Woodward Wasting Tax Dollars
Using City Money and the Law for a Political Grandstand
The headline news in the Spokesman last Wednesday, March 22nd, was an article by Emry Dinman entitled “City files lawsuit in aim to clear Camp Hope”. Mayor Woodward, apparently trying to burnish her law-and-order bonafides, is investing our tax dollars in another lawsuit against the State of Washington—a lawsuit similar to the one Spokane County filed last November (and dropped in January after Sheriff Knezovich retired to Wyoming). Camp Hope is steadily shrinking thanks to the steady and painstaking efforts of Jewels Helping Hands, the Empire Health Foundation, and multiple local organizations—but it seems that for a frustrated Mayor Woodward it just isn’t fast enough. Rather than laud the work and steady effort that has produced the shrinkage of the camp, Woodward wants the city police authorized to sweep the remaining 65 residents into Woodward’s Warehouse (the TRAC Shelter) by declaring them a chronic nuisance. After all, if Camp Hope dwindles away without law enforcement drama, Woodward wouldn’t be able to claim the mantle of “tough on crime”.
The last thing Woodward wants to be accused of is allowing homeless people to be too “comfortable”. After all, she owns the now infamous quote, “I think we need to get to the point where we’re working to make homelessness less comfortable and get people connected to services.”
During her previous attempts to justify forceable closure of Camp Hope, the Mayor pretended her motivation was compassion, suggesting that her concern was for the poor people living in the snow and the cold—that the houseless people of Camp Hope would be so much better off crammed into a congregate shelter (with the same lack of indoor plumbing as the Camp). As that supposed compassion-based justification melts away with the coming of spring, Woodward cannot resist spending the City’s tax money on another lawsuit trying to justify forcible clearance. With this lawsuit she demonstrates her commitment to keeping the lives of those still in the camp as unsettled as possible—rather than cooperating with and expressing gratitude for all those currently working to place the camp’s residents.
The City accuses the remaining sixty-five residents of Camp Hope of dealing drugs, committing sexual assaults, stealing and trafficking stolen goods. It wants to use these accusations to declare the continued existence of Camp Hope a chronic nuisance—a justification for displacing everyone against their will. Wait a minute. By the same logic the City could declare a whole city block in a poor neighborhood a hotbed of crime, then use that declaration to justify forcible displacement of all the residents in that block as a chronic nuisance affecting the surrounding neighborhood.
Does anyone actually believe that when Camp Hope closes—as it surely will—that the “dealing drugs, committing sexual assaults, stealing and trafficking stolen goods” will suddenly cease in the surrounding neighborhood and all will be blissful law and order? For Woodward’s purposes it doesn’t matter. The data that could answer that question won’t be assembled until long after the November election when the whole issue has faded from the news. In the meantime the 65 remaining residents of Camp Hope are an easy target.
This Woodward-instigated, taxpayer-funded lawsuit is a political grandstand by an inept City administration that cannot get its act together to even apply for the money available to it (See Passing on the Bucks), an administration that now wants to bite the hand that feeds it rather than cooperatively engage. This is no way run a city.
Keep to the high ground,
Below I’ve pasted an excellent article on this topic by RANGE Media. The article appeared the night before the Spokesman article that I linked in the first paragraph. Both are worth reading, but RANGE provides a bit more thorough account. I encourage you sign up for a paid subscription to RANGE Media. They are doing great work.
Mar 21, 2023•8 min read
It’s the second suit targeting the camp since November: the county filed suit against WSDOT before, but dropped it in January as a show of “good faith” for working together to clear the camp.
The city of Spokane wants a judge to declare the state property that Camp Hope sits on a chronic nuisance and clear the way for the city to clean it up.
In a lawsuit filed Monday against the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the state, and WSDOT officials, the city alleges that the people who live in Camp Hope are dealing drugs, committing sexual assaults, stealing and trafficking stolen goods, causing reckless fires, and causing nearby businesses and homes to suffer, among other things. The suit references more than 30 sworn affidavits from people who work in and live around the camp attesting to this behavior, in addition to sworn affidavits from police officials. RANGE has not seen the full affidavits, only the portions selected to make the city’s case.
Read the full complaint here.
