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Spokane County plans to address camping on its campus

UPDATED: Fri., May 21, 2021

A photo of the Spokane County Courthouse and County Jail taken in 2019. Camping on the county campus has increased in the last year, one commissioner says, and the county is considering ways to address the issue.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A photo of the Spokane County Courthouse and County Jail taken in 2019. Camping on the county campus has increased in the last year, one commissioner says, and the county is considering ways to address the issue.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County is weighing options to prevent people from camping on the county campus.

Camping hasn’t always been a big issue on the county grounds. County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he began noticing campers in 2018, and the problem has only grown since then.

There’s been a big uptick in campers during the past eight to 12 months, Kerns said.

County officials said camping is a public health and safety issue.

“To be perfectly honest, the number of incidents over the last several years have increased quite a bit,” Spokane County Security Coordinator Ray Bush said. “We just started to run into almost daily issues of having to clean up feces and urine.”

Bush also noted that campers have occasionally left behind weapons and frequently leave trash and syringes.

The county commissioned a pilot program to collect data and test methods for removing campers. The program ran from Feb. 9 to March 23. Bush and Steve Bartel, the county’s risk management director, shared the results of the program with the commissioners in late April.

There were a few facets to the program. The county had Phoenix Protective Corporation, a private security contractor, run morning and evening patrols of the campus, ensure doors were locked after hours and offer escorts from campus buildings to individuals’ cars.

Phoenix also collected data on the number of campers, and when they found campers, asked them to leave.

The security guards didn’t have any authority to kick people off the campus, but the county wanted to assess if merely asking people to leave would be effective.

During the six weeks, contractors recorded 27 camping incidents. When Phoenix staff asked campers in the morning to leave campus, they mostly complied.

At night, campers refused to leave, Bush said.

“I think at night the folks fully understood that none of the offices were open, so they weren’t impeding on employee traffic or customer traffic,” Bush said.

The county campus doesn’t have any “no loitering” signs, Bush said.

“We didn’t have anything we could point to and say, ‘You’re in violation,’ ” he said.

Spokane County already has a no camping ordinance for unincorporated areas, but its campus is within City of Spokane limits. Spokane has one for public property.

But the county has been unsure, from a legal standpoint, if it can enforce Spokane’s no-camping ordinance on the county campus.

Bush said the county prosecutor’s office is trying to figure out if the county can enforce the city’s no camping ordinance. He said the county could soon go that route.

If the city ordinance doesn’t give the county more authority to expel campers from the campus, Bush said the county might create a no-sit-and-lie ordinance that clearly applies.

During the April county commission meeting, Bush and Bartel also discussed several options for ramping up security to deal with campers.

The county could buy additional security cameras and pay a private contractor to monitor them. It could pay for private security guards to patrol the campus. Or it could hire an additional county security employee – Bush is the only one.

Kerns and commissioner Al French both pushed back against the idea of spending tens of thousands of dollars for additional security measures just to address camping.

“There are other things that we can do to discourage the activity other than trying to provide security guys and gals that are going to be babysitters,” French said during the meeting.

Bush said he feels compassion for people experiencing homelessness, but camping presents a real security problem.

“We’re just trying to make the campus safe and secure for all our customers and employees,” he said.

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