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Feb. 6, 2023

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‘This camp is to be closed’: Confusion, frustration after law enforcement hands out flyers at Camp Hope

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SPOKANE — This camp is to be closed.”

This was the message on flyers handed to Camp Hope residents by uniformed law enforcement officers from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Spokane and Spokane Valley police departments, who arrived in force Tuesday afternoon.

More than a dozen officers and deputies with the interdepartmental Behavioral Health Unit arrived at the homeless encampment Tuesday afternoon, and some at the camp estimated the number was as high as 40. Spokespeople for local law enforcement and the city of Spokane were unable to provide an exact number Tuesday.

Local law enforcement and city officials say the exercise was meant to remind those living at the camp that a closure is coming, though they won’t say when, as well as to connect residents with shelter and social services.

Organizations providing on-the-ground services at the camp, however, called the law enforcement action an unhelpful attempt to intimidate residents amid bitter disputes about how to close the camp.

“It’s all about intimidation,” said Julie Garcia, founder of nonprofit homeless service provider Jewels Helping Hands, shortly after officers and deputies had left. “Otherwise, why do you need more than 20 officers dressed in their gear with their body cams on?”

Spokane Police Department spokesperson Julie Humphreys said all of the officers were needed in order to safely reach all 433 people staying at the camp.

Garcia and residents of Camp Hope argued the same goal could have been accomplished with a pile of flyers left with staff to distribute.

“I think they were here for more than just handing out flyers — if they wanted to hand out flyers, they could have dropped them off at the front,” said Mark Miller, who has lived at Camp Hope for nearly a year.

“I think they’re trying to get a layout of the camp, and the police are — because (the flyer) says the camp is closing — trying to scare people into leaving.”

Xavier Allen, a resident and staff member at the camp, said he thought the law enforcement action was little more than a show of force.

Humphries, however, said Tuesday’s operation was necessary to ensure that Camp Hope residents received information directly from law enforcement.

“We wanted to go and have that connection with folks,” Humphries said. “It was more about: We are here as a resource for you.”

Law enforcement were not immediately able to access the interior of the gated camp, said Mark Gregory, public information officer for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

“Why would they stop us from going in and talking to people today?” he asked. “We hope in the future that the staff at the camp, Jewels, whoever, works with us instead of against us.”

Garcia stated that she had to confer first with the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns the land that Camp Hope is located on, before allowing law enforcement inside. She also said she was given no official warning that law enforcement would be coming Tuesday, except for a brief mention of possible action made by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in a story published Monday by The Center Square.

In addition to an unspecific statement about the camp’s impending closure, flyers produced by the sheriff’s office and distributed Tuesday listed a number of service providers in the community, including shelters, mental health and addiction treatment centers, and those offering free meals.

While some of the resources provided might be helpful, Garcia argued there were a number of issues with this list. Even as law enforcement were leaving the camp, a large number of the flyers had already been tossed in trash cans.

Most of the service providers named in the flyer were already listed in a large Conestoga hut at the camp where residents receive meals and services.

The flyer also contained information that was incorrect or irrelevant to campers, she added. For instance, one service provider listed only offers services to teens, though those staying at the camp are all adults.

The address listed on the flyer for Compassionate Addiction Treatment, a peer-led day program for addiction recovery, was incorrect. While CAT is located at 168 S. Division St., the address provided was 112 E. First Ave., which is where Matt Shea’s church On Fire Ministries is located.

Neither Humphries, Coddington, nor Gregory were able to explain the error prior by Tuesday night.

The flyer stated that shelter services and housing alternatives were available, and prominently featured the Trent Resource and Assistance Center.

However, according to sheltermespokane.org, there were only 16 of 275 beds available at TRAC as of Monday night, and around 150 beds throughout the entire regional shelter system.

“There are nowhere near that many beds available at the Trent Shelter or in all regional shelters combined,” wrote Zeke Smith, president of Empire Health Foundation, the organization contracted by the state to coordinate outreach services at Camp Hope.

“If the city, county, and local law enforcement are genuinely interested in helping Camp Hope residents access critical services, they are welcome to pick up the phone and call those of us who are actively working to accomplish this each and every day.”

City officials have maintained that TRAC will not turn away anyone in need and has the capacity to flex capacity at that shelter to fit 350 or more. However, in a story published by Range Media Monday, Spokane building officials stated that the shelter was already in excess of an official capacity limit of 250.

There aren’t enough shelter beds to house the residents of Camp Hope, let alone all homeless residents of Spokane County, which was estimated to be around 1,750 people during the 2022 Point-In-Time count.

But the number of homeless residents may be far, far higher. In a recent estimate from the Washington State Department of Commerce based on services provided to homeless people, Spokane County has more than 14,000 residents who are unhoused — around 2.5% of all residents.

Law enforcement did not provide residents of Camp Hope with a specific date that they would be expected to leave the site, an intentional decision, Gregory said.

“We’re never going to say when we’re going to — if we had to — go down and close the camp, because that wouldn’t be smart of us to do,” Gregory said.

“The camp is going to be closed, but we want to do it without ever using law enforcement to move people out of the camp,” he continued. “(A sweep) is not our goal, but if we have to, we will do that.

Though a handful of Spokane police officers have been a constant presence outside of Camp Hope, they will soon be regularly joined by Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies, Gregory added.

Jeffrey Finer, one of the attorneys representing three Camp Hope residents and Jewels Helping Hands in a federal complaint filed in October after local law enforcement threatened to sweep the camp, argues a sweep would be illegal under federal case law. After Tuesday’s operation, he said he had requested a new hearing date in that case, which seeks an injunction to prevent such a sweep.

“It’s clear that the sheriff has no intention of allowing the camp to close humanely and safely and legally,” Finer said. “We will ask the federal court to intervene and order the sheriff to stand down.”

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