They hang out downtown for a lot of reasons. Some are homeless. Some are thrill-seekers. Others want drugs or companionship.
“I need to get out of the house,” said Meghan Gunning, 21, explaining why she was on the sidewalk visiting with friends near the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown Plaza a few weeks ago. The mother of two said she is on state assistance but “I really need a job.”
For years, the Plaza at Riverside Avenue and Wall Street has drawn a cross-section of Spokane residents who spend time there, walking the same sidewalks as downtown business owners and shoppers and arriving at the same transit center as commuters.
The draw is simple: They want social contact. And their presence downtown is not likely to go away anytime soon, officials said.
Community and business leaders see that, so they are talking about strategies to make downtown safer for those gathering on the street and less intimidating to those who are not part of the scene.
“I think we have some perception issues,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership and a former county commissioner.
As a group, the people along the street and inside the transit Plaza are mainly young and facing a variety of hardships, including lack of employment.
Some see this contingent as unsavory and detrimental. Others say the activity is part of the social fabric of any big city and provides a counterpoint to conventional behavior.
“Quite frankly, these are issues any urban area has to deal with,” Richard said. “To blame the bus or to blame the Plaza is not looking at the real causes.”
He said the community – its churches, nonprofits, government and businesses – needs to step up efforts to deal with problems of crime, hunger, joblessness and mental health.
Richard Krueger, 29, receives $710 a month in Social Security aid plus food stamps because of a severe learning disability, he said. He uses the bus to get to counseling appointments, but often spends time at the Plaza visiting with friends.
His familiarity with the scene dates back 13 years to when his mother became homeless, he said. He’s wary of others around him. He said his wife left him for someone she met there.
“There’s a lot of drama,” he said. “There are rumors. There’s the ‘he said, she said’ stuff; people getting into fights.”
One of Krueger’s friends is Sandy Pennington, 31, who is also on disability because of bipolar disorder. She said she sees way too many young moms bringing their small children with them to the Plaza to hang out. “The Plaza is not the place for children,” she said.
Gunning’s husband, Tim Gunning, 35, said he’s getting the chance to avoid incarceration for a methamphetamine charge through Spokane’s drug court. He’s now enrolled in a recovery program and receiving state assistance, he said. He was with his wife on a sidewalk near the Plaza recently, visiting with friends until it was time to take the bus home.
“The bus is my only way of travel,” he said.
Gunning said that as part of his recovery, he’s involved with a faith-based group providing free food to street people at the Interstate 90 skate park once a week.
The biggest help anyone could give him, he said, is a job.
There is a perception that the street scene problem is caused by bus riders, said Susan Meyer, chief executive officer for STA.
While many are bus passengers, “They don’t belong to STA,” she said.
Meyer acknowledged that Plaza critics would like to see transit hub operations moved to Second Avenue away from the downtown core to stop the street scene activity, but public officials who oversee STA are not in favor of that idea because it would hamper the agency’s efforts to bring greater transit mobility to the Spokane area.
The Plaza may be ground zero for street activity, but many of the participants roam to Riverfront Park, the skate park and other spots.
STA has been working for years on street problems, paying the wages of a police officer stationed in the downtown area. In addition, STA spends $400,000 a year on nine security officers and 15 to 20 part-time private security personnel.
Buses in Spokane are considered safe, in part because of the security program.
From 2005 to 2012, STA saw ridership increase by 44 percent to 11 million individual boardings in 2012.
Michael Toole, assistant STA manager of safety and security, said part of the Plaza crowd is more benign than most people realize. “It’s a safe environment,” he said.
Many of them are high school kids who spend part of their day meeting up, usually early in the morning or later in the afternoons during the school year.
“It’s a transit hub,” Toole said. “It isn’t the Nordstrom group. It might not be a River Park Square group. It’s just downtown people.”
Since June, Spokane police renewed emphasis on downtown patrols with a force of seven officers. They are working out of a vacant restaurant space inside the Peyton Building adjacent to the Plaza.
With the new police presence and the addition of security patrols, “The situation has improved dramatically,” said Julie Katzer, owner of Brews Bros. Espresso Lounge at Sprague Avenue and Post Street.
In fact, the safety around the Plaza may be one of its attractions, although some transit users see this year’s stepped-up efforts as too much. “It’s overkill,” Kai Perrigo said.
Patrick Cloud, 17, became homeless last summer after he was kicked out of his Airway Heights home following a fight with his father, he said.
On at least two occasions, he said, he spent most of the night outside and then slept for several hours inside the Plaza after its doors opened on weekday mornings at 5.
He said he also spends nights at Crosswalk, the long-established shelter for homeless teenagers, and hangs out with a group of young people in similar circumstances. Their daytime gathering place is under a group of large trees outside the Olive Garden restaurant along Spokane Falls Boulevard.
They band together in their own kind of security, they said, and are less likely to be seen around the Plaza and the stepped-up security.
Their advice to their peers: “Don’t flash your stuff otherwise you will get robbed,” one of the boys said, and “watch out for meth users.”