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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Knezovich plans to ‘clear’ Camp Hope by mid-October

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich plans to clear Camp Hope in October.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he intends to clear Camp Hope by mid-October, citing crime and public health implications, and the plight of those living on the state-owned land off Interstate 90 in east Spokane.

Part of his plan is to provide bus tickets for the 600 homeless people living there so that they might reunite with family and find assistance in their recovery. Knezovich sent a letter outlining his plans and concerns to the Washington state Department of Transportation. The letter did not address the number of Camp Hope residents who may have come from outside the region and would therefore use the tickets. He said he will also engage church leaders to help with drug, alcohol and mental health treatments.

“The lawlessness and public health implications caused by the current conditions of the camp at 3rd and Freya (whose more common name represents anything but hope) continues to impact one of Spokane’s most marginalized and disadvantaged communities,” Knezovich wrote to Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation. Neither “WSDOT, (Washington state Department of) Commerce, nor our elected state officials are concerned with the plight of this extremely disadvantaged community.”

The state departments of Transportation and Commerce as well as the Washington State Patrol responded to Knezovich’s letter in a joint statement, saying several state agencies have been working with local nonprofit housing and homelessness providers to address the issue for months. The state agencies met with city officials Wednesday, calling it “a start to productive, much needed discussion to successfully resolve Camp Hope and work together to provide safe, secure housing and service solutions for those living homeless at the encampment.”

“The Sheriff’s proposal doesn’t capture the spirit of those conversations and we will continue to work in good faith with willing partners at all levels of government,” the agencies said in the statement. “Initial plans to secure the site with fencing are already underway, and while it will take time to fully resolve the encampment, the community will begin to see visible improvements in just the next couple months.”

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart, whose council district encompasses Camp Hope, backed Knezovich’s letter while City Council President Breean Beggs opposed it.

“It was classic Sheriff Knezovich, very blustery, not very collaborative and very counterproductive to all the amazing efforts that are going on right now,” Beggs said. “We’re on track to make the best progress we have in a year and so just to stir things up on his way to Wyoming seems unfortunate.”

Beggs referenced Knezovich’s expected move to Wyoming, after his fourth term as sheriff expires in January. Knezovich is scheduled to address his letter during a news conference at noon Friday.

Camp Hope formed in December after the city broke up a group of protesters outside City Hall who were demanding more shelter space for homeless people. The Department of Transportation has not tried to disband the camp, because Spokane lacks adequate shelter space.

The Commerce department has offered $24.3 million toward efforts to relocate people from Camp Hope to better living situations. Meanwhile, the city recently opened the Trent Resource and Assistance Center to assist homeless individuals.

The city of Spokane on Sept. 8 sent a letter to state officials threatening to declare the state in violation of nuisance property rules if it does not remove the camp by mid-October. The state responded with a letter of its own, blaming the city for the problem, and calling the city’s mid-October deadline unrealistic and destined to set up those living at the camp for failure.

“Frankly, it would be far safer for Commerce to simply pay a year’s worth of rent for the estimated 600 people at the camp than to allow the situation to continue,” Knezovich wrote. “However, without implementing treatment for the drug, alcohol, and mental health needs, any investment would likely prove unsuccessful and fall far short of helping those at the camp out of poverty.”

He wrote the encampment has nothing to do with affordable housing, jobs or the economy but rather “the ongoing crisis” fueled by drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

Knezovich wrote that camp residents have experienced rape, beatings, brandings, thefts, shootings, stabbings and other crimes. Similar crimes have been reported in nearby neighborhoods, businesses and communities, he said.

“WSDOT’s inaction has, and will continue to have, catastrophic consequence without immediate action,” he wrote. “WSDOT’s inaction demonstrates a complete lack of compassion for nearby residents by allowing these deplorable conditions to manifest in a substantially marginalized community. By allowing these conditions to continue, WSDOT is complicit in the wretched conditions at the camp.”

The state agencies said the people living at Camp Hope need safe and supportive housing before they are moved from the camp.

“Our agencies know all too well from past experience that clearing the encampment will simply make things worse for the entire city,” state agencies said. “Hundreds of people will spread across county, city, state and private property and the issues connected with unsanctioned encampments – from safety to litter – will be dispersed as well. This action will not make anyone’s life better or safer.”

The state entities spoke with city officials about how they can partner and implement a plan to include initial tasks like fencing, RV management, encampment identification and a curfew to help address safety and security challenges within and outside the encampment, the agencies said in the statement.

“This work starts the process for strategically decreasing the size and footprint of Camp Hope, while transitioning people to shelter/housing alternatives,” they wrote.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said Knezovich’s frustration that a Camp Hope resolution has not been reached is something all parties are feeling. He said Wednesday’s meeting with the state included a good exchange of ideas and another meeting is scheduled next week.

Cathcart called the camp “a public safety nightmare” and “completely lawless,” noting the violent crimes Knezovich mentioned.

“The fact that the state has allowed this camp to continue for 10 months is beyond me, frankly, and I don’t know how any elected official can sit by and just watch what is happening to the folks who are being victimized in the camp and the folks who are being victimized outside the camp,” Cathcart said.

He said Knezovich’s mid-October deadline is extremely important because cold weather and snow will soon be moving into the area, and it’s not compassionate to allow camp residents to live there. He deferred to law enforcement about how to disband the camp.

Cathcart said the effort from the start has been to connect camp residents to housing and services but public safety concerns have reached a “boiling point” and immediate action must be taken.

“If this was a private piece of land, the response would have been far different and it would have been far quicker,” Cathcart said.

In regard to the crimes committed in and around the camp, Beggs said those offenders should be held accountable, “but you don’t arrest them simply for being poor and unhoused.”

Beggs said he hopes Knezovich joins the conversations between the city and state agencies.

“I’m not sure he has the legal authority to do what he says that he might do,” Beggs said. “The state owns the land. They haven’t invited him onto their land so I don’t think he has any authority (to clear the camp). And even if he did, it would be poor judgment to use it in the way he’s suggesting in my opinion.”

Coddington said it’s his understanding the sheriff’s office has the authority to clear the camp.

State and city officials also discussed options for the future of the cooling tent at Camp Hope.

“It is more than just a ‘cooling’ tent and is integral to future efforts at the encampment,” state agencies said. “We look forward to a successful resolution on this front.”

The Spokane Fire Department on Tuesday issued a notice demanding the homeless services provider Jewels Helping Hands take down the tent at Camp Hope that it uses as a resource access hub.

The fire department has said that Jewels Helping Hands did not receive a permit to construct the tent.

If Jewels Helping Hands failed by Thursday to remove the tent, which Coddington assumed on Thursday was still in place, the city would begin assessing a fine of $536 per day for every day it is occupied.

Coddington said he did not expect any fines to be issued Thursday, but the notice allows the city to retroactively impose fines.

Jewels Helping Hands Executive Director Julie Garcia said she had no intention of taking the tent down.

Knezovich said he plans to contact the FBI “with respect to possible public corruption, the misuse of public funds, and the circumstances surrounding the formation of this camp. It appears the formation of this camp was merely an effort to ‘pass the buck’ to the citizens of our County and the City of Spokane,” Knezovich wrote.