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

City of Spokane puts WSDOT on notice over cooling tent at Camp Hope homeless encampment

The cooling tent erected in Camp Hope is seen in July. Since the photo was taken, the tent has become a hub for resources for those living at the camp. After several months, the nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands and the state received a permit last week to allow the tent to legally stay up, but the city now says it intends to reevaluate that decision at the end of this month due to concerns about snow.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane has sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation seeking action over a cooling tent built on WSDOT property for the Camp Hope homeless population.

The tent has fans and misters in an attempt to keep the hundreds living at the homeless encampment along Second Avenue and Ray Street, known as Camp Hope, cooler during this week’s heat wave. And while WSDOT is not officially allowing the tent to exist, state officials haven’t planned on stopping it to date – mirroring its overall approach with Camp Hope itself.

In a letter dated Wednesday to WSDOT, however, Spokane Fire Department Fire Marshal Lance Dahl identified the cooling tent as an “illegally constructed temporary structure” and requested its removal.

Failure to remove the tent by 9 a.m. Monday could result in a civil infraction of $536 for every day the structure remains in place after the deadline, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

In an interview Thursday, Dahl said the notice was sent as a request for WSDOT to take responsibility for the situation – either by officially allowing the tent to exist, so the city can issue operators a permit, or to trespass the tent off the property.

“And how we go forward from that is based on what WSDOT’s stance is,” he said.

The cooling tent itself is owned and run without local or state funding by the nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands, which is overseeing the hundreds living in Camp Hope. The Empire Health Foundation has agreed to fund Jewels with approximately $21,000 for the tent’s staffing and operational costs into next week.

Temporary structures – specifically, tents with sides of at least 400 square feet – need a permit from the city’s fire marshal in order to operate in accordance to fire code, Dahl said. The cooling tent is 1,950 square feet.

City spokesperson Kirstin Davis said the city, by law, cannot issue a permit without WSDOT’s authorization of the cooling tent activities, however.

“We have requests all the time for all sorts of tents to be put up, so it’s important to be consistent and follow the laws,” Davis said. “The laws are in place for the safety and health of people. We’re trying to balance that in this difficult situation.”

WSDOT does not have a response at this time to the fire marshal’s letter, according to a spokesman.

The letter says WSDOT “may” face the $536 per day infraction if the tent is not removed by Monday morning.

“’May’ is always a hedge,” Dahl said. “If we’re going to issue tickets upon the resumption or upon the nonresult or clarification of an ask when we are writing notice of violation, we would use a term like ‘will.’ ‘May’ implies if we can’t come to a resolution that’s agreeable to the city, the state fire code, the property owner and Jewels Helping Hands, the possibility of writing a civil infraction is always there.”

Discussions among city leaders have included ideas about moving the cooling tent somewhere else, such as onto a city right of way or into part of the parking lot at the Hive library, as they consider all options, Davis said.

“In light of the heat wave and obviously the purpose of the tent, the notice of violation to WSDOT and requesting that it be disassembled Monday when temperatures are expected to return to normal, that felt like middle ground to handle that as best we could,” she said.

With highs of 100 degrees or above expected through the weekend, the National Weather Service has declared an excessive heat warning in effect through 11 p.m. Sunday. Temperatures are forecast to drop into the low- to mid-90s on Monday before falling into the 80s for the rest of the week.

The city administration “absolutely” would prefer Camp Hope residents use the city libraries as cooling centers, Davis said. The city has expanded the hours at the Central, Shadle Park, Liberty Park and Hillyard libraries to serve as cooling centers through Sunday.

The closest to Camp Hope, Liberty Park, is about a mile away.

Council President Breean Beggs said it’s unrealistic to expect those at the encampment to use the libraries, as many are unwilling to leave the immediate area of the encampment since they do not have any secure place to store their possessions.

“I don’t know why the city is hostile to a cooling tent given that there are 600 very vulnerable people right there,” Beggs said. “Those people are not going to the library. I don’t think the patrons of the library would be excited if 600 people descended upon them from Camp Hope.”

WSDOT confirmed the Spokane City Council has discussed a possible lease agreement to resolve the situation. Beggs said this could involve either the city or Empire Health leasing the property to “legitimize” the cooling tent for WSDOT’s purposes.

Action could possibly take place on a lease at Monday’s City Council meeting, while Beggs said Empire Health has requested additional funding for staffing and security to keep the cooling center operational for another “few weeks,” estimating the cost at $1,800 per day.