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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stuckart regrets decision to use boulders to move homeless, calls for ‘tent city’

The city moved basalt rock on an area below I-90 and Bernard in August to discourage homeless people from sleeping in the area and instead seek services from shelters. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Following significant blowback against the city’s action dumping tons of boulders under Interstate 90 to stop homeless campers, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart is now calling for a “tent city” in Spokane.

“We have a law for tent cities on the books,” Stuckart said. “You need a private organization to step in and host them. I’ve seen it done successfully on church properties.”

So-called tent cities are an experiment in urban homelessness policy pioneered in Seattle, where five such homeless encampments are sanctioned, and partly funded, by the city as a way to temporarily address the issue and house upward of 200 people.

Jonathan Mallahan, Community and Neighborhood Services Division director for the city of Spokane, said the city does have a law allowing for such encampments, but only temporarily.

“Sixty days is allowed. It’s not something that is intended to be used for a long-term solution,” Mallahan said. “Encampments are not a long-term solution to homelessness.”

Mallahan said that to win city approval, the camp needs a sponsor agency, a site plan, sanitary facilities and rules of conduct.

“A structure of accountability and safety,” he said.

Stuckart’s tent city idea came after he heard from “hundreds” of people opposing the city’s basalt action against the homeless, a move he pushed for and sped through the council’s decision-making process.

On Aug. 21, Stuckart urged other council members to vote on the item authorizing the boulder placement at a sparsely attended 3:30 p.m. meeting in the basement of City Hall before a crowd of city staffers.

“There have been severe issues there,” he told the other council members. “When the camps pop back up, the police have been doing an excellent job of going there every day. But they go right back.”

Stuckart said he asked Mallahan “to work on this as fast as possible so we can get this in place. … This solves a problem.”

Suggesting he knew there would be opposition to the plan, Stuckart said he had “asked that it be put on the 3:30 agenda on purpose.”

But after news went out about the rocks, and people accused the city and Stuckart of acting inhumanely, Stuckart reversed course.

On both his personal and political Facebook pages, he wrote that he “reacted to legitimate safety concerns,” but regretted choosing “an expedient and strong-armed solution instead of the collaborative and holistic approach.”

Stuckart said “the homeless citizens relocated from their community deserved an outstretched hand from their elected officials instead of a hammer and a bunch of rocks. For all of this, I am sorry.”

On Thursday, Stuckart said he understood the frustration, but placed blame primarily on the roll-out and a lack of knowledge about the city’s actions to combat homelessness.

“They were angry about the decision. There was no discussion. They didn’t understand,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t know all the different things the city is doing.”

Stuckart pointed to the city’s funding of a 24-hour shelter system and the doubling of the city’s human services funding in recent years.

Mallahan also pointed to the city’s system to reduce homelessness, and was particularly stung by reaction to the basalt program.

“It was really devastating to me that when we installed the basalt, that the message from the city was that we didn’t care about our more vulnerable citizens,” he said, noting that homeless people “deserve to live in a safe and comfortable environment like everybody else.”

Mallahan said the city has permanently added $500,000 to annual shelter funding and has instituted an analytical program to identify the homeless that are most in need of shelter to guide housing decisions.

“Family homelessness has dropped by 60 percent since 2012 without an increase in funding” through the program, he said.

Both Stuckart and Mallahan said a larger problem was the city’s lack of housing, and Mallahan said the city needed 11,000 units of affordable housing built in the next five years.

“There’s not enough housing. Shelter’s an emergency situation. But there isn’t a long-term solution for housing,” Stuckart said. “We’re doing as much as we possibly can. … The bigger problem is lack of affordable housing.”

Following the blowback, the city organized a forum on homelessness, which will take place 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sept. 25 at Spokane City Hall.