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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Spokane County candidates address ‘homelessness,’ ‘lawlessness’ during Saturday forum in Spokane Valley

Oct. 16, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 17, 2022 at 7:58 a.m.

Spokane County Sheriff candidates Wade Nelson, left, and John Nowels answer questions during a candidate forum Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at Valley Assembly of God church in Spokane Valley.  (Garrett Cabeza / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Sheriff candidates Wade Nelson, left, and John Nowels answer questions during a candidate forum Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at Valley Assembly of God church in Spokane Valley. (Garrett Cabeza / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Undersheriff John Nowels said the needs of the law-abiding business owners and neighbors surrounding Camp Hope must be met before the needs of those who commit crimes in and around the homeless encampment off Interstate 90 in Spokane.

“We do have to address (campers’) needs but we have to be responsive to the people who didn’t have the choice of living near Camp Hope,” Nowels said.

Sheriff hopeful Nowels, his fellow Republican opponent Wade Nelson and other candidates for office in Eastern Washington fielded questions Saturday at a candidate forum hosted by Valley Assembly of God at the Spokane Valley church.

Spokane County candidates were asked how they would address homelessness and lawlessness.

Nelson, who served in the sheriff’s office for 21 years, said crime is “out of control” and the sheriff’s office has not done its “due diligence” to increase staffing levels so it can fight crime.

He said his goal is to work with elected leaders and other law enforcement agencies in the area to settle on a collaborative approach to address crime.

Nelson called Camp Hope a homeless problem and a lawless problem, citing crime at the camp and in the surrounding area.

He said the entities getting involved in the camp at this point are not looking out for the community.

“This is a political push on all sides,” Nelson said.

Nowels said officials need to address the underlying causes of homelessness, which are typically economic, mental health and substance-abuse issues.

“We need to support programs that help those people out of homelessness,” said Nowels, who has 24 years of experience at the sheriff’s office. “We have the financial resources to deal with it.”

Nowels said the main issue at Camp Hope, which sits on state land, is not homelessness.

“Camp Hope is a lawless issue,” he said. “If there was no crime occurring around Camp Hope and there was no crime occurring within Camp Hope, the community would not be crying out for something to be done. We have to address the lawlessness that is occurring surrounding Camp Hope.”

Nowels said it’s time for law enforcement to get involved and get homeless service providers who are supposed to be providing resources to Camp Hope residents to move more quickly.

“The resources are there,” he said. “We need to get the people who are responsible for this to move faster.”

He said those providers, Jewels Helping Hands and Empire Health Foundation, have been unwilling to even talk about shortening the timetable to give neighbors crime relief.

“It’s not fair that they can’t live in their neighborhoods in peace,” Nowels said.

While Camp Hope is drawing the attention, Nelson said the camp represents only about one-third of the homeless population in the area. He said there are n’t enough shelter beds to house even one-third of the homeless population.

“Everyone keeps focusing on this one spot, but it’s everywhere,” Nelson said.

Spokane County Prosecutor candidates Larry Haskell, a Republican, and Deb Conklin, who is running as a nonpartisan candidate, also addressed potential solutions to homelessness and lawlessness.

Conklin, a deputy prosecutor in the 1980s and a pastor, said she would adopt “effective, proven practices,” including electronic monitoring and supervised pretrial release, to keep defendants out of jail and continue working so they do not become homeless.

She said she would embrace programs that help people put their lives together during and after sentencing so they can be productive residents when they get out of jail or prison.

“Right now, we have a revolving door and what we need is to address the community situation, the life situation, the personal issues that push people into a life of crime in the first place,” she said.

“We can adopt practices that both help people avoid homelessness and become more productive citizens so they don’t repeat their crimes,” she continued.

Incumbent Haskell said most of the programs Conklin mentioned are already in use and that he does not believe people are pushed into crime.

“I believe that they make a choice to choose crime,” Haskell said.

He said municipalities had sit-and-lie ordinances and anti-camping statutes in municipalities until 2018, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. Boise changed that.

Under the Eighth Amendment, the court found cities cannot prosecute people sleeping on the streets if there is nowhere for them to go.

“Homelessness is intimately tied with lawlessness,” Haskell said.

Cities have struggled to work within the court’s guidelines and, in Spokane, Camp Hope is “one of the most imminent struggles,” Haskell said.

Like Nowels, Haskell said crime picked up in the camp and spread to residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the race for Spokane County auditor, incumbent Vicky Dalton and state Rep. Bob McCaslin Jr. addressed election integrity at the auditor’s office.

Dalton, a Democrat, said her office has many controls in place, including making sure two people are with ballots at all times.

“There’s a lot of controls in place that most people don’t realize and don’t even think about,” she said.

Dalton said she encourages voters to observe the election and see how the process works.

McCaslin, a Republican, proposed four actions he would take, if elected, to keep elections safe and secure. They include implementing video monitoring security on all ballots, regularly cleaning up voter rolls, allowing walk-in voting and proposing ID verification for voter eligibility.

“I think our confidence in our elections for the last four years actually have been a problem,” McCaslin said. That view is in conflict with state officials, including former Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who said there were no known cases of fraud in the 2020 election.

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