Shutting a homeless camp that resembled ‘Lord of the Flies’
Political polarization shaped the battle over Spokane’s misnamed ‘Camp Hope’
Jeremy Lott | December 15, 2023
Jeffrey Finer is a lawyer who represented Jewels Helping Hands, one of the charities that was involved in bringing services to Spokane, Wash.’s largest and most infamous homeless encampment while it was still intact. When asked to comment on the living conditions at “Camp Hope,” he said something jaw dropping.
“If it turned into ‘Lord of the Flies,’ it was pushed that way,” he told Daniel Walters, at the time the senior investigative reporter for the Spokane-based alt weekly The Inlander.
It was quite the admission. Jewels both assisted the many homeless who had technically illegally camped out on access land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation and litigated on their behalf. So if it did turn into a version of the dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies” – if! – then Jewels was one of the entities that helped to prolong it through a cold Spokane winter.
The Spokane city government alleged, with evidence, that some very bad things had gone on in the camp including rape, drug dealing, sex trafficking and branding – as in, with a hot poker. A spike in crime caused the state to crack down not by closing the camp but by fencing it off and instituting a badge and curfew system.
All told, Camp Hope stood in some form from December of 2021 to at early June this year. Why was this allowed to persist as long as it was?
Total political polarization had a lot to do with it, as well as a spectacularly snarky exchange of letters between the city and state. But the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also played an important role. Most players in the Camp Hope drama felt at least a little bit constrained by a 2018 ruling of the Ninth Circuit called Martin v. Boise, which held that it is a violation of homeless persons’ Eighth Amendment rights to punish them for vagrancy when there is no shelter available.
In fact, Walters reported that the state had made early inquiries about having the campers cleared off and police had declined to do so at that time, likely over concerns about Martin v. Boise. Those in Spokane city and county government who wanted to clear Camp Hope believed that their hands were tied until more shelter space was available.
Right-of-center Mayor Nadine Woodward spent a great deal of time, effort, money and crucial political capital untying those hands by setting up a homeless shelter on East Trent Avenue with a normal capacity to house 100 and a surge capacity to house maybe 250 when the weather turns deadly.
With those 250 spots, combined with a beefed up, state-funded local Catholic Charities presence of about 100 more beds, the city could reasonably make the argument that Camp Hope needed to go. Spokane city government sent a letter to the state in early September 2022 demanding the clearing of Camp Hope and the repayment of $350,000 for the cost of cleanup and law-enforcement services.
That letter was not well received. The state responded with a letter charging that Spokane’s City Hall “seems more preoccupied with blaming the state for the problem it ultimately played a hand in creating and not acknowledging its own roles and responsibilities regarding residents of its own city.” It also included this admonishment: “We sincerely hope that your energy will be redirected and applied to meaningful solutions for all of your residents to include the most vulnerable.”
It was signed by three agency heads, Roger Millar, secretary of WSDOT; John Batiste of the Washington State Patrol; and, crucially, Lisa Brown, then state secretary of Commerce who would go on to challenge Woodward for control of City Hall.
This exchange led to a near total polarization of the issue politically. Woodward’s supporters, many of them Republicans, rebuffed the state. The Spokane County Board of Commissioners, then totally controlled by Republicans (currently a 3-2 GOP majority), threatened to sue the state.
On the other side, many state Democrats, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson, dug in during the barrage of suits and countersuits to either close the camp or to at least temporarily keep it open. The Spokane City Council’s progressive majority also weighed in on the side of not wanting officers of the Spokane Police Department to be involved in any sweep of the camp, allegedly for legal reasons.
The decisive actor in the camp’s eventual closure was likely then-Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, one of the most quotable and outspoken lawmen that the Evergreen State has ever known.
“This camp is jeopardizing the safety of my community and it will end,” he told The Center Square Washington in late September 2022 (which I edited at the time), adding, “These bureaucrats need to understand that they are liable for the harm they have caused this county.” Knezovich said that he had the authority and obligation to clear the camp, calling himself the “chief executive officer in the county to keep the peace.”
Knezovich pressed hard in court. He also supported in the November 2022 sheriffs’ election the successful candidacy of John Nowels, his undersheriff and understudy, who was committed to the camp’s closure. This kept the law enforcement pressure on.
As far as who won this conflict, it’s hard to say, although it likely wasn’t those homeless who were convinced to stay at Camp Hope for longer than they otherwise would have.
Woodward narrowly lost reelection to Brown, and Brown ran a campaign calling the Trent Avenue shelter a mistake. She threatened to shutter it if elected, and might. Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, who had been a lower-key voice for clearing the camp, announced his retirement.
At the same time, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1, which would ban encampments “within one thousand feet of a public or private school, public park, playground or licensed child care facility.”
The Spokane city and county homeless population has grown too, registering at 2,390 homeless in this year’s survey, which was up from 1,757 the previous year.
The U.S. Supreme Court could weigh in as well. It declined in 2019 to review Martin v. Boise but is currently being petitioned by the city of Grants Pass, Ore., to narrow or scrap the Ninth Circuit decision. That would go a long way toward keeping future Camp Hopes from forming.
Jeremy Lott is a writer based in Washington state.