The Spokane Police Department’s warning that a homeless encampment along Interstate 90 was violating the city’s nuisance law is receiving legal pushback from the Washington Department of Transportation, which owns the property.
Furthermore, the city is undermining efforts to resolve the housing issues for those living at Camp Hope, the Transportation Department wrote Friday in an eight-page letter to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl.
Transportation Secretary Roger Millar threatened legal action against the city if it did not rescind its notice that the encampment was a “chronic nuisance” under the city code. Millar accused the city of creating the conditions at the encampment because of a failure to provide housing and questioned whether the city could force those living at the encampment off the land based on the current number of beds available for those living on the streets.
“The City’s counterproductive approach of seeking to shift blame onto WSDOT rather than working collaboratively ignores not only the complex challenges at Camp Hope but is constitutionally suspect,” Millar writes in the letter, which was released to media on Friday afternoon. The Transportation Department said in a statement that they would not be giving interviews and “the letter speaks for itself.”
Brian Coddington, communications director for the city, said the administration had received the letter and was reviewing it Friday afternoon. The goal, he said, continues to be a resolution that both state and local officials can agree to on the continued trespassing.
“There’s still considerable discussion about the timeline,” Coddington said. “We’re trying to figure out a compromise to the state’s preferred timeline.”
The response was prompted by an Oct. 5 letter from Meidl to the Transportation Department, regarding the land where roughly 440 people are living that has become a flashpoint of the debate around homeless policy and housing in the city. The notice of a chronic nuisance also included a proposed agreement that would call for the camp to be vacated by Oct. 31 and all personal belongings cleared from the site by Nov. 15, in accordance with the city’s policy on handling properties where criminal activity is taking place in violation of public health and safety.
In the letter, Millar says WSDOT has no ability to challenge the city’s “arbitrary and significantly truncated timeline” for clearing the camp under the city’s nuisance property abatement process, infringing on the agency’s due process rights. The letter raises a half dozen legal defenses to the nuisance notice, including that the city itself is responsible for the actions that led to the trespass, that it has immunity from the city’s civil penalty statute as a state agency and that state law and appropriations give the agency authority to assist people living there in finding housing.
The Transportation Department also alleges that the city cannot force people off the property if they don’t have adequate shelter space to house them, citing the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. Boise. The judges in that case found an Eighth Amendment protection for people living in public areas from being removed if there isn’t an alternative location available.
“Clarity and confirmation surrounding how many beds and where those beds are available is key to solving this complex issue – a discussion that should have taken place long ago but for the city’s resistance to coordinating efforts,” Millar writes in the letter.
Coddington said the city stands by its assertion that there is adequate space available for those continuing to live on WSDOT property. Meidl’s letter identified space at four locations totaling 417 beds with an additional space for up to 567. WSDOT said in its letter it wasn’t certain all of those beds are “currently available.”
Coddington said the city would prefer to perform the same transitional functions the state is providing at Camp Hope at their indoor shelter on Trent Avenue.
“We have great concern about the winter coming,” Coddington said.
The operator of that shelter, the Guardians Foundation, is the subject of a criminal investigation after a now-former employee came forward and admitted to embezzling funds.
Coddington said discussions between the state and local officials, which have been occurring weekly, have been productive.
“I think the state and the city are clear on each other’s position,” he said.
In his letter, Millar requests that the city rescind the nuisance notice and WSDOT “reserves its right to consider legal action should the city fail to do so.”
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