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Homeless campers getting the boot

A homeless man assembles a sandwich from food donated by a passing motorist Thursday under the freeway at Bernard Street. (Jesse Tinsley)
A homeless man assembles a sandwich from food donated by a passing motorist Thursday under the freeway at Bernard Street. (Jesse Tinsley)

City seeks help from social service agencies

As many as 50 people living under the Interstate 90 viaduct in downtown Spokane will have to find somewhere else to sleep.

Spokane officials announced Thursday that they will enforce the city’s ban on camping on public property without a permit, but will wait until next week and give campers 24 hours notice before they take action.

The I-90 viaduct commonly attracts the homeless, but their presence has been more noticeable in recent weeks as many have erected tents and shelters.

Along McClellan Street under the bridge, for instance, about five shelters were standing early Thursday afternoon. A man who said his name was Beau Shields McNew was among a half-dozen men hanging out nearby.

He said he didn’t begrudge the city for enforcing the law, but said it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem.

“Instead of just keeping us out and keeping us out, and wasting tax dollars, they should try to come up with a solution,” said McNew, who is staying in a shelter made in part by a sleeping bag, an American flag, blankets and a Rite Aid shopping cart. He and others said people displaced will most likely erect their shelters elsewhere.

City officials say they aren’t ignoring the tough issues related to homelessness, which is why they are waiting to enforce the ban until after social service agencies have an opportunity to connect with those who might be displaced. The city is partnering with the Spokane Homeless Coalition.

Bob Peeler, a community development specialist for SNAP and a member of the homeless coalition, said each homeless person has specific needs. Agencies will work to direct campers to the proper assistance.

“Five years ago, they (police) would go in and take full camps out, and people were losing their IDs and personal belongings,” Peeler said. “Now they’re getting options and choices.”

As the homeless population under the bridge became larger, the city placed three portable toilets because of mounting complaints about human excrement.

Jonathan Mallahan, Spokane’s director of community and neighborhood services, said the city took action based on health and environmental concerns and “basic human dignity” of the people living under the bridge.

“Before that, you basically had people walking through sewage,” Mallahan said.

Spokane Police Major Frank Scalise said that while officers often direct the needy to available services, homeless people likely will be more receptive to working with representatives of groups that specialize in providing social services.

He called the plan to give social workers a chance to meet with the homeless “a much more holistic approach, a much more humane approach.”

While many people living on the streets have chosen not to seek a bed in a homeless shelter, there often is a shortage of beds in the winter. Last month, for instance, the House of Charity turned away 85 homeless men because the downtown shelter was at capacity, said Ed McCarron, the shelter’s director.

Last month, Ralph “Doc” Harvey and his wife, Becky, said they were seeking a city permit to create a long-term tent city, large enough to fit 50 people, under I-90 off South Browne Street. The couple lived in a tent city for a time last year in Western Washington.

Harvey’s proposal was not allowed by city law. Tent cities are prohibited on land owned by the state Department of Transportation, which owns the property under I-90.

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