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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘What kind of community do we want to be?’ Camp Hope and nearby residents weigh in as state-city fight continues

Sometimes Kristen Gerloff handles the drive-thru at the Jack in the Box on Sprague Avenue, where she’s worked since May. Other times she mans the grill or the fryer at the east Spokane fast-food joint.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s fast-paced.”

Nearby, Gerloff has lived since the spring in a tent at Camp Hope, the 450-person encampment on state property along Ray Street, 100 feet north of Interstate 90.

She doesn’t plan to be at Camp Hope much longer.

“I just got approved for an apartment,” she said. “I’ve come a long way since I’ve been here.”

While Gerloff has been trying to find a place to live, Camp Hope’s residents have found themselves in the middle of a standoff between Spokane leaders and officials with the Washington state government, which owns the land.

Mayor Nadine Woodward and Spokane County officials want Camp Hope gone by mid-November. The city is threatening to sue the Washington State Department of Transportation over the tent city, and the county is already working on a lawsuit. Woodward has said Camp Hope must go not only because it’s hurting East Central, but because it grows increasingly unsafe for its own residents as winter draws near.

The state, which has committed $21 million to housing the people living at Camp Hope, says disbanding the camp now would be counterproductive, given the ongoing effort to resettle its residents. State officials have chided Woodward for her handling of the situation and accused her of caring more about “optics than action.”

“The City’s approach and artificial deadlines will not benefit the people living within or outside of the encampment,” Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar wrote Friday in a letter to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl.

While government officials have traded barbs, Camp Hope has received attention at the state and national level.

“It is devastating the entire neighborhood,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said on “Fox and Friends” last month.

“You have entire families living in fear because of the drugs, the alcohol, the theft, the violence inside the camp.”

Knezovich and Meidl have vowed to clear Camp Hope, and said they’ll arrest people who refuse to leave.

Campers have heard Knezovich’s comments. They said they know many residents have accused them of ruining the neighborhood.

“I’m not stupid; I know what they’re saying – we’re all a bunch of druggies, heathens, criminals,” Chris Senn said. “It’s not true.”

Many East Central residents said they also aren’t happy with the bitter back and forth over Camp Hope.

Randy McGlenn, chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Council, said crime has risen dramatically since Camp Hope formed in December, and residents feel unsafe walking around the neighborhood.

According to the Spokane Police Department, calls for service in the quarter-mile radius around Camp Hope are up 56% compared to 2021 and burglary calls are up 514%.

But McGlenn said lobbing “nasty” letters and making demands isn’t helping. Government officials have to put aside their differences and address the root causes of homelessness, he said.

“Just scattering the camp and moving these people along isn’t solving anything,” McGlenn said. “They’re still going to be homeless. They’re still going to have the same issues they had that got them here.”

Homeless advocates, meanwhile, said they’re worried that anti-homeless sentiment is growing.

Maurice Smith, who works for Jewels Helping Hands as the camp’s security official, said it feels like some politicians are more interested in “waging a war” against the homeless than helping them. Jewels is the primary service provider to camp residents.

“Leadership sets the tone, and the tone that’s being set is, these are a bunch of drug-addicted criminals and they just need to be swept and taken to a shelter or jail,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

How Camp Hope happened

Camp Hope started in December, when homeless people pitched tents outside Spokane City Hall to protest the city’s lack of shelter space.

After the city said it would remove the tents, the protesters moved to the vacant Department of Transportation property along the freeway. The department initially planned to break up the camp, but opted against it because the city didn’t have enough shelter beds available.

Over the following months, Camp Hope grew. In June, government officials started making tangible steps toward addressing the situation.

The Department of Commerce offered Spokane $25 million to house Camp Hope residents. The Washington Legislature had set aside $143 million in 2022 for housing people living on state-owned rights of way. The money has to be spent on projects that provide “safer housing opportunities” and emphasize “permanent housing solutions.”

Spokane had mere weeks to put together a proposal for the dollars. To date, the Department of Commerce has committed $21 million to the Woodward administration’s plan.

More than $13 million is going toward a Catholic Charities project that entails buying, remodeling and operating a former Quality Inn on Sunset Boulevard to house more than 100 people. Spokane will get $4 million to pay for the operation of a new homeless shelter on Trent Avenue. Another $3.5 million is set aside for the Empire Health Foundation and other homeless service providers.

Spokane and the state are still collaborating on the Woodward administration’s plan, but their relationship became acrimonious in early September.

The shift came after Woodward threatened to sue the state over Camp Hope and demanded that it be cleared by mid-October. The mayor and sheriff have since pushed that deadline back by a month.

The threat came just two days after the city had opened the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, a former warehouse.

Before opening that facility, the city couldn’t have argued it had shelter space available for all of Camp Hope’s residents. Governments can’t legally remove homeless people from public property unless they offer them a bed, so attempting to disperse the campers could have exposed the city to lawsuits.

