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Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich plans to clear I-90 homeless camp

The Spokane County Sheriff sent a letter to WSDOT in response to WSDOT's letter to the city.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich wrote a letter to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on Wednesday stating he plans to clear out the homeless camp near I-90 by mid-October.

Knezovich's letter comes nearly two weeks after Spokane City Administrator Johnnie Perkins sent a letter to WSDOT stating that the department had until Oct. 14 to clear out the homeless camp located on WSDOT's property. On Tuesday, WSDOT responded to the city, stating the department will not clear the camp until the city takes accountability for its role in the camp's growth.

In a letter sent to WSDOT Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, Knezovich said "this tragic situation" has continued with no help from the department, adding that if the camp was located in Millar's neighborhood or the Secretary of Commerce's backyard, the issue would have been resolved a long time 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," Knezovich wrote.

Knezovich also outlined his plan to assist residents at the camp, which includes giving each of the a bus ticket to a location of their choice and engaging with the faith community to help residents receive drug, alcohol and mental health treatment.

He also discussed the $25 million given to the city from the Commerce Department "to provide safe and secure housing options" for people experiencing homelessness in Spokane.

"Frankly, it would be far safer for Commerce to simply pay a year's worth of rent for the estimated 600 people at the camp than to allow this situation to continue," Knezovich wrote. "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."

Despite stating that the residents of the camp need to be removed from poverty, he then contradicted himself by stating that the crisis at the camp is not one of an economic nature.

"The residents of the camp did not lose their jobs due to the economy," Knezovich wrote. "There are plenty of jobs available to camp residents that continue to go unfilled."

Knezovich then continues to discuss the camp and its impact on the community, citing crimes and the camp's impact on sanitation both on the WSDOT land and in nearby communities. 

The question now is, who is in charge of clearing out the homeless encampment: WSDOT or the city of Spokane? According to Knezovich, that responsibility goes to the state. 

"My position is steadfast in that this community can no longer stand idly by and allow the residents of this camp and the surrounding neighborhood to experience these inhumane conditions created by WSDOT's inaction," Knezovich wrote.

Earlier this year, the Washington State Department of Commerce funded the Empire Health Foundation with $500,000 to aid in the first steps to clear out the camp. Despite this, Knezovich continued to accuse WSDOT, Commerce and the state of inaction as well as "possible corruption" for misuse of public funds.

"I will also seek an audit of the WSDOT, the State of Washington, and City of Spokane in their funding of Jewel's Helping Hands and Ben Sruckart for the operations at this camp and other homeless camps within the greater Spokane County area," he wrote. "I intend to conduct a full investigation into potential fraud related to this funding."

Knezovich said he intends to clear out the camp himself by mid-October 2022. He also claimed that WSDOT recognizes its responsibilities and should devise its already devised plan to understand its responsibilities with the encampment. 

"As my final suggestion, if WSDOT wishes to demonstrate their compassion, I suggest that those responsible consider sponsoring a member of this camp with a room in their own homes, consistent with WSDOT's suggestion to the East Side neighborhoods of the city of Spokane," he wrote.

The whole letter sent to WSDOT by Knezovich can be found below:

WSDOT, Commerce and Washington State Patrol (WSP) responded to Knezovich's letter late Wednesday afternoon with the following joint statement:

Today, the Department of Transportation received a letter from Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announcing his intentions to clear Camp Hope by mid-October.

Several state agencies have been working with local non-profit housing and homelessness providers to address this issue for months as we successfully have in other parts of the state. Yesterday's meeting with city officials was a start to productive, much needed discussion to successfully resolve Camp Hope and work together to provide safe, secure housing and service solutions for those living homeless at the encampment.

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.

The Washington State Departments of Transportation, Commerce and Washington State Patrol look forward to continuing that work with the city of Spokane, nonprofits and other partners and jurisdictions within Spokane County.

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