The suit was filed by interim city attorney Lynden Smithson and contains a "complaint for abatement of a public nuisance" under the state's drug and chronic nuisance law. The suit does not name Jewels Helping Hands, Empire Health Foundation and other local organizations working in the camp because, per state law, these nuisance complaints are against whoever owns a given property, regardless of who is using it.
The city’s right to sue for public nuisance isn't in question. The question for months is what is a reasonable timeline for closing Camp Hope, and whether it’s better to keep people in a single location with services and some level of organization and security, or scatter them throughout the city.
Spokane County and the sheriff similarly filed suit against the state and WSDOT in November, but dropped it in January as a show of “good faith” when Sheriff John Nowels replaced Ozzie Knezovich and struck a more collaborative tone than his predecessor.
In a statement released as the suit became public, Mayor Nadine Woodward said in part: “The impact to the neighborhood and the risk of harm to those staying at the camp, the neighbors, businesses, and their customers, and anyone who passes by has become too great. We have been patient and tried to work with the state, but our requests for a transparent plan with a realistic timeline that considers everyone involved have been ignored. We are taking this action before anyone else gets hurt.”
While the Mayor was accusing the state of failing to cooperate, Zeke Smith, executive director of Empire Health Foundation, the Spokane organization that has administered state contracts to provide services to people living on the camp and connect them with housing options, said the lawsuit undermined ongoing cooperation between the state, nonprofits and the city.
“This action by the City accomplishes nothing towards addressing homelessness in our community and obscures our goal of closing Camp Hope quickly,” Smith said. “We will continue to seek the City's collaborative and coordinated support in this effort and ask for earnest engagement on their part. I am incredibly disappointed.”
Lisa Brown, who, as head of the Washington State Department of Commerce, was responsible for disbursing tens of millions of housing funds to help close Camp Hope, and who is now running to unseat Woodward, took issue with the lawsuit’s assertion that the state and its local partners have not communicated a plan.
“[The city administration] is very aware that the state agencies and the local providers have a plan,” she told RANGE, “and they have been steadily putting more housing options online and the population of Camp Hope has been dropping since [those agencies and providers] got involved.”
From Smith’s perspective, not only is there a clear plan, but the plan is getting results. He noted the camp’s population has shrunk to 65 residents, down from 465 in November when the state first required all camp residents to get badges and sign conduct agreements to stay in the camp.
Both Smith and Jeffry Finer — the lawyer who successfully sued for a restraining order against the Sheriff’s office on behalf of Camp Hope — said most of what the new lawsuit asks for is already happening at Camp Hope.
There is one new wrinkle in the lawsuit, though: a request that the state pay damages to the city of $1 million.
What the city wants
The city and mayor are asking a judge to declare the property a nuisance and issue a temporary restraining order barring anyone — including the state itself or any of its contracted organizations — from selling, manufacturing or "delivering" drugs on the premises.
The language specifically asks for prohibition of "any controlled substance." It's unclear if this language would prevent doctors such as the CHAS street clinic from giving residents their prescribed medications, some of which are federally classified as "controlled substances." Smith doesn’t believe it will impede doctors doing their work. “I don’t think it changes anything.”
The city is also asking for an injunction and warrant of abatement, which would allow them to clear the camp: the complaint says the city would provide notice and an opportunity for everyone to find new shelter before removing them, store their property of “obvious value” for 90 days, secure and maintain vehicles removed from the camp for 30 days, and make good faith efforts to conduct outreach and provide transportation for people removed. They promise “every individual removed from the WSDOT encampment will have a meaningful sheltering option and access to a bed, relocation services and property storage.”
Unlike in the past, when it’s been unclear where the city expects people swept from Camp Hope to go, there are currently enough posted beds available in the shelter system to accommodate the people of Camp Hope. In the past, the capacity at TRAC and throughout the low-barrier shelter program has not matched the population at the encampment, which made it unclear where the city and former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich expected people to go if there was a law enforcement sweep of the camp. At the last posted count, there were 67 open beds at TRAC, enough to accommodate the people at Camp Hope.
While the numbers match, the needs may not. To stay in a shelter, people generally need to be able to care for and move themselves. Not everyone remaining at Camp Hope is fully ambulatory and therefore may not satisfy the basic requirements to stay at many shelters. At TRAC, for instance, “guests need to be able to transfer themselves from bed to chair to shower themselves,” according to the ShelterMeSpokane.org, the regional homeless shelter dashboard.
