Empire Health Foundation and state officials say significant progress has been made at Camp Hope, and “false deadlines” and threats to clear the camp create heightened risks for campers.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced last month he planned to clear the camp by mid-October, but that deadline was pushed back to later this year. This week, Spokane County proclaimed an emergency at the camp so regional entities can move residents indoors before snow falls.
“Personally, I think better planning always wins out over false deadlines,” said Zeke Smith, president of the Empire Health Foundation, at an informal news conference Wednesday at the camp.
The foundation is under contract with the state to coordinate engagement, outreach and services to campers so they can enter better housing situations and the camp can ultimately be cleared.
Mike Gribner, regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Eastern region, said the more than $20 million the state committed to housing camp residents must be used to provide improved housing options.
“We don’t know when we are going to actually accomplish that,” he said.
Smith said he has not set a deadline to clear the camp because service providers are in the process of assessing the 400-plus campers on state land along Interstate 90 in the East Central neighborhood to understand their needs. Those assessments can take a long time, but they are working as quickly as possible to get people into housing before winter.
“There’s a lot of mistrust from (campers) and there’s a lot of needs,” Smith said.
The relationship between the state and local governments has been bitter the last several weeks.
Earlier this month, the county filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation over Camp Hope, citing nuisance conditions. Then, the county proclaimed the emergency at the encampment this week.
Brian Schaeffer, Spokane’s interim emergency management director and fire chief, said allowing the county to open an emergency operations center under the emergency proclamation will help direct campers to shelter and physically clean the camp.
“There’s not a need for a new plan in terms of how we address what’s happening here,” Smith said. “We’ve got a plan in place.”
Gribner said clearing the camp will eliminate the progress that has been made at the tent city.
“They’re just getting started about talking about a plan and we’re in the middle of delivering a plan,” Gribner said.
Smith said the way the city and county have engaged created an environment that makes it hard to focus on getting residents into housing.
Gribner said the county needs to drop its lawsuit to bring the state to the discussion table. He said collaboration between the state and local jurisdictions is “the quickest and best outcome.”
“I think we all still hope that there will be some way for us to get together on this,” Gribner said. “But the approach so far from the city and the county in these recent presentations has been fairly hostile toward (the Washington State Department of Transportation).” The department owns the land Camp Hope is on.
Gribner said each time local jurisdictions threaten to sweep the camp, it raises the risk of violence and of campers dispersing to other places where they don’t have services. The worst-case scenario is a camper dying after leaving and not receiving the services they need.
Smith and Gribner said they believe all campers want better housing. They said there is not enough housing, though.
Smith said a service provider is in the process of “shaking the housing tree” and figuring out how many housing slots are available, requirements around each of those slots and getting residents into them.
“We have not invested in the kind of housing that we need to really meet people’s needs,” Smith said.
Knezovich, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and county commissioner Mary Kuney said Tuesday that clearing the camp before snowfall is in the best interest of camp residents and the surrounding neighborhood, where law enforcement officials have said crime has increased since the camp formed.
The city plans to move many camp residents inside the new homeless shelter on Trent Avenue, but Gribner said many won’t go, at least in part because of the lack of space and privacy at the facility.
Smith and Gribner said campers have already endured a cold winter and hot summer, and that the hot temperatures are potentially more dangerous than the cold ones. Still, the goal is to move campers as soon as possible.
“We know winter’s coming and that’s a critical and significant issue, and we also know that this encampment has been a challenge for community members here,” Smith said.
Smith said the camp is “completely different” than what it was six months ago, saying it’s more organized and stable. Fencing, security and providing ID badges to residents are a big part, Smith said.
The camp is also smaller. It was once estimated roughly 600 people lived there.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.