Sheriff threatens to sweep Camp Hope as state and city start working together

It’s unclear why Knezovich feels he has authority to sweep a camp that SPD has said it does not have the authority to clear.

It’s unclear why Knezovich feels he has authority to sweep a camp that SPD has said it does not have the authority to clear.

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The political melodrama surrounding the future of Camp Hope and its more than 600 residents got an unexpected guest star and plot twist today, with Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich pledging to “clear this camp by mid-October.”

Knezovich hadn’t previously had much to say about the camp to this point, but over the course of a two-page letter, the sheriff made personal attacks on local elected officials and nonprofits, threatened investigations into corruption regarding Camp Hope projects, and proposed that everyone at Camp Hope could be relocated through a combination of bus tickets, services provided by the faith community and paying a year’s rent for everyone at the encampment.

He even suggested getting the FBI involved.

It is unclear what prompted Knezovich to jump into the conflict. City communications director Brian Coddington said the city did not request the Sheriff to intervene, but that they were alerted earlier this week by Sheriff Knezovich that he was drafting a letter to the state in conjunction with the county legal department.

Coddington said that any immediate moves by the Sheriff to disband the camp would be the Sheriff’s decision, not the city’s. “We’re having a conversation with the state right now about a timeline and trying to come to an agreement about how to approach moving individuals out of the camp and into alternative housing options,” Coddington said.

Knezovich’s threat to clear the camp was first issued during a phone call to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) eastern region director Mike Gribner on Tuesday morning, according to WSDOT spokesman Joe McHale. Today’s letter from the sheriff increases pressure on an already tense situation at a time when the city and state agencies are trying to patch up their differences and move forward on solutions for moving people on from Camp Hope.

Just yesterday, the city and state came to the table to outline next steps for transitioning the camp’s residents into housing. In a press release this morning, WSDOT and Commerce described that meeting as a useful starting point towards progress. However, the state did express frustration about Knezovich’s threat to Gribner to sweep the camp. “Our agencies know all too well from past experience that clearing the encampment will simply make things worse for the entire city. 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 release read, in part.

Knezovich’s formal letter to Transportation Secretary Roger Millar was delivered soon after the press release went out.

The WSDOT/Commerce release also took issue with the city for disinviting Empire Health Foundation (EHF) from the meeting. EHF has been awarded more than $500,000 in state Commerce funding to help Camp Hope residents get into housing and access mental health and substance use treatment.

Zeke Smith, the president of EHF, responded to the Sheriff’s threats with disappointment, and said this escalation was a distraction from the work being done to start moving people out of the camp. “[The Sheriff’s] threats and mis-statements about the population there only exacerbate the tensions, anxieties, and confusion of everyone involved, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of efforts to improve safety at the camp and move folks to better housing options,” Smith wrote in a statement to RANGE Media.

“The residents at Camp Hope, the service providers working with them, the state agencies involved, and even the East Central Neighborhood Council all are ready to contribute to a collaborative effort to address this issue and this is where EHF will continue to focus our energy and attention,” Smith said. “If the Sheriff wants to positively contribute to moving the residents of Camp Hope to better housing and the services they need, there will be a seat at the table for him.”

RANGE asked whether EHF would consider filing a restraining order against the sheriff’s department. In California, which is also governed by the Ninth Circuit’s Boise v. Martin decision that prevents localities from criminalizing homelessness when shelters aren’t available, homeless encampments have won temporary restraining orders to delay sweeps. Smith said, “For now, we are focused on getting this work done and supporting the residents at Camp Hope, we don’t have time to deal with distractions.”

Sheriff’s response to WSDOT by RANGE on Scribd

This afternoon, WSDOT, the Commerce Department and Washington State Patrol issued a response to the public release of Knezovich’s letter, side-stepping the imminent sweep threats while focusing on the ongoing process and need for patience. It reads, in part:

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. 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. State agencies know from experience that partnership is key to the successful resolution of large encampments.

As we shared earlier today, Spokane’s residents deserve thoughtful leadership on this issue, and the people living in Camp Hope need safe, supportive housing. It is not realistic to move people from the camp until we have viable housing solutions for them.