This is more than a policy at TRAC that could be changed. It’s a statewide standard called Activities of Daily Living (ADL), which “is used to determine eligibility for Long Term Care but also as a limitation for insuring individuals in shelters,” Smith said.
“The city does not have the capacity to house the remaining guests” at Camp Hope, Jeffry Finer said, “largely due to their debilitated status — these are the folks who could not qualify for TRAC or Catalyst, etc.”
Smith confirmed that assessment. “Yes this is a population with many overlapping and acute challenges and overwhelmingly have been homeless for a considerable amount of time,” he said. “It is also true many would not be eligible to be sheltered at TRAC.”
In Smith’s mind, though, that means the system needs more time to find a suitable solution for these residents, not to kick them out faster under a court order. “I don't want to make it sound like these folks are the problem,” he said. The lack of options is.
“Closing the camp and getting its last residents situated will likely take real cooperation between the City and State,” Finer concluded.
Biting the hand that feeds
The $1 million in damages the city is seeking from the state is based on costs the city says the camp has generated. “The City has been tracking expenses monthly for police overtime, private security, trash disposal, and other costs, so that’s the basis for the expenses figure,” said communications director Brian Coddington.
This ask for money comes on the heels of the city accepting $2 million from the state Department of Commerce for the Trent Resource Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC) and another $800,000 for city administered housing programs through Housing Navigators and United Way.
Overall, Commerce has spent more than $24.5 million on homeless services in Spokane between 2022 and the start of this year. That funding is earmarked to provide 376 beds through a variety of housing options, including vouchers for rentals, supportive housing at the Catalyst project and funding for existing shelter beds in the city. Not all of those beds are currently available as programs and housing options are still in the development phase. The bulk of state funding, more than 70%, went to projects originally put forward by the city. “They were signed by the mayor,” Lisa Brown said. “This narrative that the city is fighting the state is inaccurate, but it’s also, I think, purely political.”
State funds have also been allocated to provide services at the camp. Commerce has a nearly $3.5 million contract with Empire Health Foundation (EHF), which subcontracts with Jewels Helping Hands, Compassionate Addiction Treatment and Revive to provide services at the camp. The funding enabled providers to offer services at the camp, including matching people with housing programs, providing healthcare and legal services and ensuring safety during emergency weather conditions.
In the suit, the city accuses Commerce of using Camp Hope as a “de-facto low-barrier shelter space” and not creating one low-barrier bed despite its massive investment into Spokane.
Meanwhile, the city is eyeing closing or at least reimagining one of its low-barrier shelters, Cannon Street shelter, at the end of May and “absorbing” the beds into TRAC. In a recent meeting of the Urban Experience Committee, Council President Breean Beggs voiced support for turning Cannon into a shelter for people with more acute medical needs, which could be a solution for those harder-to-shelter people who remain at Camp Hope.
While the city is filing a lawsuit to close Camp Hope, it's also scrambling to find more funding for rising costs in homeless services. On the same day the city was filing the suit, city council members were scheduled to discuss increased expenses for the city’s homelessness obligations that were not budgeted for during a Finance and Administration Committee meeting. The discussion ended up getting tabled until March 30, but would’ve included talking about “right-sizing services provided.”
While the size of Camp House shrunk significantly over winter, it’s not like everyone from the camp has been housed through state programs. The whereabouts of 225 of the 402 people who have exited from camp are unknown to service providers, and another 10 were “trespassed” or kicked out, with no destination listed, according to numbers provided by the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium to RANGE. Camp organizers have said that a combination of cold temperatures and police presence at the camp pushed people out of the encampment this winter.
But, there have been significant success stories from the camp too. More than 116 people have been moved from the camp into housing funded by the state’s right-of-way initiative. And, like it has since the summer, the state is pleading for patience as they try to bring more housing options online.
“To remove the last remaining occupants from the site without completing this work would interrupt the state’s substantial progress and result in dispersing those with the greatest needs and challenges around the city,” WSDOT Communications Manager Ryan Overton said in an emailed statement to press.
“Such drastic action would not actually solve or reduce the homelessness crisis facing the City of Spokane; but simply continue the cycle of shuffling homeless individuals from one location to the next without actually addressing its root causes.”
Total Exits from Camp Hope as of 3/10/2023