In a lengthy letter, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich warned the state of his plans to sweep the 600-person Camp Hope homeless encampment in East Central Spokane by mid-October.
The camp, located within city limits on land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, has been the center of a contentious debate between state and local politicians, law enforcement and advocacy groups since its inception at the beginning of this year.
Knezovich's letter, addressed to state Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, outlines the sheriff's frustrations with the camp's "lawlessness and public health implications" and a perceived lack of action on the part of WSDOT and other state agencies.
Joseph McHale, a spokesperson for WSDOT, tells the Inlander he isn't sure how jurisdictional law would work if Knezovich attempts a sweep. The state agency has indicated it is open to clearing the camp, but wants to wait until there is adequate housing for the camp residents.
"It's going to be a marathon, not a sprint," McHale says. "So we don't think that going in and doing a full sweep is the best plan."
In the letter, Knezovich said he will "provide bus tickets to the location of each resident's choice, allowing them to reunite with family and to assist them in recovery,” and “engage the faith community to help with drug, alcohol and mental health treatment."
Knezovich also threatened to seek an audit of WSDOT, the state of Washington and city of Spokane over their "funding of Jewels Helping Hands and Ben Stuckart for the operations at this camp and other homeless camps within the greater Spokane County area."
In a Thursday afternoon tweet, former Spokane City Council president Stuckart, who now works as executive director of the Low Income Housing Consortium, said he has nothing to do with Camp Hope and that Knezovich is full of misinformation.
Knezovich said he will be contacting the FBI about possible public corruption, misuse of public funds and the circumstances surrounding the formation of the camp. The sheriff — who did not return calls seeking comment on Thursday — did not provide evidence supporting the fraud allegations in the letter.
The letter follows weeks of escalating, inter-agency tensions over Camp Hope.
Knezovich sent the letter to WSDOT on Thursday morning, but McHale says the sheriff first made remarks about clearing the camp to WSDOT earlier this week. WSDOT voiced concerns about those remarks during a Sept. 21 meeting between the Washington State Patrol, the state Department of Commerce and the city of Spokane.
In a joint statement released Thursday morning, the state agencies said the meeting was the start of a "much needed dialogue." The statement also said the agencies had relayed concern about the sheriff's plan to Spokane city officials. "Our agencies know all too well from past experience that clearing the encampment will simply make things worse for the entire city," the statement says. "Hundreds of people will spread across the 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 Empire Health Foundation — which has been tapped by the state to provide outreach services at Camp Hope — was supposed to be at that Wednesday meeting, but McHale says they received a call from the city 20 minutes beforehand telling them not to come. In a statement, the state agencies said the city's decision to disinvite Empire Health Foundation was "disingenuous and not helpful."
Empire Health Foundation President Zeke Smith says he isn't sure why his organization was uninvited, but that he suspects it was because the city wanted to have a "jurisdiction to jurisdiction" conversation.
"It was odd that we got disinvited, but whatever. I wasn't too worried about it," Smith says.
The Empire Health Foundation has another meeting scheduled with the city Friday.
Smith says the Empire Health Foundation has been working with the transportation department on ideas for improving safety and security concerns for Camp Hope. Fencing, RV management, encampment identification badges and a curfew are all in the works, McHale says.
In a Thursday afternoon news statement in response to Knezovich's letter, the state agencies pushed back on the sheriff's plan and said the community can expect to see visible improvements in the next couple months.
Smith stresses that the fencing and other measures don't mean the camp will be permanent. It's just to provide more safety and organization while they work to get campers into more stable housing, he says. Empire Health Foundation wants to help the campers leave, Smith says, and the sheriff isn't helping.
"That kind of rhetoric from the sheriff's office, I think it's discouraging," Smith says. "It just raises people's anxieties. Frankly, I think it makes it less safe for people who are just trying to figure out what we do as we move forward."
Smith isn't sure what the exact timeline for clearing the camp will look like. He would be thrilled if there was a way to get everybody housed before the sheriff's October deadline, but doesn't think it's realistic given the city's current shelter and housing capacity.
Knezovich's letter comes several days after the state agencies responded to the city of Spokane's order to clear Camp Hope. The agencies wrote a scathing letter criticizing the city's homeless response and indicating that they would not comply with the city's "irrational" deadline to clear Camp Hope by Oct. 14 or face legal action.
Earlier this week, the Spokane fire marshal also ordered Jewels Helping Hands to take down the cooling shelter at Camp Hope by Thursday afternoon or face a daily fine of $536. (A similar order was given this summer, but the city didn't follow through on the fine.) Jewel Helping Hands has said it will not be removing the tent.
McHale says WSDOT is hoping to convert the cooling tent into an operations tent that can be used for storage, supplies, outreach workers, shelter assessments and medical treatment. The tent will make the Empire Health Foundation's outreach work easier — especially as the weather starts to turn cold, Smith says.
On Wednesday night, the East Central Neighborhood Council announced its intent to collaborate on Camp Hope with the Empire Health Foundation. The announcement came shortly after John Hall, Spokane's director of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services, formally announced his resignation after less than three months on the job, a move city officials lamented but said was not related to the ongoing issues at Camp Hope.
Randy McGlenn, chairman of the neighborhood council, tells the Inlander he's excited about the collaboration and looking forward to working with the Empire Health Foundation.
Knezovich’s letter criticized the state for sitting by while neighborhood businesses and community members suffer from crime related to Camp Hope.
"WSDOT's inaction demonstrates a complete lack of compassion for nearby residents by allowing these deplorable conditions to manifest in a substantially marginalized community," he wrote.
McGlenn says crime has been a concern for neighbors near the camp, though he dismissed the sheriff’s characterization and says most of the crime is coming from outside Camp Hope — not the campers themselves. He thinks the fences proposed by WSDOT will help address the situation.
McGlenn is hoping the neighborhood council can meet with the sheriff's office, fire department and all the other agencies soon — he just wishes they would stop bickering.
"Right now, all these nasty letters and everybody talking past each other is not being constructive at all," McGlenn says. "If anything, it's just making the situation worse."