In May, Spokane launched what was supposed to be a one-month trial program to clean up illegal encampments on public property. Seven months later, the interdepartmental team that does the dirty work has responded to 972 reports of illegal camping and removed 152,000 pounds of trash and debris.
With those results in the bag, the city has decided to extend the program, which collects an average of 1,000 pounds of solid waste every day.
Mayor David Condon’s proposed 2020 budget funds the program, and the Spokane City Council will be asked on Monday to approve a $500,000 special budget ordinance to retroactively account for surging costs as the city expanded its cleanup efforts in 2019.
The city had originally budgeted $940,000 for solid waste abatement in 2019, which includes illegal camping cleanup. With the request for an additional $500,000 – about half of which is dedicated to illegal camp enforcement – that figure expanded to $1.44 million.
The city already responded to complaints of public camping, but the revised approach uses a more cohesive, interdepartmental enforcement of city laws by coordinating police officers, code enforcement officers, waste management and social workers into a single response effort. Officials are looking to improve their tactics in the coming year.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” said Jason Ruffing, a code enforcement supervisor.
Traditional assumptions were that camping on public property would decline during the winter. But, during a period of relatively mild weather and a lack of snow, city officials still tracked more than 100 reports of illegal camping in November.
City officials are also working on ways to improve how they respond to reports of camping on different types of property.
While the person filing a report may simply see an encampment as a nuisance, the question of who owns the property has a significant impact on the city’s legal grounds to break up the camp. About 20% of the complaints made to the city are about camps on land owned not by the city but by a railroad company, the state of Washington or some other entity.
“Part of the growing pains and learning process for me has been trying to think of ways to improve how we respond to those different property types, because to the citizen it all looks the same,” Ruffing said.
Cleanup teams had originally been paired with two Spokane Police Department neighborhood resource officers, but that number was quickly increased to three to address safety concerns. In August, a city worker’s foot was stabbed by a nail-studded board left as a booby trap at a homeless camp on South Lindeke Street.
Luis Garcia, another code enforcement supervisor, said responding to encampments faster has reduced the number of unknown hazards city staff are coming across. When possible, employees use pickers to remove solid waste from the site, or even a skid steer if the landscape allows for it.
“We still outfit our staff with the appropriate personal protective gear,” Garcia.
But for the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, does the program mitigate the impact of homelessness on the Spokane community?
“That’s kind of an open-ended answer there,” Ruffing said.
In the immediate-term, a quick response to an illegal camp minimizes its adverse impact on neighboring properties. Officials also note that a faster response means that less solid waste accrues and enters the Spokane River at the site.
“All of those are huge successes and wins for the program,” Ruffing said. “As far as pushing or assisting them out of homelessness, it’s just one piece of the puzzle that’s ongoing that the city is facilitating.”
While some people just relocate their camp to another public space, others take advantage of the information and services the city provides – be it the location of a shelter bed or help obtaining identification.
Bob Peeler, with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, has participated in the process since the beginning. SNAP only approaches campers after the city’s work is done and provides a plethora of services, including everything from a simple welfare check and a pair of socks to assistance in filling out paperwork for housing.
“If they see us working with the police, right or wrong, we lose some credibility and a loss of trust (with the homeless),” Peeler said.
People in camps face a number of barriers to obtaining housing, including lacking government identification and sufficient income to afford rent in a competitive housing market.
“Our clients cannot compete because of their mental history or their circumstances or their income,” Peeler said. “They don’t have 2 and 1/2 times the rent (for a deposit).”
Some aren’t a good fit to stay in an emergency shelter, Peeler noted.
“There are some folks, due to addiction or mental health, who cannot be in shelters or warming centers, because of their social anxiety,” Peeler said.
Those cited for violating the anti-camping laws are referred to Community Court, which aims to connect subjects to social services and avoid jail sentences. They’re often referred by the court to SNAP, which can assess the person’s individual needs.
Officials are quick to point out the successes of the new camp cleanup system, including a reduction in the time elapsed between the initial report and the camp’s dissolution. While it once took the city an average of about 13 days to break up an encampment, that figure dropped to five after the launch of the pilot program.
Prior to the pilot program, various departments responded to encampments in a way that was “kind of split up and a little bit siloed,” Ruffing said. That resulted in longer response times, more solid waste buildup and more pollution.
Officials say the most effective way to report an illegal encampment is through the city’s 311 system. Residents can call or, through a mobile app that launched this year, make a report that includes a photograph and location.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee, said the program has been a success. She noted that when the program started, there had been a backlog of complaints due to the city’s piecemeal enforcement process. Today, there are about 20 open complaints, some of which are on private property.
“Going forward, abating those camps, we’re not going to see those huge numbers. It will be more even,” Kinnear said.
For neighbors who live close to parks, “it’s been something they’re very grateful to have,” Kinnear said of the program.
This year also saw the city increase its enforcement of nuisance recreational vehicles parked on city streets. Though a common complaint in neighborhoods, RV’s parked for several days, weeks or even months on a street side can be a challenge for enforcement personnel.
“We’re going to continue to see that being an issue, and that’s not really specific to Spokane. It’s a nationwide issue that people are dealing with,” Garcia said.