Aside from challenging the state’s role at Camp Hope, Knezovich also called out service providers and former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who now serves as the Executive Director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium. The sheriff insinuated that there had been fraud and public corruption associated with the camp.

Joint statement on state meeting with city yesterday about Camp Hope by RANGE on Scribd

Stuckart expressed surprise to be called out by name, saying he has nothing to do with the operations of Camp Hope nor with the decision to move the encampment onto that piece of land in the first place. Stuckart took strong issue with Knezovich’s assertion that he has a role in operating the encampment and that he has committed fraud related to housing funding.

Stuckart did say last time he was at Camp Hope, he met a Ukrainian couple. Neither struggled with addiction or mental health issues, and both were gainfully employed, despite living at the camp. “They both have full-time jobs,” he said, “a rent increase priced them out of their house and now they’re homeless. Because they don’t speak English, they weren’t able to access services like the Way Out Shelter and they ended up at Camp Hope.”

For people like that couple, “it is 100% a rent issue,” Stuckart said. “It’s the housing crisis that has caused this.” Even for those who struggle with addiction or mental health, housing is still the answer, Stuckart continued. “All the data shows that mental health and substance abuse programs only work when you have a roof over your head.”

Stuckart reserved special irritation for the idea that giving the entire camp bus tickets would solve the problem for Spokane County. Citing data from Spokane’s 2022 point-in-time homeless count that approximately four out of five residents surveyed had their last known address within Spokane County, Stuckart said, “So for 80 percent of people, the bus ticket Ozzie is going to buy would be an STA pass to a neighborhood in Spokane County.”

Council President Breean Beggs said he did not know under what circumstances Sheriff Knezovich could order a sweep within what is normally the jurisdiction of the Spokane Police Department.

“In general, we don’t see the Sheriff doing work in Spokane unless they’re invited by the Spokane Police Department,” Beggs said.

Spokane Police Department spokesman Nick Briggs explained that it was within the Sheriff’s authority to conduct law enforcement actions within Spokane city limits. “Washington is a general authority peace officer state, meaning all certified peace officers in the State of Washington carry law enforcement powers within the territorial limits of Washington. So the short answer is yes, Sheriff Knezovich has the same law enforcement authority within the City of Spokane that SPD does.”

One scenario outlined by the city earlier this month that could provide justification for a sweep is the city declaring the WSDOT property a chronic nuisance. Knezovich’s timeline to clear the camp seems to be premised on a September 8 letter from the city that gave October 14 as a deadline for the removal of the encampment.

Despite the wording of that letter, Coddington said that the city is working with the state on a plan to move forward and that the timeline set forth in that letter has been misconstrued as a cutoff date for the removal of the encampment. For now, Coddington said, “we’re going to continue the conversation with the state and stay focused there and see how far we can get with a timeline and a plan. We’ll see whether that meets the needs of the Sheriff as well.”

A chronic nuisance property declaration hasn’t been issued, and absent that, it’s unclear why Knezovich feels he has authority to sweep a camp that SPD has said it does not have authority to clear.

Council President Beggs said one out-of-the-box possibility would be if the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) authorized a public health emergency. “My understanding is that if the Health Officer declares a public health emergency, then Ozzie might have some [special] power,” Beggs said, “but otherwise, no.”

Matters of public health in the county are overseen by SRHD, and decisions like declaring a public health emergency are ultimately up to the discretion of Health Officer Francisco Velázquez.

According to the council president, that topic has never come up. “All the health office has said is the camp needs more hand washing stations and port-a-potties” to maintain sanitation standards, Beggs said, “they have not declared an emergency.”

Three separate staffers within the Washington State Attorney General’s office declined to comment, saying they do not offer legal interpretations to the press.

Communications Director Brionna Aho, though, did say that they are the lawyers for both Washington State Patrol and the Department of Transportation, so if any legal action in response to Knezovich’s letter were to come, the AG’s office would probably handle it. “I can’t think of a reason why they would get outside council,” she said.

“I do know that the county prosecutor provides legal counsel to the sheriff’s department,” Aho said, “so you might want to check with them.”

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office was one of several agencies and organizations that have yet to respond to our requests for comment. The others are: The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

The Seattle office of the FBI also hasn’t gotten back to us about whether Knezovich has approached them about starting an investigation.

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