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Standing by Catholic Charities’ plans for Sunset Highway hotel, Department of Commerce pushes back against Woodward, Spokane County

Sept. 2, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 2, 2022 at 8:55 p.m.

Joseph Montes, who lives near the proposed homeless shelter atop Sunset Hill, voices his frustration about Catholic Charities’ plan to transform the Quality Inn into emergency supportive housing on Tuesday evening during an over-capacity community meeting at the Hampton Inn.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Joseph Montes, who lives near the proposed homeless shelter atop Sunset Hill, voices his frustration about Catholic Charities’ plan to transform the Quality Inn into emergency supportive housing on Tuesday evening during an over-capacity community meeting at the Hampton Inn. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The state Department of Commerce still plans to fund a Catholic Charities Eastern Washington project to purchase and transform the Quality Inn on Sunset Highway into an emergency supportive housing facility.

Commerce officials indicated their commitment in a statement Thursday night, just days after a community meeting between Catholic Charities, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and more than 100 Sunset Highway-area neighbors angered by the Quality Inn project and other homeless housing initiatives that could impact their neighborhoods.

The resulting controversy has prompted a war of words between the state and local governments over the handling of the relocation effort for people staying at the Camp Hope homeless encampment.

“Land use decisions are often contentious because of the difficulty balancing competing goals and interests. In general Commerce defers to local processes to determine if a project is appropriately sited,” Commerce spokesperson Penny Thomas said in a statement. “Although we are moving forward with funding this urgently needed housing, the Department recognizes the need to promote a fair distribution of well-managed housing as we make future funding decisions.”

The funding for Catholic Charities’ “Catalyst Project” is available through the Department of Commerce’s Rights of Way initiative. The state has offered Spokane up to $24.3 million in Rights of Way funding to help move the hundreds living in the homeless encampment on state Department of Transportation land near Interstate 90 into better living situations.

Thomas said members of the West Hills Neighborhood, which encompasses the Quality Inn, “have a legitimate point that their neighborhood should not have a disproportionate share of facilities serving people formerly homeless.”

“Commerce would be responsive to additional housing solutions in other parts of the county proposed by local governments in Spokane County,” she said.

The Catalyst Project was one of several proposals submitted to Commerce in July as part of a plan spearheaded by the city with input from other public and private entities. Commerce announced funding for the Catalyst Project a day after the plan was submitted.

Another project that could affect the West Hills Neighborhood is a concept from the Empire Health Foundation to build 75 tiny-homelike units for 125 residents on 3 acres of foundation-owned land along Sunset Highway.

That proposal is still up in the air, however, as “more detail and community conversation is needed before we can move forward with funding most of what was proposed” in the city’s Rights of Way plan, Thomas said.

To that end, Commerce is working with Empire Health not only to coordinate efforts to assess what services are needed for Camp Hope’s residents, but to convene local governments, service providers and other stakeholders to “seek broader agreement and further refine details regarding the housing and services that will bring the people now living at Camp Hope inside,” she said.

With the Rights of Way program, Commerce relied on local jurisdictions to properly vet elements of their proposals before they are submitted.

Commerce officials reiterated that sentiment Thursday, pushing back against Woodward on the notion that regional officials did not have enough time to solicit community input on a Rights of Way plan.

The Department of Commerce also claimed Spokane County officials have been hands-off with the planning process.

Thomas said Spokane’s homelessness problem “has been obvious for some time,” citing how the total number of homeless people counted in Spokane County during a recent census was up 13% from two years ago.

“It is notable that Spokane County has declined to participate in this process,” Thomas said.

County officials believe Commerce’s comment is a mischaracterization.

The city’s Rights of Way funding application was reportedly prepared with input from public and private partners, including the city, Spokane County, Spokane Valley and the Spokane Housing Authority.

County spokesman Jared Webley said county representatives attended five planning meetings and took part in numerous emails and phone calls between late June up until the application was submitted in July.

“The DOC’s accelerated grant application timeline consumed much of our staff’s time during the 30-day application window,” Webley said.

Spokane County commissioners also sent two letters to Commerce, including one with Spokane’s Rights of Way funding application from July.

With that letter, county commissioners – acknowledging the city of Spokane as the lead agency with any Rights of Way funding – outlined several concerns with the proposal process, such as the timeline and the prospect of future costs falling on local municipalities.

To Commerce, however, the county’s letter “does not read as an endorsement of the submitted plan and we have not received any alternate plans from them,” Thomas said.

On the city’s end, Woodward on Tuesday said neighbors should direct their ire at the Department of Commerce, describing the Rights of Way planning as “a sloppy, messy deal.”

Her assertions were based on how Commerce issued a callout for Rights of Way proposals in June with what started as a 10-day submission deadline. It was eventually extended to 30 days.

Woodward said she was asked by West Hills neighbors to invite Department of Commerce representatives to a follow-up meeting with the neighborhood.

“We look forward to answers from Commerce regarding the request from the neighborhood to meet and to our plan to connect people to much-needed services that will improve their current situation before too much more time slips away,” she said in a statement Friday.

Compounding the situation was how Catholic Charities agreed with the Quality Inn’s owner to withhold the location until the project went public, out of concern for what news of a sale could have on hotel operations.

The Department of Commerce challenged Woodward’s claim about the timeline, saying the mayor and City Council President Breean Beggs were made aware of the Rights of Way funding May 24.

“With these resources in mind, we urged them to meet and discuss their plan to help the unsheltered people of Camp Hope,” Thomas said. “Although our official Request for Proposal was issued in mid-June, and came with a 30-day deadline, our efforts to solicit a plan from the city had been going on for months.”

Commerce and WSDOT, which issued its own statement Friday, each pointed to how Camp Hope came together in the first place: as a protest outside of City Hall that ultimately relocated to the WSDOT site.

WSDOT Communications Director Kris Rietmann Abrudan said the department is asking the city and county to join the Rights of Way initiative “in a meaningful, productive way,” citing partnerships in Thurston and King counties as examples.

“As a DOT, we have experience working with local jurisdictions to address the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness on public lands around the state,” Abrudan said in the statement. “We know that we can only find meaningful solutions through strong cooperation with willing partners. However, the city has yet to agree with partners on a plan to meet the housing needs at Camp Hope.”

Beggs was unavailable for comment.

Woodward said in a statement Friday “misstatements from Olympia about Spokane’s shelter system distract from the work that needs to get done quickly to move people from an unhealthy environment exposed to the elements into a sheltered opportunity.”

“The plan is focused on the health and safety of those living in the encampment on state property and those impacted by the activity the state has allowed for the past several months,” Woodward said. “The ideas are not all perfect, but they consider all perspectives and what is best for the community, including the lives of those in the camp.

“We are committed to doing what is best to get individuals connected to the services and supports they need to improve their current living conditions and take the next steps in their journeys,” she continued. “It is a journey and there are as many individual solutions as there are stories.”

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