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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Crime is higher near downtown Spokane homeless shelter, and businesses are fed up

Shawnna Holcomb let out a large, exasperated sigh as she raised her hands to her hair and mimed ripping it out at the roots.

By all accounts, it was just another Thursday morning at Clarks Cleaners on Division Street near the the city’s largest homeless shelter, the House of Charity. Before the clock had struck noon, Holcomb had kicked out a few people sleeping under the drive-thru roof. By 11, she’d called the police on a woman who appeared to be injecting drugs into her arm near a window.

“There’s still spots on my wall,” the longtime manager said of blood spatter from drug users using needles in the vicinity. “It’s every day. All day.”

Even as she struggled to explain the conflict she felt between sympathy for hundreds of homeless people down the street and her need to keep her business safe and clean, a used needle was discovered on her front windowsill in clear view of customers inside and out. The window pane behind it looked directly out at the busy street and busier shelter, where a pair of paramedics were helping a woman into an ambulance.

“This is every day,” she repeated. “It’s every day.”

The relationship between business owners and the chronically homeless, who spend much of their time in the six-block radius near Pacific Avenue and Division Street downtown, has reached a boiling point this summer, leading many to speak out for the first time since the House of Charity switched to 24/7 services in 2016.

In June, a flyer was disseminated accusing Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter, of building a “small army” of homeless people. While its author remains a mystery, and detractors say it’s riddled with errors, business owners explain it has at least tinges of truth. They say claims of multiple car and building break-ins, broken windows, vandalism and assaults are accurate. They also agree that people are defecating in and on buildings.

Like Holcomb, who says cleaning up used needles has become part of her job, others say they too are overburdened with petty crimes and nuisances committed by House of Charity patrons.

“During the winter, we’re overstock for the shelter,” said Sam Cassel, brother of Tracy Cassel, the owner of Cassel Promotions and Signs on Division, a few buildings down from the House of Charity. “Twenty to 30 out there, every night.”

In July, the city and Catholic Charities, citing health and safety concerns, announced an end to round-the-clock services, effectively stamping a conclusion to the two-year experiment that concentrated much of Spokane’s homeless population in the southeastern part of downtown.

Starting today, about 150 of the roughly 400 people who sleep at the House of Charity nightly will have to find a new place – a change the city is still scrambling to accommodate.. Earlier this week, the City Council hastily passed a vote asking other agencies to open their doors at night, so that the chronically homeless would not have to rely on warming centers only in the winter.

While the city and the nonprofit have agreed to limit beds at the shelter, Spokane officials say they’re taking other steps to address the homelessness problem. That includes an additional $160,000 in this year’s budget to pay workers who are tasked with assisting those living on the street to find permanent housing.

Cassel, however, suspects that reducing beds at the House of Charity will lead to more homeless people sleeping on private property. He said now that people have become accustomed to staying around eastern downtown, they’ll continue to do so regardless of other shelters opening their doors.

“The city hasn’t done enough,” he said. “I often hope they’d build a shelter next to City Hall. Then they’d understand.”

Meanwhile, Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities, has had to do something these past few weeks that he hates: defending homeless people for being homeless.

In addition to the flyer, which he quickly denounced at a news conference last week, McCann said he’s sat and listened to multiple business owners on TV news reporting falsehoods about proposed housing projects near the House of Charity, which have been in the pipeline for years – two 50-unit buildings, one near the charity’s Donna Hanson Haven complex, and another at a now-vacant lot on the corner of Division and Sprague Avenue.

“It seems like every day now there’s a new neighbor on TV,” he said. “At the end of the day, I can’t speak to the business plans or business motives of our neighbors.”

McCann said he was confused, too, by the timing of the complaints, since he said the conditions near the shelter have “existed all over downtown” for years. Among false statements that were in the flyer distributed in June were claims that a plan is in the works to build 9,000 additional housings units and bring in 18,000 homeless people.

Still, and for the trouble caused to neighbors, he says the charity is understanding and proactive.

He says it spends about $380,000 a year on staffing security patrols and cleaning crews assigned to constantly hose the sidewalk, clean graffiti at the House of Charity and neighboring buildings, and sweep up garbage and drug paraphernalia. There’s also an emergency number he’s provided to neighbors. If called, a charity staff member will be on site within 90 seconds, McCann said.

“For many years at House of Charity, the reality is, we do things for our neighbors that no other business does,” he said. “We do things we have no legal obligation to do.”

As for the perception of increased crime in the area, he contends it’s not so much that homeless people are inherently more criminal. Rather, crime would increase anywhere if hundreds of people were suddenly uprooted and crammed inside with nothing but time to kill.

“If you put 400 people on Rockwood Boulevard, there would be an increase there,” he said. “We’re working with the city to try to put together a better solution.”

David Singley, captain of the downtown Spokane police precinct, would tend to agree that a perceived uptick in crime around the House of Charity is mostly population-based, though he said it’s difficult to quantify.

Spokane police crime data shows that about 11 percent of all calls for police service in the downtown police precinct’s coverage area from November 2016 to September 2017 occurred in the six-block radius around the House of Charity, despite taking up only 2.4 percent of the precinct’s coverage area. There was no data available on population density.

Of those crimes committed, a vast majority are property-related, with 62 reported acts of larceny – about 6 percent of all the larcenies in the downtown precinct – and a handful of burglaries and vehicle thefts. Data also shows there were 16 reported violent crimes, most of which were committed by the homeless against the homeless, Singley said. There were zero homicides, one rape, one commercial robbery, 13 nondomestic aggravated assaults and one domestic assault.

Singley said to curtail homeless-on-homeless violence and t decrease property crime, the department approved overtime patrols throughout the summer, first with eight-hour shifts seven days a week, then more recently to 10 days a month.

“Those are some of the things we’ve been doing to try and mitigate some of the collateral issues we’ve had in that area,” he said. “We have made the House of Charity and that two-block area a hot spot a number of times this year and last year.”

The flyer distributed in June falsely said police were not allowed access to the House of Charity or other Catholic Charities housing. Singley and McCann said officersoften make daily stops at the shelter to check in.

But businesses in the area do say this summer has brought an increase in nuisances. At the 7-Eleven on the corner of Division and Second Avenue, where people often congregate after crossing a dangerous stretch of three or four lanes on Division, owner Kahar Momand said he easily loses more than $100 a day to shoplifting – a point with which the flyer is in agreement.

“We spend a lot of money on different stuff to keep everything right,” said Momand, who also owns a 7-Eleven in north Spokane, a location he’s had no problem with. “At the end of the day, it’s still a problem for us.”

Momand said he’s also received multiple citations for failing to keep an abatement agreement he signed with the police department.

Capt. Tracie Meidl, who leads the south precinct, said the owner hadn’t kept a handle on ridding the store of drug activity, fights and drinking in the parking lot. Momand, meanwhile, said he’s spent over $20,000 hiring a private security company and installing cameras and a device that makes a constant ringing noise outside his front door. The sound is meant to dissuade people from congregating outside the store.

While Momand said he now prefers a call to his security company over 911 because he keeps receiving citations, police data shows a 35 percent increase in calls from the address since last year.

Holcomb, the Clarks Cleaners manager, said she too has relied on police services more often this summer. Records shows the business has called 911 or Crime Check 36 percent more this year compared with last year.

It has gotten so frequent that she now hesitates to call, she said, feeling like a nuisance rather than a helper.

As she explained this, she stopped and wondered how she’d safely bag up and dispose of the needle still sitting on her windowsill.

“This is the worst I have ever seen it,” she said. “This whole summer.”

Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.