For Camp Hope closure, new Spokane County sheriff wants everyone at the table

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said about 138 people remain at Camp Hope, and these individuals are unlikely to go to a shelter without intervention.

“You’ve got to be pretty hardcore to be there when it’s miserable weather,” he said. “What needs to happen now is that we get all of the organizations and agencies involved with the camp together and figure out how to finally get people moved somewhere warm and dry.”

Camp Hope at one time was the state’s largest homeless camp on public property. People began living on the Washington Department of Transportation land near Interstate 90 in December 2021 and the camp population quickly swelled to about 650 by summer.

City officials began scrambling to transition campers into shelters after retired Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced several months ago that he had the constitutional authority to close the camp due to continuing public safety and health violations.

Those plans stalled after several residents of the camp joined with Jewels Helping Hands and Disability Rights Washington, both service providers to the homeless, to stop forcible closure of the site.

The parties were granted a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court until a civil rights case could be heard. The plaintiffs allege the rights of campers will be violated if the site is closed against their will. They argue that residents of Camp Hope are not trespassing because WSDOT has given them permission to be there.

Spokane County has asked to have the restraining order lifted and the permanent injunction denied so that the work started by Knezovich can continue.

Nowels, who took office Jan. 1, inherited the problem in the East Central neighborhood. He said the area has been besieged by illegal drug activity, trafficking in stolen property, theft, vandalism, assaults, vehicle prowling, rape, indecent liberties, littering and other unsafe and unsanitary practices since the camp was set up.

As a result of the situation, a general contractor tasked with completing the reconstruction of Thor and Freya streets near the camp recently received a $70,000 settlement from the city as compensation for damages blamed on Camp Hope.

The encampment did not exist when Cameron-Reilly LLC took on the job. Mike Reilly, owner of the company, sent a letter in July to the city council and mayor’s office outlining that the bid for the $8.9 million reconstruction project had been made based on conditions in place before the camp was founded.

Cameron-Reilly had leased land owned by WSDOT for a locked storage yard, which Reilly said had been the subject of numerous break-ins. He said that his workers had also been threatened.

“Unfortunately, when we started the project in mid-March, we could not imagine the conditions in which we would be putting our employees and other subcontractors and their workers,” wrote Riley.

Under the temporary restraining order, Nowels said law enforcement officials can respond to reports of criminal behavior in the camp, but cannot make any moves to empty it. Nor can they fly drones or helicopters overhead to monitor activities within the camp, or get a population count.

“It’s really hard to get information about what is happening in there right now so that makes it difficult to get warrants,” he said.

In court documents, the county noted that the existence of the camp has taken a significant financial toll on taxpayers because of the high volume of crime and calls for emergency services.

"Residents of the encampment, their associates and visitors substantially and dramatically interfere with the use and enjoyment of the business and residential properties of neighbors in the area, preventing quiet enjoyment of their property," the county said in a legal brief. "Threats and intimidation to neighbors and members of their families, business patrons and passersby are a fact of life."

In its filing, the county criticized officials from the state who “simply refused” to take action to abate what has become a chronic nuisance.

County officials acknowledged the work done by Woodward’s administration to provide shelter space for camp residents. In particular, the city leased a vacant warehouse on Trent Avenue that was renovated to provide a secure space for at least 350 homeless individuals plus support services.

In the 29-page filing, the county argued that preventing closure of the site would prolong "the persistent and overwhelmingly common drug and associated criminal activity in and around the encampment."

A judgement has yet to be entered on the case.

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