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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: If dumb, angry responses to homelessness worked, we’d have solved it already

Camp Hope is seen in this July photo. State agencies on Tuesday harshly criticized Spokane's response to Camp Hope and accused city leaders of valuing their public image more than helping the encampment's residents exit homelessness.   (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Camp Hope is seen in this July photo. State agencies on Tuesday harshly criticized Spokane's response to Camp Hope and accused city leaders of valuing their public image more than helping the encampment's residents exit homelessness.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

The community is desperate for effective, unified leadership on homelessness.

Instead, we’re being treated to “The Ozzie and Nadine Show” – a hacky farce of grandiose proportions, in which local officials who could make a real difference instead lash out, politicize, undermine, threaten and obstruct progress in bringing an end to Camp Hope.

If they get their way, the camp’s residents will not be housed, and they won’t magically disappear. They’ll move around to other places in town, and the problem will continue to worsen, no matter how many misdemeanor citations the police department rains down on them.

This is the chief accomplishment of Nadine Woodward’s administration on homelessness, after all – a steep rise in the ineffective shuffling-about of homeless people. As feverishly as she tries to spread the blame, there is no single official in our community who bears more responsibility for what’s gone wrong.

As the state-funded effort to clear the encampment proceeds, the community desperately needs to see it work. We desperately need leaders pulling together behind real efforts to achieve real results, at Camp Hope and with the many other corners of this emergency as well.

Instead, we’re getting an unproductive game of chicken that raises a ton of questions.

Whose authority prevails in these conflicts? Might the city actually sue the agencies that are spending $24 million to address homelessness? Could there be a standoff at the camp between sheriff’s deputies and state patrolmen? How far will the rash, impetuous sheriff go to prove that the state is not the boss of him?

Dumb questions, political posturing, failures of leadership.

It’s “The Ozzie and Nadine Show.”

The state, which owns the land inside the city limits on which Camp Hope sits, is spending millions to find housing for the camp’s residents. You might think local officials who have failed to make a dent in this problem would have a very simple response: Thank you!

Right now, Empire Health Foundation is spearheading an outreach effort to connect each camp resident to a place to live. The foundation is doing this because our local governments are not.

This is not a project based on fantasies or wishful thinking, but on the reality that each person there will have different needs and that finding everyone a place to go – in a city that does not have enough places for them to go – will take more than a couple of weeks.

It is based not on a simplistic desire to judge those people’s level of deserving, but to recognize that whatever their circumstances, it is better for them and better for everyone else if they are living indoors – ideally with access to the services that would help them improve their lives.

Does everyone wish all of this could happen instantly? Of course. But what will happen if the campers are just disbursed and driven off – if the cops are sent in swinging their billy clubs, which is so clearly the dream of some? How does that story end?

Those who dream this dream think it ends with homeless people moving … away. Not into other neighborhoods. Not onto riverbanks or under train tracks or in parks.

Just … away.

Away, away! Shown the stern hand of a no-nonsense sheriff and pro-accountability mayor, the hundreds and hundreds of homeless people throughout our community will just vanish.

Such wishful thinking animates “The Ozzie and Nadine Show,” with the lead actors blaming the state for the problem entirely, attempting to establish a wildly unrealistic deadline for the camp’s removal, and threatening actions that may satisfy the pro-cruelty crowd in the short term, but which would be disastrous.

Woodward has done this by attempting to fine the state under the city’s nuisance laws, demanding reimbursement of the city’s costs associated with the encampment and removal of a cooling/warming tent, as well as setting a mid-October deadline to have the camp cleared.

The heads of the three state agencies responded earlier this week with an utter broadside – sharply rebuking the city, making it clear they would not honor the “completely unrealistic” deadline, refusing the attempt to extort nuisance payments, and accurately noting that the problem of homelessness in Spokane has been exacerbated by the failures of the mayor herself.

In a particularly apt poke, the letter – signed by Commerce Secretary Lisa Brown, state patrol Chief John Batiste, and Transportation Secretary Roger Millar – calls out the mayor for being “more preoccupied with optics than action.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich followed with more optics, firing off a scabrous letter Thursday to the Department of Transportation that displays all the hallmarks of lame-duck Knezovichism: personal smears, authoritarian bluster, ignorance about the problem, political cheap shots, boundless arrogance.

Knezovich claims he will personally clear the camp in a few weeks. The great leader will fix things and it will be quick, thank you very much. He claims he will buy bus tickets for the camp residents, partner with churches to provide drug and mental health treatment – because everyone knows how ample the drug treatment resources in this community are – and voila!

Away, away!

More darkly, the sheriff hints at malfeasance and criminal allegations involving supporters of camp, calling for audits and investigations of everyone in sight. This line of thought – that those helping homeless people are actually crafty profiteers and fraudsters – is common slander among the fans of “The Ozzie and Nadine Show,” but slinging vague allegations of fraud like some Facebook troll is scummy behavior for a public official.

It is all beyond absurd. A sheriff on a white horse with a handful of bus tickets, riding to the mayor’s rescue! Huzzah!

Unfortunately, we can’t solve this problem with the dumb ideas and misdirected anger of “The Ozzie and Nadine Show.”

If we could, it would already be solved.

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