Spokane County commissioners on Tuesday plan to proclaim an emergency at Camp Hope, the 450-person homeless encampment on state Department of Transportation land in east Spokane.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich made the emergency proclamation request during the commissioners’ Monday meeting, but it wasn’t his idea. The original request comes from Brian Schaeffer, Spokane’s interim emergency management director and fire chief.
Schaeffer said the emergency proclamation is needed in order to offer Camp Hope’s residents access to shelter and services before winter, store their belongings, provide security for outreach workers and clear out the encampment.
“This brings everybody together,” Schaeffer said. “Instead of having all these different lines of effort, we’re only going to have one and there’s going to be a focus.”
Knezovich said the emergency proclamation will allow the county to activate its emergency coordination center, which also serves as the Spokane Fire Department’s training facility on Rebecca Street. He said the move will also help the county address Camp Hope more rapidly and bypass competitive bidding requirements.
The sheriff said he believes allowing people to stay at Camp Hope would be inhumane.
“We’re right now kind of being painted as the bad guys, because we say this has got to go away,” Knezovich said. “No. The honest truth of this is this has to go away in order to save peoples’ lives. You’re not helping these people, you’re only damaging them more.”
The county commissioners said they support the idea of an emergency proclamation.
“The homelessness issue is an embarrassment to the community,” Commissioner Al French said. “Let’s see if we can get Spokane back to what it used to be and not what it is right now.”
Some of what Knezovich and Schaeffer are calling for is already happening.
The Empire Health Foundation, working as a contractor with the state Department of Commerce, is working to find housing for Camp Hope’s residents and helping connect them to mental health or addiction resources if needed.
Zeke Smith, the Empire Health Foundation’s director, said he fears the emergency proclamation will be more harmful than helpful. He said the response from Spokane and Spokane County to the encampment has made it far more difficult to help the people living there.
“We’re working with a population where anxiety and trauma affects their ability to get onto a path towards better housing,” Smith said. “The constant threat that folks at Camp Hope and service providers have felt around law enforcement action has, I think, really created a tense environment.”
Spokane County is suing the state Department of Transportation over Camp Hope, citing nuisance violations, and Spokane has threatened to sue. Knezovich has said he’ll forcibly remove people from Camp Hope by mid-November, although he said Monday he hopes law enforcement action won’t be necessary.
In a news release, the Department of Transportation said it doesn’t support the county’s emergency proclamation.
“We remain focused on our work to transition residents and close this site and we cannot join in their efforts,” the department wrote. “Simply put, an (emergency operations center) is duplicative and not needed because we’re already implementing all of the county’s proposed actions.”
Smith, of the Empire Health Foundation, said he understands that winter is approaching, but he said the deadlines imposed by the city and county are impossible to meet and won’t help anyone. Hastily disbanding Camp Hope and moving hundreds of people into the new homeless shelter on Trent Avenue would be a step backward after months of progress, he said.
“Moving somebody to a shelter without the additional supports that they need just means that they’re likely to be out on the street a little bit later,” he said. “We would be further away from our ability to serve them effectively.”
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