The Woodward administration says it can fit 400 people into the Trent shelter, and that it could find beds for all of Camp Hope’s residents. The Department of Transportation has disputed whether the city could house 400 people in the Trent shelter.

The state on Sept. 20 delivered a scathing response to Woodward’s letter, signed by Millar, State Patrol Chief John Batiste and Department of Commerce Secretary Lisa Brown. The state officials said Woodward was trying to shift blame for Camp Hope and setting up the campers for failure by moving them before housing was available.

It was an unusually harsh rebuke for an official government communication, and two days later Knezovich escalated the fight even further. He said he’d clear out Camp Hope on his own.

In the three weeks since Knezovich’s announcement, the county and Meidl have continued to threaten the Department of Transportation with legal action, citing nuisance law violations.

Nuisance laws are often used to prevent property owners from accumulating trash or using their land as a base for chronic criminal activity. With a judge’s approval, governments can abate the nuisance without the property owner’s permission and make the owner pay for the removal.

The Department of Transportation on Friday shot back at Meidl with an eight-page letter that questions the constitutionality of the city’s plans and threatens legal action against Spokane if the city doesn’t rescind its “chronic nuisance” notice.

‘Difficult to feel positive’

East Central residents say they feel for the people at Camp Hope.

“I don’t want to paint them all as criminals,” Moises Gourneau said. “People are people.”

But Gourneau said it’s hard to remain empathetic when people steal from you. In recent months, his family had its lawnmower and leaf blower stolen, and its car windows smashed. He said his family had to call the police when a homeless man broke into their house and wouldn’t leave.

“I’ll still have sympathy because my family went through drug problems,” Gourneau said. “At the same time, I definitely wouldn’t have my little sisters playing out here by themselves.”

Lina Krivopustov said she doesn’t feel safe going for walks by herself. Jeff Jones said it’s unsettling to have people walking through the neighborhood at night, rummaging through trash cans.

“I feel sorry for them and all that,” Jones said, adding that “the ones I’ve come into contact with don’t seem to want anything more than something for nothing.”

Ken Craudell, general manager of Double Eagle Pawn, said Camp Hope has had a negative impact on his store.

“Every day we catch, conservatively, three people trying to come in here and steal something,” Craudell said. “I ran a guy out of here earlier today because he came in here with a pair of snips and was going over to the bikes. He was going to cut one of the security tags off a bike and try to wheel it out the door.”

McGlenn said East Central residents understand that people at Camp Hope are struggling, but they’re also growing tired of rampant crime.

“It is difficult to feel positive when people don’t feel safe,” he said. “I think that’s really what’s feeding a lot of the animosity today, is people just want the issue to be dealt with.”

Spokane Homeless Coalition Administrator Barry Barfield said it’s undeniable that Camp Hope has caused an uptick in crime, but people need to put the situation in context.

“Even if you took the 600 wealthiest, most well-intended Spokanites and put them on ground with tents, and surround them with police cars, and give them no income and services, and porta-potties, and drinking out of a hose, I bet those 600 wonderful citizens of our community just might cause an uptick in crime,” Barfield said.

People living in Camp Hope say they know the encampment has led to a rise in theft, but they said they believe a minority of the residents are responsible.

“Just because you’ve got one bad apple in the box doesn’t mean the whole box is bad,” Mark Young said.

Lewis Harrington, an Army veteran who lives out of his broken down 1990 Chevrolet van, agreed.

“There’s good, honest people here that are really struggling and trying,” Harrington said.

Senn, who spent 15 years in the Army, said many Camp Hope residents simply suffer from mental illness or had bad luck. He used himself as an example of the latter.

Before he came to Camp Hope in May, Senn was a house painter. He lost his job and couldn’t afford rent.

“Woke up one morning, car wouldn’t start,” he said. “The company I worked for, you had to have a running vehicle to work for them.”

Senn has two jobs, one as a part of Jewels Helping Hands’ security team and another at Conoco.

Barfield said it’s important to remember Camp Hope’s residents are some of the most disadvantaged members of the community.

“These folks have been beaten down, hurt, victims of adverse childhood experiences. They were raised by drug addicted parents, they were in and out of the foster system, they have lost jobs, it goes on and on,” he said.

“If you dig into their story, 90% of the time your heart goes out to them and you say, ‘Oh my God, I want to help you.’ ”

Smith said it’s frustrating that the narrative around Camp Hope has become so negative.

He pointed out that the camp’s population has fallen from more than 600 to 443 as more people move into housing, and said an effort by the Department of Licensing to get people state identification documents is a major sign of progress.

Spokane will be remembered for how it responds to Camp Hope, Smith said.

“What do we believe in?” Smith asked. “Do we believe that rescuing a life – and we’ve got 443 lives here – and bringing them out of the situation that they’re in is a worthwhile endeavor? Are we willing to pay the price for doing it? What kind of community do we want to be?”