When Lewis and Clark High School Principal Marybeth Smith drove down the alleys under Interstate 90 last week, she was surprised to find close to 50 homeless camps on or near school property.
“I got my cellphone out and I took pictures,” Smith said, flipping through a smartphone gallery of camps covered in blue tarps. “Up until this year, we have never had camps. Now we do.”
When the city of Spokane notified Blessings Under the Bridge – a nonprofit organization that feeds the hungry under I-90 on Wednesday evenings – that it had to find a new location within 120 days, it put the focus on the many transient people who stay under or near the freeway.
“It’s not safe,” Smith said. “I have 2,000 of other people’s kids here. I take their safety very seriously.”
Smith said she doesn’t blame Blessings, but said student and faculty parking lots under the freeway have to be cleared of people almost every morning.
One teacher was the victim of a strong-arm robbery and one student has been thrown to the ground, kicked and robbed.
“I don’t want this to be framed like it’s LC against the homeless,” Smith said. “This is a complex issue, but we have not kept up with the services people needed.”
Smith has been the principal of Spokane’s downtown high school for a little more than a year, and has made campus safety a very high priority.
“We have changed our landscaping and our lighting to make campus less inviting for vagrants,” Smith said. “Our athletes and coaches have learned new procedures for coming and going.”
Business owners near I-90 and McClellan pick up trash and human waste every day.
One automotive store found its waste oil container full of used needles.
None of the businesses that spoke to The Spokesman-Review wanted their names in the paper for fear of retaliation, but all said camps are more numerous than ever before.
The high number of camps can’t be blamed on Blessings, said President and CEO of Catholic Charities Rob McCann.
“People have been sleeping under the freeway for much longer than Blessings has been there,” McCann said.
McCann said his organization is ready to help Blessings find a new location if the group so desires.
Earlier this week, Blessings founder and CEO Jessica Kovac said she felt the city was trying to strike a deal with Catholic Charities by pushing Blessings to join them.
McCann said there are absolutely no ulterior motives behind the offer to help.
“When the city called us and asked if we could help out we said yes, we always say yes,” McCann said. “We have a history of offering help to any homeless organization in Spokane that needs it.”
McCann said he understands why the people behind Blessings are upset over the pending eviction, but Catholic Charities would welcome Blessings at its House of Charity.
“I have no expectation that they will move, but we are here to help,” McCann said.
The city’s homeless count will come out higher this year, McCann said, not because there are more homeless but because this is the first time Catholic Charities has provided 24-7 sheltering.
“Homeless are a lot easier to count when they are inside at our shelter,” McCann said. “We knew the numbers would be higher, but that doesn’t mean homelessness is exploding in Spokane.”
The city’s director of Community and Neighborhood Services, Jonathan Mallahan, said the city isn’t trying to put an end to Blessings and remains committed to help, but no specifics have been worked out.
Blessings had no comment Wednesday evening but has met with the city of Spokane and scheduled another meeting next week.
“We are just not sure what we are going to do,” said Kevin Serr, Blessings vice president. “But we will continue to serve. We are not giving up.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.