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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Threatening legal action against the state, city of Spokane sets deadline for removal of Camp Hope homeless encampment

A group of people helps push a dumpster back into place at Camp Hope, a homeless encampment in Spokane on July 14.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward is threatening to declare the state of Washington in violation of nuisance property rules if it doesn’t remove the Camp Hope homeless encampment near Interstate 90 by mid-October.

The city of Spokane sent a letter to Washington officials Thursday threatening legal action through a chronic nuisance process. According to the letter, the city is expecting the people camped on the state-owned property at Second Avenue and Ray Street to be moved starting no later than Sept. 23 and be gone by Oct. 14, with measures “to prevent backfilling of vacant property or repopulation of the property.”

Camp Hope ultimately emerged on the property owned by the state Department of Transportation in December after the city disbanded a protest outside Spokane City Hall that took place in demand of more shelter for homeless people. The transportation department has not taken action on Camp Hope to date due to the city’s lack of shelter availability.

The city has threatened to seek reimbursement for the more than $350,000 spent by the city on activities since March 1 related to the encampment, such as police enforcement and waste removal, “if an abatement agreement is not immediately established,” according to the letter.

The letter is the latest show of homeless enforcement by the city administration in the days since Tuesday’s opening of the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, the city’s new homeless shelter on East Trent Avenue. On Wednesday, the city resumed the ban on sitting and laying on public sidewalks in the downtown core.

The city’s letter, signed by City Administrator Johnnie Perkins, was sent to Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar and representatives with the state Office of the Attorney General and Washington State Patrol. The Spokesman-Review obtained a copy of the letter through a public records request.

A state transportation spokesperson in an email said the department is considering the city’s letter and will formally respond at a later date.

Dan Jackson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office has no authority to “direct the Washington State Patrol,” as written in the city’s letter, to perform any action, let alone direct state police to conduct “civil standbys” for the state transportation department. He deferred further comment to Washington State Patrol and the state transportation departmen.

The city administration in the letter asked for the state to fence off and secure the uninhabited properties adjacent to the encampment.

The city has threatened to take legal action by Sept. 23 if the Department of Transportation is “unable or unwilling” to secure the properties and they “fall into disrepair and present a nuisance,” according to the letter.

“The corrective action would be one of abatement of eviction of the persons responsible for the nuisance activity,” the letter reads. “If no response is received by the City of Spokane, we reserve the right to abate the nuisance property and charge the Department of Transportation for all costs and fees associated with these activities including all wages paid to City employees.”

The city also requested Washington State Patrol presence during the overnight hours, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., to supplement the Spokane Police Department’s daytime presence.

Regarding the abatement agreement sought by the city, the letter also called for the state to fulfill promises allegedly made during a June 2 meeting between city officials, Washington State Patrol Assistant Chief Daniel Atchison, State Deputy Transportation Secretary Amy Scarton, and Tedd Kelleher of the Department of Commerce.

According to the letter, state police indicated troopers would “take the lead on moving individuals off the property,” while the state transportation department “indicated its desire to clean and clear the property and secure it from a reoccurrence.” Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce on June 2 reportedly indicated funding availability to support relocating the people living at the camp.

The commerce department has offered $24.3 million toward efforts to relocate people from Camp Hope to better living situations.

The city’s letter pointed to the Trent Resource and Assistance Center. And while Spokane officials have requested a share of the $24.3 million to support renovations and operational costs, the state has not yet committed any funding toward the Trent center.

Perkins prefaced the city’s requests by explaining that conditions stemming from the camp – such as illegal camping, code violations, health concerns and hundreds of neighborhood complaints over the past 10 months – have “reached a point that requires an immediate plan and course of action.”

The Spokane Police Department previously issued a notice in February to the state transportation department to address nuisance violations. Then in July, when a cooling tent was built on a property adjacent to the encampment, the city’s fire marshal issued a notice requesting the tent’s removal.

