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Oct 6, 2022 5 min read

The public has been left out of the Camp Hope conversation

The public has been left out of the Camp Hope conversation
There were a few people missing from the Oct. 6 homeless coalition meeting at Camp Hope. (Photo by Carl Segerstrom, illustration by Valerie Osier)

The county’s resolution to sue the state is the latest in a long-line of decisions that spurned public engagement.

Over the last month, RANGE Media developed a Civics newsletter to keep the community up-to-date on public meetings and political happenings. Each week we spend hours combing through public documents in an effort to distill and highlight important public events, forums and meetings. The goal: to raise awareness about how people in power make decisions and empower the community to make their voice heard.

So, it came as a surprise to us when the county announced a resolution authorizing the county prosecutor to sue the state in order to build the legal case for the county to sweep Camp Hope.

Nothing on the meeting agenda this Tuesday indicated the county would be discussing the encampment. The only faint public notice was the agenda for Monday’s strategy session, which includes a standing “Enforcement Action or Pending/Potential Litigation” agenda item and made no mention of the encampment. No one hoping to advocate for a different outcome, or provide public support for the county’s action, could’ve known the county was considering a resolution to sweep the camp. So, no one showed up.

On Tuesday, after 17 minutes in executive session, Commissioner Josh Kerns moved to approve the resolution — marking the first time the county’s resolution was spoken of in a public forum.

After Kerns made his motion and Commissioner Mary Kuney seconded, Commissioner Al French asked if there’s any discussion. The commissioners didn’t have anything to say in the public meeting about their decision to back Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s plan to sweep Camp Hope before passing the resolution.

After no public debate or discussion among the board, French made a call for public comment on the resolution. “Is there anybody online?” he asks the staff. French made a second and third call for public comment — again to an almost empty room with no one from the public online. “Seeing nobody come to the microphone, I’m going to close public testimony.” The opening for public testimony lasted about 13 seconds.

The result: once the prosecutor’s office files the paperwork, Spokane County taxpayers will be paying to sue our state.

If the county prevails, local resources from the Sheriff’s Department will be used to disband the camp just two days after the general election — so long as Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s November 10 timeline doesn’t change. The sheriff has made overtures that he’d bill the state for any costs the county incurs. So far, the state has brushed off similar reimbursement requests from the city of Spokane, making that outcome far from a done deal. The state has allocated more than $20 million of the more than $24 million in funding it originally committed to rehousing the people at Camp Hope, and is now projecting that it will spend more than $25 million total.

Following months of brinkmanship between the state and Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration, the county's decision to follow Knezovich’s lead and enter the Camp Hope fray further complicates any hopes of an orderly disbandment of the encampment.

Simply put, the people living at the encampment have become pawns in a political chess game. To make matters worse, at no point have any of the political leaders shown the initiative to involve the general public in the process of removing Camp Hope and providing a path to housing for the people living there.

Instead, the public has only been able to access information on this issue through local media. While we all endeavor to keep the public informed, we don’t have all the answers, we have deadlines and, at the end of the day, it’s not the media who have the authority to make these decisions, it’s not the media who have a legal responsibility to inform and allow discussion of those decisions, and it is certainly not the media who must answer for them.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see the way decisions around Camp Hope have been made. The closed door meetings, press releases and press conferences are a poor substitute for authentic public engagement. Throughout this process, the public has deserved a better public forum that allows people to get information from official sources and empowers them to raise concerns and propose solutions.

The only place this regularly happens is monthly Spokane Homeless Coalition meetings, like the one held just today. In general, those meetings are geared toward members of the service provider community who are working on solutions for the unhoused community day in, day out.

Today, the homeless coalition brought out more than 150 people to Camp Hope. Panelists of camp residents, nonprofit leaders and peer navigators described the progress being made and the multitude of challenges people face moving out of homelessness. They also described progress being made to move people off the camp (Julie Garcia said more than 130 people have been moved into housing in recent weeks) and pleaded for time to let the people working with the Camp Hope move people through the challenging process of getting into housing and for some mental health and addiction treatment.

Several council members were in attendance. County electeds were not. Instead they were across town in another closed door meeting about this very issue. It’s hard to understand how they can continue their drive-by policy-making without taking the time to hear from this community and the people serving them.

Lacking real engagement, the vacuum of public outreach has been filled with anger, resentment, and at least one lawsuit. The closest thing to a public meeting about Camp Hope that we’ve seen was a tinder box of frustration and misinformation as riled up West Hills neighbors came to vent their frustrations about more transitional housing services being sited in their neighborhood. While people were misinformed about how the facility will be run (it’s not going to be a low-barrier shelter), they had every right to be frustrated with a process that didn’t include any community engagement until after plans — submitted by the city and accepted by the state — were well on their way to being finalized.

Here, state and local leaders must own their responsibility for not building public engagement into the right-of-way funding program. Granted, this was always something that needed to move faster than your average bureaucratic planning process. The Commerce Department gave local municipalities and the county a month to come up with proposals to rehome the people living in the encampment. Clearly, that timeline precludes a ton of outreach and consensus building.

Still, there was room to invite the public into the decision-making. There could have been city, county and state sponsored town halls and forums to build awareness around the challenges that both government entities and the people living at the encampment face in moving forward towards housing solutions. Instead, conversations were siloed and the public was left to consume the dribs and drabs that entered the public awareness through leaked documents, media reports and scattered public statements.

Now, with winter approaching and elections about a month away, the public at large is left with little to go on when it comes to the future of Camp Hope. Instead of seeing plans and timelines from the state about what the next steps will be and when we can expect them to happen, we’re quickly seeing the future of Camp Hope devolve into political posturing and threat making.

It’s a sad and unnecessary reality that we’ll continue trying to keep the public informed on. But, you shouldn’t have to hear it exclusively from us. Local and state leaders owe Spokane a public voice they haven’t afforded the community so far when it comes to Camp Hope.

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