COLVILLE – It’s not just politicians in Spokane who are grappling with policies to deal with rising homelessness.
The city of Colville is preparing a place where homeless people will be allowed to camp so that the city can legally enforce its ordinances against camping on public property and long-term parking, in compliance with several recent court cases.
The “homeless shelter space,” as the city is calling it, will be built on a 1-acre lot south of the wastewater treatment plant on Louis Perras Road in Colville.
Stevens County awarded Colville $125,000 in homeless funds last month to fill the lot with gravel and build a fence around the property.
After hearing from concerned citizens in an open hearing, County Commissioner Greg Young said the plan is worth a try.
“They are doing something. We can see what doing nothing looks like,” Young said.
With a population of 5,000 people, Colville is the county seat and largest town in Stevens County.
“We’re a small town with kind of a big-city feel in some ways up here,” Mayor Jack Smith said.
Homelessness is increasing. “We’re seeing a lot more of the homeless vehicles up here now,” Smith said. “Homeless camping is still a problem, but it’s more of a move-through type thing. It’s really not all that dissimilar to what you would see in a larger city.”
Smith blames the problem on a couple of recent judicial decisions.
In Martin v. Boise in 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that camping in public spaces must be allowed if there are no shelters available. And in Seattle v. Long in 2021, the Washington Supreme Court made a similar ruling for people living in their vehicles, meaning the city could not enforce its 72-hour parking time limit.
The only shelters in Stevens County – a seven-bed men’s shelter and a 12-bed shelter for women and children, operated by Rural Resources Community Action – are full with a waiting list. The American Legion in Colville runs an overnight warming center, but only in winter when temperatures dip below 25 degrees.
According to Colville municipal code modified since those judicial decisions, “a location on city property that provides reasonably similar camping accommodation” counts as an available shelter.
So, the plan is to relocate everyone to the city-owned lot on Louis Perras when it is ready in a couple months.
“If we didn’t have a chance to enforce our law, I wouldn’t even be in favor of this,” Smith said. Yet in doing so it will give homeless people a safer place to stay, he said, with some basic amenities including two portable toilets, a dumpster and fresh water through an existing ground spigot.
Formerly a trailer park, the lot is separated from the rest of town by train tracks, but it is in walking distance to several organizations offering homeless resources.
A chain-link fence will have obscuring material on the south and east sides facing town, while views of the hills and fields on the west side will stay open. The fence will mark the boundaries to prevent the camp from moving into the fields, Smith said.
The Northeast Tri County Health District will provide the dumpster and portable toilets through a Washington Department of Ecology solid waste grant.
“Those basic services are really to help prevent further health issues down the line, like human waste buildup,” said Matt Schanz, administrator of the health district.
An unofficial homeless encampment of about a dozen tents or vehicles and 20 occupants already exists on another city-owned lot north of town at the end of North Railroad Street. Occupants moved there during last winter from a smaller city-owned lot down the street.
Residents of this encampment had varying degrees of knowledge about the new camp, held open minds about it and plan to move there willingly.
“As long as there’s enough room for all of us,” said Barbara Barbee, a 59-year-old double amputee with limited mobility. “We’re getting bigger.”
“I’m excited about it,” said Beverley Arbuckle, who has been homeless since 2015 when her adult son died. “It’s somewhere to go where we’ll be accepted.”
Arbuckle looks forward to having access to fresh water and a consistent place to stay, knowing she won’t be kicked out. Her goal is to find permanent housing, perhaps starting with a trailer and renting a lot. The new camp could give her a place to park it until she is ready.
“It’s not like we all just lay around all day,” she said. “There’s not one person I know that isn’t out there trying to better their lives that’s in this camp.”
The city uses the North Railroad lot for dumping snow in the winter. Smith said the city prefers the Louis Perras site because it is more developed, closer to town and easier to keep an eye on.
Volunteers will help run the site with a check-in process, and police will make routine checks each day, Smith said.
There are many more homeless individuals clustered throughout town besides the group on North Railroad, however. These are distinct groups that might not get along if they are all forced together in a small space, said Teresa Lang, director of Hope Street, a daytime “rest stop” that provides laundry, showers and access to other services.
An annual point-in-time count conducted by Rural Resources and reported to the state Department of Commerce found 47 homeless people living in Stevens County in February. The count included homeless people living in emergency shelters or in hotels with emergency vouchers.
There are likely more than 47 homeless people in the county, since that figure only includes people they were able to locate, said Ryan Berendsen, housing director for Rural Resources.
Barry Bacon, founder of Hope Street, called the number “crazy low.”
Hope Street has served over 250 homeless individuals since it began in 2015 and has placed over 50 in housing over that time, he said.
They keep their own list of people they know of in the various camps. “We know that there are well over 50 within Colville alone, that we’ve identified,” Bacon said. Because of such an undercount, he is concerned the city lot will be much too small to accommodate everyone.
Smith estimates the lot can accommodate about 25 vehicles, but he could not give a number on how many people.
Bacon called the project an “ill-devised scheme” to get around Martin v. Boise. “What it comes down to is what is the definition of a shelter? Is a shelter a place where you put a port-a-potty and a garbage dumpster in an open field? Apparently, according to the city leadership, they think that that constitutes a shelter.”
Bacon is also concerned about punishment of those who are not willing to move to the lot. Violation of the ordinance is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or imprisonment up to 90 days.
“We will support this idea, but not because we think it’s a good idea,” Bacon said. “This is a boneheaded idea, but we will support it and we will serve people who are there because these are the people who we serve.”
“I understand why this is needed,” Berendsen said, “but I think it’s a Band-Aid for the real problem of homelessness.” He sees permanent supportive housing as the real solution. This kind of housing continues to provide services and resources, rather than simply providing housing without any other form of support.
“When people have a sense of permanency, when they have their own place, it changes the level anxiety and it makes them feel like they belong, like they’re part of the community,” he said. “They can invest and they can take care of their place.”
Both Rural Resources and Hope Street are working on developing this kind of housing. Bacon says local leadership has resisted these developments.
When asked if he sees this project as permanent or temporary, Mayor Smith said, “We are going to commit to this and try to make it work.”
Still, he acknowledges it is not an ultimate solution.
“This is really a stopgap,” Smith said. “I have no magic wand or no crystal ball for the future. We’re hoping this will give us a chance to get the situation under control and hopefully we can save some people.”
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