(The Center Square) – Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has written a scathing letter to the Washington Department of Transportation about the agency’s failure to clear a homeless camp from being established on its local property.
“Consider this letter notice to WSDOT that I plan to clear this camp by mid-October,” he wrote. “WSDOT’s dereliction of their duties to address this matter must not continue.”
State officials have responded to Knezovich’s stated plans to clear Camp Hope of its more than 650 residents with criticism.
“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,” reads a statement published by the heads of WSDOT, the Department of Commerce and Washington State Patrol.
Representatives from all three agencies met yesterday with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and other city leaders to discuss issues related to Camp Hope, the state’s largest homeless camp in a right-of-way.
“I hope you note that I do not refer to this encampment as ‘Camp Hope.’ It represents anything but that,” stated Knezovich.
Although his Sept. 22 letter was addressed to Roger Millar, director of WSDOT, as the landowner agency, Knezovich referenced the two other agencies in a plan to audit taxpayer investments into homeless encampments within the county.
“I intend to conduct a full investigation into potential fraud related to this funding,” wrote the sheriff. “I will also be contacting the FBI with respect to possible public corruption, the misuse of public funds, and the circumstances surrounding the formation of this camp. It appears the formation of this camp was merely an effort to ‘pass the buck’ to the citizens of our county and the City of Spokane.”
Knezovich said lawlessness and public health problems at the camp, which was founded in December at Third and Freya streets, are adversely affecting an area already beset with crime and poverty problems.
“If this camp were located in your neighborhood, or the Secretary of Commerce’s backyard, this issue would have been resolved long ago. I have spent countless hours speaking with residents who have been greatly impacted by the state’s inaction and assure you these citizens have lost all hope for resolution,” stated Knezovich.
He referenced a request from state officials that he come up with a plan to ensure that each resident of the camp has access to safe and secure housing options.
“My plan is to provide bus tickets to the location of each residents’ choice, allowing them to reunite with family and to assist them in recovery. I will also engage the faith community to help with drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment,” he said.
With Commerce offering $24.3 million to relocate people at the camp, Knezovich said a year’s worth of rent could be paid for each person. He sees that as a better option than allowing the current situation to continue.
“However, without implementing treatment for the drug, alcohol, and mental health needs, any investment would likely prove unsuccessful and fall far short of helping those at the camp out of poverty,” he noted.
People living at the camp are not there because they lost jobs due to the economy because there are plenty of work opportunities available, he said.
What draws people to Camp Hope, said Knezovich, is addiction and mental health issues that are often fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.
“At this point I have to ask how WSDOT plans to prevent future injury with respect to those camp residents who have so far experienced rape, beatings, brandings, thefts, shootings, stabbings, and other similar crimes which are repeatedly being committed at the camp and in nearby neighborhoods, businesses, and communities,” wrote Knezovich. “WSDOT’s inaction serves to condone these criminal acts.”
He also briefly addressed concerns about the health hazards brought by having raw sewage and human waste dumped in and around the camp.
“By allowing these conditions to continue, WSDOT is complicit in the wretched conditions at the camp,” stated the sheriff.
It is his intent to restore order and safety in and around the camp, said Knezovich.
“If you disagree, please feel free to take action that will timely resolve this matter. However, my position is steadfast in that this community can no longer stand idly by and allow the residents of the camp and the surrounding neighborhood to experience these inhumane conditions created by WSDOT’s inaction.”
The sheriff concludes his letter by inviting state officials to demonstrate their compassion for Camp Hope residents by opening their own homes to guests, which he said is consistent with the agency’s suggestion to East Side neighborhoods.