Spokane officials are pushing back on the perception that placing boulders under the freeway downtown was done solely to push out homeless encampments, a message they say originated at City Hall.
“The unfortunate thing about how that rolled out was the message people heard from us. It certainly wasn’t the message we were trying to send,” said Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s director of neighborhood and community services. “The message people heard was that we don’t care about the people that are most vulnerable.”
That message was delivered in part by the city’s own communications. Council members and Mallahan pointed to a video, produced by former KXLY reporter Jeff Humphrey for Spokane’s City Cable 5 television station, announcing the installation of the basalt to “dislodge homeless people camping under the Interstate.” That video ignored the public safety concerns and long-term downtown planning that supported installation of the boulders, city officials said.
Humphrey said Tuesday he’d apologized to the City Council for the video, which he said didn’t capture the context of the rock installation.
“The basalt was at the end of a sequence of events,” Humphrey said. “The video didn’t have the benefit of the backstory.”
Brian Coddington, the city’s communications director, said he didn’t review Humphrey’s script. A second story Humphrey proposed, which would have aired last week and focused on cleanup crews tearing down two encampments under the Interstate, was put on hold when council members raised concerns, according to internal emails. The city instead put out a video focused on the “Give Real Change” initiative, which encourages downtown visitors to feed meters that will benefit the homeless population.
“We have additional stories planned on homelessness,” Coddington said.
Mallahan said the script of the basalt video “certainly could have been improved” to focus on the services offered to those in encampments, including information about thehomeless shelters that received more than a half million dollars from the city to remain open through the end of 2017.
While other videos the city produced on homelessness provided a clearer picture of the services offered, Mallahan said, the basalt story “was one small slice of the broader picture.”
“That video, in isolation, didn’t tell that story,” he said.
Placing basalt under the highway had been included as part of the city’s plans first adopted in 2013 to create gateways into downtown, Mallahan said, because of its prominence in the area and low maintenance. That plan has included landscaping and sculptures designed to draw traffic into the core of the business district, including the fish sculpture at Division Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard and planned improvements at several off-ramp intersections downtown.
Calls from local property owners and Lewis and Clark High School to improve safety in the area “accelerated” the rock-laying, but didn’t cause it, said Mallahan.
“Would that basalt have gone in regardless of that? Yes, it would have,” he said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart has said he regretted his push to lay down the rocks, and the council has assembled a forum on homelessness for Monday night at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Stuckart said he wouldn’t comment further on the city’s efforts on homelessness, or its messaging on the issue, until after the forum.
Mallahan defended the basalt, saying it was a “reasonable step for the city to take” to address safety issues not only for those visiting downtown, but also for those who live in the encampments.
“Those are not safe places to live,” Mallahan said.
City Council members, who unanimously approved laying the rocks at a cost of $150,000 out of Spokane’s parking fund, said their main concern was keeping students safe at nearby Lewis and Clark High School and cutting down on crime.
“We were all saying, why is everybody fixated on rocks, when we clearly were told, and we were pursuing, safety,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. “It just didn’t resonate.”
“I think it was targeted at people lurking in the bushes, and assaults, and break-ins,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs.
City Councilman Mike Fagan said he saw the basalt installation as an extension of efforts elsewhere downtown to combat crime, including design elements at Division Street and Third Avenue, part of the gateway plan for downtown.
“For the folks that have been negative, the media and the public that has asked me what we did downtown under I-90, I have basically been telling them this: Homeless encampments are illegal,” Fagan said.
Fagan said he hadn’t heard many negative comments about the installation of the rocks, though he believed the city could have done a better job coordinating efforts on telling the community why it was being done.
“I think the mayor and the council definitely need to be on the same page, need to be holding hands, when we’re talking about these kinds of issues,” Fagan said.
Kinnear said lawmakers were put at a disadvantage, trying to explain their reasoning after the story had already been told.
“We put out that video,” she said. “Here we are, now, and it’s impossible to go back and tell people we didn’t mean it, right? But we didn’t.”
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said the city-produced video created the wrong impression.
“It does feel like we’re at war with the homeless, and that’s not acceptable to me,” Stratton said. “Whether we like it or not, there are people living in this community that need our help.”
Mallahan said the city would work in the future to emphasize the services the city has provided to combat homelessness.
“What Spokane took away from this was, we’re a community that doesn’t care,” Mallahan said. “The reality is, I think we’re a community that is a leader in compassion and effectiveness to people that are in crisis.”
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