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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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God Squad helps Airway Heights neighbors remove junk

Members of the God Squad, a group of community volunteers, many of them teenagers, gathers to pray after an hour of hard work, Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Airway Heights. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the God Squad, a group of community volunteers, many of them teenagers, gathers to pray after an hour of hard work, Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Airway Heights. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

April Guyer struggled to remove junk from the yard of her mobile home in Airway Heights.

Her sister had left furniture, household items and books at her place. Later, the piles got scattered outside, then her sister never collected them. Guyer, who has health issues, lives on a limited income and did not have access to a truck to haul stuff off.

This year, the situation worsened as she faced city fines from code violations for longtime failure to remove the junk. Then Guyer heard about the God Squad. Last week, the volunteer group brought 17 members to help her and another resident gather unwanted items and take it all to the dump.

“I’ve had some bad luck in the past,” Guyer said. “I’ve not had much help at all, so when they offered to help, I jumped on it.

“They did so much for me, I can’t even express it. It means so much to me because for one, I don’t get a fine – the city was planning to fine me for all the garbage – and two, it just looks better. I’m ecstatic. It’s clean. It’s been dirty for so long.”

This recent work for Guyer and other residents stems from a new, informal partnership between Airway Heights code enforcement officer Kristina Blake and the 4-year-old God Squad.

Chris Bovey, a group leader, said the nondenominational organization formerly was an outreach of the Airway Heights Baptist Church youth ministry. About two years ago, it became an independent group drawing volunteers from different churches to do occasional yard cleanup or lawn work for West Plains residents unable to tackle those chores.

Many teens still work in the group, and the God Squad has organized three work sessions this summer. They’ll gather one evening a month to help neighbors asking for support, Bovey said.

“This year, we teamed up with the city of Airway Height’s code enforcement officer, and she has been identifying people who are in need who are unable to take care of their houses and lawns, who have just an excess of garbage,” he said.

“We just want to take one night, once a month, throughout the summer to help out. Depending on how many volunteers we get, that depends on how many people we can help.”

Bovey, a Spokane artist, and his wife, Liz, started helping with God Squad when it was still affiliated with the Baptist church.

“My wife and I left there, but we still wanted to help the community and we still wanted to do God Squad,” Bovey said. “We try to get volunteers from all over the community.”

The why is simple, he said. “It has to be to give God glory. We just want to give back because he’s given us so much that we want to help those who are unable to help themselves.”

The group doesn’t accept donations, and before this year, members covered costs for dump fees. When the group showed up this past April at some mobile home sites for community cleanup days, Blake noticed them.

Blake said she has worked for about a year with residents in those areas because of code violations for yard debris and junk that hold potential hazards of fire and pests. She learned the city had funds from a landfill grant to help cover the recent cleanups at two separate mobile home parks.

“A lot of people there are really low income and don’t have a way to transport a lot of garbage and things on their property,” Blake said. “We brought in three dumpsters over the course of two days. We filled them all to capacity.”

Sometime during that cleanup effort, Blake met the God Squad.

“I’m not sure now how we connected, but one way or another they found me or I found them,” Blake said. “That must have been an answer to our prayer, because the community really did need somebody to step up and help.”

Blake said despite repeated attempts to work with residents over several months, and with many wanting to comply, she was ready to cite a few of them over safety issues that couldn’t be ignored. She credits the grant money and help from the God Squad as bridging that gap.

“A lot of these people inherited a lot of junk on their properties when they moved into the mobile homes,” Blake said.

“I’ve got so many people who just don’t have the resources, or they are physically limited, who wanted their property cleaned up, to get into compliance. I wanted to help them. We were missing that link, so the God Squad was our link between the residents and code enforcement being able to help each other.”

As she continues to work with people, Blake now asks residents if they would like help from the God Squad during their volunteer nights. If residents say yes, she connects the two parties.

The city has remaining grant money for landfill vouchers it’s giving to the God Squad to cover dump fees, she said. During cleanup days, many residents worked to fill trash bags and remove items.

Blake added that fines are a last resort. She’s aware that often the residents have multiple obstacles. She gave an example of an elderly couple on oxygen tanks and using walkers.

“They’re out in their yard trying to clean up, bless their hearts, because they bought the mobile home in the winter. When the snow melted, they had a whole junk pile they didn’t know was there,” she said.

“I know the God Squad has gone there a couple of times and so have volunteers in the neighborhood.”

Blake said in rare cases, after ongoing attempts to resolve issues, lack of compliance can result in a $250 fine the first day for illegal dumping or littering. For a second day, the fine can be $500 as a nuisance, and after that, $1,000 a day.

One recent fine situation neared $5,000, before it reached the court. The city can push for a nuisance abatement, and go in with a crew to do cleanup, which is billed to the property owner. If that bill isn’t paid, a lien can be placed against the property.

“It’s a very long process and it’s not something we do easily or quickly,” Blake said. “We really try to avoid citing.”

Waiting for work to be done on her mobile home, Guyer and her family a month ago moved temporarily to a friend’s trailer across the road.

The recent cleanup removed junk from both properties, she said.

“My sister left all her garbage in my yard, and at my other trailer, I inherited the prior owner’s stuff,” she said. “It took me three days to get half of it all bagged up, and in a hour and half, they had a big pile gone.”

“If it wasn’t for them, I think it would have taken me another year because of my health issues. They do a lot of good work. I’m just thankful for them.”

She added that the city started cracking down this past winter, “but I’m glad. The trailer park looks so much better.”

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