(The Center Square) – Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says the state constitution and laws give him the authority to clear out a large homeless camp in the East Central neighborhood and that’s what he intends to do.
“This camp is jeopardizing the safety of my community and it will end,” he said.
Knezovich said lawlessness and public health problems at Camp Hope, which was founded in December at Third and Freya streets, are adversely affecting an area already beset with crime and poverty problems.
He decided it was time to use his powers to address the situation after watching city officials try to get the Washington Department of Transportation, which owns the property where the camp is sited, to deal with the situation.
Then Rich Millar, head of WSDOT, joined with Lisa Brown, director of the Department of Commerce and John Batiste, director of the Washington State Patrol, to send a “snarky” letter to Mayor Nadine Woodward in response to her administration’s demands for the disbandment of the camp, plus reimbursement of $350,000 in service costs, and that was the “last straw” for Knezovich.
“The power I have been given is for situations like this,” he told The Center Square Thursday afternoon. “I am the chief executive officer in the county to keep the peace.”
He said emails that he sent confidentially to state officials to discuss the county’s concerns with the growing encampment ended up in media reports. That led him to publicly post his notice of intent to not only remove more than 650 people from the camp but also perform an audit of how taxpayers’ funds have been spent on all local homeless encampments.
“If they want to play this out in the media, so be it,” said Knezovich.
The three agencies have released a joint statement about the sheriff’s plans to relocate Camp Hope residents.
“Our agencies know all too well from past experience that clearing the encampment will simply make things worse for the entire city,” the statement 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.”
Knezovich disagrees with that assessment. He said residents and business owners alike deserve to go about their daily lives without fear their property will be damaged, or their safety threatened.
He is working with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office to get a warrant in place that will allow him to start clearing out the camp as soon as possible.
“These bureaucrats need to understand that they are liable for the harm they have caused this county,” he said.
Spokane City Councilor Jonathan Bingle has offered Knezovich his full support in the endeavor.
“I’m with him 100%,” he told The Center Square on Friday.
Bingle said it is not humane to have people living in conditions where raw sewage is present and rapes and other violent crimes are occurring, such as the incident where a man was branded with a piece of rebar for a failed drug deal.
In addition, Bingle said business owners near Camp Hope are experiencing so much property crime that they are afraid to turn claims over to insurance companies. He said they are worried about losing policies if insurers conclude the area is too much of a liability to cover.
Some city officials are attempting to portray the majority of people living at Camp Hope as being there for economic reasons, such as being priced out of housing, said Bingle. However, he said visits to the site and reviewing crime reports, show rampant addictions and mental illness.
“My heart goes out to everyone in this situation,” he said. “This camp has been there nine months and things just keep getting worse.”
He told his fellow councilors on Monday that referring to the homeless situation in Spokane as a “temporary problem” is disingenuous. Even as Commerce offered $24.3 million to relocate people from Camp Hope, he said plans were being made to put pallet shelters in that same area. Other plans include finding a place for the homeless to park and live in their cars or RVs.
“It feels like a lot of double-speak,” said Bingle.
The Trent Avenue shelter recently opened by the city can only house about 250 people, so Bingle said it is obvious that more housing options will be required to accommodate the growing homeless population.
“That is the real elephant in the room,” he said.
The costs to the city to address problems caused by having hundreds of homeless on the streets are also not temporary, he said.
One smaller encampment alone recently yielded 25,000 pounds of garbage during a cleanup and that is only a drop in the bucket as far as service provision, he said.