somebody off here.

The alternative is what I call “squeezing the balloon,” where they show up and they run you away from ABC Coffee Shop. You go three blocks down to the church on the corner and you set up camp there, and sooner or later they go right back to the coffee shop.

The other thing we started with the city and the county was using our folks that wanted to give back to the community to clean up other homeless camps. We used to have an area downtown that was just inundated. We spent a little bit of money and bought the pickers and all the stuff, we put our folks through the blood-borne pathogen class so they could do it safely and provide them with the equipment. When the city shows up to do a sweep of an area at 5 in the morning or whatever, we're right there with them. Then we can advocate for the person and say, "Listen, we'd love to take you to a shelter. We'd love to take you wherever, can we help you pick up your stuff?"

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