Last week, while the mayor was discussing the results of the city’s latest homeless count, a city crew was out dealing with one of the thornier parts of the issue.
City workers were dismantling a homeless camp on a steep embankment along the Spokane River. As the weather warms, such camps – informal, with makeshift shelter, sometimes with fire pit, often strewn with garbage – show up with more frequency on city land and in other public areas. The camp in question June 1 was tucked against a bank, roughly 200 feet down a steep slope across from homes in the 2700 block of West Summit Boulevard, on city parkland near a trail that follows the river. Three or four people seemed to be staying there, using carpet pieces and tarps to create shelters. They had leveled and cleared a small area, fenced somewhat by fallen logs, on a pitch that was difficult to reach from any direction.
Following complaints from a neighbor, the city attempted to contact the people living there, and then – having heard nothing – they took apart the camp, using a winch to drag the carpet and debris up the bank.
“We weren’t able to make face-to-face contact with the members of the camp,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington. “That’s always the preferred method.”
It was one of three homeless camps the city dealt with similarly that week, and there were two on the agenda this week, Coddington said. As the city has adopted several new strategies for addressing homelessness – ranging from the sit-lie ordinance to its Housing First approach to providing shelter – dealing with the warm-weather camps along the river presents a particular set of challenges, city officials said.
They tend to be used by the chronically homeless, those who might be resistant to using shelters or other services. While there are bright spots in the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness, chronic homelessness has been rising, according to the city’s annual “point-in-time” count.
Why not just let the camps be? Are they hurting anyone? I sometimes wonder at our need to find ways to prevent people from simply reclining upon public land, and yet it’s not so simple in this case.
Jonathan Mallahan, Spokane’s director of community and neighborhood services, said the city can’t ignore the camps for several reasons. It’s prohibited by law, and the homeless camps create nuisances and safety concerns for neighbors and residents using parkland, from fire danger to garbage to river quality.
“It’s not a safe place to live for the people in the camps,” Mallahan said, “and it does have a significant impact on public lands.”
In the past year, the city has adopted a “push-pull” approach, Mallahan said – “Use the push of law enforcement and the pull of social services.” It’s not dissimilar to the method the city uses to enforce the sit-lie ordinance, with officers trying to direct sitters and lie-ers toward social services – though, it must be said, the “problem” of homeless people sitting on sidewalks are molehills compared to the camps.
Here’s how the push-pull works: if the city receives a complaint, it investigates; if it finds an illegal camp, it attempts to contact the people living there to let them know they have to leave, while providing them with contact information to other resources, from shelters to social services; if they’re unable to contact the residents after a day or two, they proceed to dismantle the camp.
Most of the items seized are thrown away, though they do not discard certain personal items.
“We certainly don’t want to take someone’s ID they need to access services or medication they need,” Mallahan said. “That kind of thing is not going to be tossed.”
They did not find such items in the camp last week.
Earlier this year, the city conducted its annual “snapshot census” of the homeless in Spokane, a one-day citywide attempt to quantify the issue. These counts tend to fluctuate and are less than perfect as a measurement, but they provide one gauge of the size of the problem and the way it’s changing.
Chronic homelessness – defined as the presence of one “disabling condition” such as mental illness or drug abuse, plus a history of repeated or continuous homelessness – showed an increase this year, rising to 219 individuals from 151 the year before. There was also an increase in homeless veterans counted, with 101 counted compared to 85 last year, as well as people reporting addiction or mental health problems.
But other measures showed progress. Overall, the number of homeless people counted dropped from 1,149 to 1,033. The number of homeless families dropped for the fourth straight year – it was 121 this year, compared to 274 in 2011. Eighty-seven percent of the homeless population counted had some place to sleep, either in a shelter or transitional housing, and 132 individuals were considered “unsheltered.” That’s down from last year and a bit below the seven-year average of 135.
Mallahan said the count reinforces the need for Housing First efforts, which focus on getting homeless people sheltered immediately, and then addressing issues such as drug use. Past programs have tended to reverse that, requiring people to become “ready” for housing.
“The nice thing about this data is I think it affirms our approach that we need to focus on low-barrier housing,” Mallahan said.
And with cases such as the homeless camp by the river, he said that the city is trying to do more than simply roust them – though in that particular case they were not able to contact the campers.
“The onus is on us,” Mallahan said. “I think we have been making the investments to make the pull of social services stronger.”
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