‘Completely and totally unrealistic’

The letter was sent the same day the nonprofit Empire Health Foundation hosted a meeting with service providers who work with homeless populations on the services needed to get Camp Hope residents better housing.

The Department of Commerce is contracting with Empire Health to lead this effort with part of the $24.3 million available through the department’s Rights of Way initiative.

Zeke Smith, president of the Empire Health Foundation, said the foundation is working with Jewels Helping Hands, Revive Counseling Spokane and Compassionate Addiction Treatment on a “peer navigation model” to support Camp Hope residents. The model would allow those agencies to hire people with lived experience of homelessness to guide and “walk alongside” camp residents through the process, from outreach and intake to related human services.

Empire has been in regular communication with the state transportation and commerce departments and Washington State Patrol about Camp Hope, Smith said.

“It was a really great meeting last night,” Smith said. “I think service providers had been wondering what’s going on here, and I felt like we had some answers to those questions.”

Smith said he found the city’s letter disappointing, saying that it “tells us that the city is really not willing to work toward how we address these people’s needs in a meaningful and an intentional way.”

“Our goal together should be how are we actually stabilize them and, frankly, I just don’t think that that’s what this type of behavior begets,” he said.

Smith recognizes the urgency with the need to move people out of the encampment, saying nobody believes Camp Hope is a permanent solution – especially as colder weather approaches. Given the lack of available housing regionwide, however, Smith said “a longer term process” is needed to support those residents.

Smith also said he is concerned with how the city’s letter and stance could create more anxiety for the people living in Camp Hope. Even with the Trent center coming online, Smith said there isn’t enough space there to house everybody in Camp Hope.

“I’d love to say that we could get everybody into safer and better housing options by Oct. 14. Wouldn’t that be great? I think that’s an awesome goal,” he said. “It is also completely and totally unrealistic. We’re just trying to work in the realm of reality here.”

Council members sound off

Among those to attend the Empire Health meeting Thursday was Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who – in light of that meeting – described the city’s letter as frustrating and unprofessional.

“I was just shocked because this isn’t going to be done in a day or two. It’s going to take a little bit of time and some coordination,” she said. “To know that now there’s this deadline pending that the Department of Transportation has to get these people off, it’s just very disappointing.”

Stratton said while the Trent shelter affords Woodward and the city administration more ability to enforce things like sit-lie and unauthorized camping ordinances, the resulting citations add hurdles to those people trying to get affordable housing.

“We’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to help people get affordable housing knowing that if they’re arrested or cited, that is going to limit what they can do,” she said. “To me, it’s a little inhumane.”

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart said he was grateful the city put the state on notice, adding it should have happened months ago.

Cathcart said he believes the timeline as “entirely reasonable,” citing the coming fall and winter season.

“And of course, we want to do that in a way that puts people either in a shelter or in some kind of housing option,” he said. “The Department of Commerce has opted to take the lead on making all of those decisions. It’s kind of on them.

“Ultimately, this is a state camp. This isn’t a city camp,” he continued. “It’s state-owned land, and the state is the one that has told us since Day One we’re not allowed really to do anything with the site. I would say WSDOT has not acted in good faith or as a good partner since this began.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said Friday he had strongly advised against sending such a letter when he first heard about rumblings of it a few weeks ago given how the state Department of Commerce has offered the city millions to help address the encampment.

His opinion hasn’t changed.

“Threatening the state with fines and this kind of nastiness and noncollaboration when you’re trying to get them to donate money to you, as a city, for this purpose seems very ill-advised,” he said.

Hoping now the letter hasn’t “completely poisoned the well” between the city and state, Beggs said he feels the city administration’s “saber-rattling” with the state – not just with this letter, but in previous communications – has made it more difficult to negotiate for more funds that can solve the problems at Camp Hope.

“The administration has resisted engaging in Camp Hope, and if they had, I believe it would never have gotten to this point,” he said. “If they do engage, we have a much easier chance to get the people there rehoused in better conditions, and Camp Hope as it exists today could go away.”