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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Constitutional rights, nuisance claims at center of complaints filed regarding Camp Hope

Fencing is installed around Camp Hope homeless encampment on Sept. 30 in Spokane.  (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIE)

Lawsuits, threats and heated discussions have engulfed Camp Hope in recent weeks, culminating in two complaints – one against the city and county, the other from the county against the state – filed this week.

Three Camp Hope residents, Jewels Helping Hands and Disability Rights Washington filed a complaint Friday in federal court that would prohibit the city and county from arresting and removing camp residents if they refuse to leave the homeless encampment in East Central Spokane.

The request for injunction follows announcements in recent weeks by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl that they will “forcibly relocate” campers, arrest those who refuse to leave and remove property from the site, the complaint says.

“For a sheriff or police chief to say that we’re going to come in there and just move people along and arrest them if they resist surprises all of us who are concerned about constitutional rights,” said Andrew Biviano, an attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs listed in the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court – Eastern District of Washington, are camp residents Christopher Senn, Jason Bewley and Jered Fullen, as well as Disability Rights Washington and Jewels Helping Hands. The city of Spokane, Spokane County, Knezovich and Meidl are listed as defendants.

City spokesman Brian Coddington wrote in an email that he was unable to comment on pending litigation. County spokesperson Jared Webley could not immediately be reached for comment. The complaint was filed shortly before 5 p.m. Friday.

Senn, 51, is a U.S. Army veteran who worked as a painter before his car broke down, which led to him losing his job and housing, according to the complaint. Bewley, 43, is a minister and has multiple disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, deafness in an ear and spinal conditions. Fullen, 41, has anxiety and substance-use disorder, and relies on the resources at the camp to get care, treatment and housing.

Disability Rights Washington is a nonprofit representing the campers who have disabilities, and Jewels Helping Hands provides homeless services to residents at the tent city.

The complaint says the campers reside on state-owned property, off Interstate 90, with the consent of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Therefore, the residents are not trespassing or committing other crimes by living there.

“While there are reports of increased crime in the surrounding neighborhood, this does not provide probable cause to remove or arrest all the people who live in the area,” the complaint says. “Just as the government cannot evict all residents of an apartment complex because a handful of residents are suspected of crimes, it cannot evict all the residents of Camp Hope based on suspicion that some of them are criminals.”

The complaint says the defendants’ threats to “sweep” Camp Hope infringed on the campers’ U.S. and state constitutional rights as well as disability rights. The threats also brought trauma to campers and interfered with their efforts to obtain housing, the complaint alleges.

The city and county do not have adequate shelter space to house all Camp Hope residents, according to the complaint. It mentions the Martin v. Boise federal court ruling in which a city cannot punish homeless people for sleeping on public property if there are not enough shelter beds available.

Jeffry Finer, the other attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, said many people can’t transition to shelter beds because they lack identification and other documents. State agencies are assisting residents in obtaining these documents. Other residents are with family members or addicted to drugs so they are unable to access shelter beds, Finer said.

The complaint says a “very large percentage” of Camp Hope residents have disabilities. It’s estimated six campers use wheelchairs, others use walkers and several are amputees.

“These residents are not able to use most temporary shelters because the shelters are not equipped to provide the high level of services needed,” according to the complaint.

A large number of residents have mental disabilities, like PTSD, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, the complaint alleges.

The complaint says efforts by Jewels Helping Hands and others have reduced the camp’s footprint from more than 600 residents to about 450. With more time, Finer said the camp’s size will shrink even more.

“It is far better shape than it was weeks and weeks ago,” he said.

Spokane County filed a preliminary injunction Thursday asking the state court to allow the county to “take action necessary” to transition camp residents to available beds in Spokane and the county, while prohibiting the Department of Transportation’s interference.

“The (Department of Transportation) has created a situation that poses a substantial threat to the health and safety of the camp occupants,” the complaint says. The residents of the encampment have caused a substantial increase in criminal and offensive activities in the nearby areas.”

Spokane County is listed as the plaintiff in the complaint, and the state of Washington and the Washington State Department of Transportation are listed as the defendants.

The complaint says efforts by the state, including placing a fence around the camp and implementing a curfew for campers, aren’t enough.

“The efforts by (the Department of Transportation) remain ineffective as encampment residents continue to cut holes through the fencing of the area to either exit and enter during the curfew or to pass illicit materials through the fence,” according to the complaint.

It says available beds, such as those at the new Trent Resource and Assistance Center, are “a clear improvement” over Camp Hope housing conditions.

The complaint cites deaths, threats, thefts, vandalism and a recent drive-by shooting in and around the camp that have hurt surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.

Since the camp was established about 10 months ago, criminal reports increased more than 72% in the area, the complaint says.