In a scathing letter, state agencies on Tuesday harshly criticized Spokane’s homelessness response and accused the city of caring more about its public image than helping people living at Camp Hope.
“The city – starting with the Mayor – is more preoccupied by optics than action,” state officials wrote. “Continuing to blame the state does not actually make that narrative true no matter how many times you repeat it to the press and elsewhere.”
The letter, penned by the heads of the Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce and State Patrol, was a response to a Sept. 8 letter from Spokane that threatened to declare Camp Hope a nuisance property. Spokane can sue property owners in Spokane County Superior Court if they violate the city’s nuisance laws and, with a judge’s approval, force them into compliance. City nuisance laws are often used to prevent property owners from accumulating trash and other materials.
Camp Hope is a homeless encampment on Department of Transportation land located off of Interstate 90 in east Spokane. It formed in December after the city broke up a group of protesters outside City Hall who were demanding more shelter space for homeless people. The Department of Transportation hasn’t attempted to disband Camp Hope because Spokane lacks the shelter space to house the more than 600 people staying there.
In its Sept. 8 letter, Spokane threatened to seek $350,000 to recoup costs spent by the city at Camp Hope since March 1 for activities such as police enforcement and waste removal.
The city’s letter also said it expected people living at Camp Hope to start leaving by Friday and vacate the site entirely by Oct. 14.
Based on its response, the state appears unlikely to comply with that deadline.
“These deadlines are arbitrary and completely misleading,” state officials wrote. “Not only are these deadlines completely unrealistic given the scope of this issue and current lack of housing capacity, but without time to provide adequate outreach, it sets up those living within the camp for failure.”
The letter, signed by State Patrol Chief John Batiste, Department of Commerce Secretary Lisa Brown and Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, also rebukes the city for failing to do its part to help house the homeless.
“You threaten fines and legal action on multiple fronts for a problem created by both your actions and your continued inaction,” the letter says.
State officials also noted that the state has made $24 million available to Spokane to provide housing for Camp Hope residents. Any costs associated with removing nuisances – trash and other detritus – from Camp Hope will represent a mere fraction of that amount, the letter notes.
“The state will not entertain reimbursement discussions,” the letter says.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward pushed back against the assertion that her administration has done little to address homelessness and noted the city has established four new shelters during her two and a half years in office.
“To make an accusation that the city’s not doing anything is completely inaccurate,” she said.
Woodward said she believes the state needs to act faster to pay for surveys of individuals staying at Camp Hope. Those surveys will assess the residents’ needs, which will allow the city to craft housing plans for them, she said.
The mayor also stressed that winter is approaching and people must be moved away from Camp Hope quickly.
“We also need to create an expectation for individuals in the encampment that at some point they’re not going to be able to camp there any longer,” Woodward said.
The three state agencies said that finding housing for people at Camp Hope will take months, not weeks.
Unrelated to the letter from the state, the Spokane Fire Department on Tuesday issued a notice demanding the homeless services provider Jewels Helping Hands take down the tent at Camp Hope that it uses as a resource access hub.
The fire department has said that Jewels Helping Hands did not receive a permit to construct the tent.
If Jewels Helping Hands fails by Thursday to remove the tent, which served as a cooling center during the heat of summer, the city will begin assessing a fine of $536 per day for every day it continues to be occupied.
Jewels Helping Hands Executive Director Julie Garcia said she has no intention of taking the tent down.
“I’m unwilling to put the progress that we’ve all created down because of money,” Garcia said. “We’ll figure out the money part, but those 600 peoples’ lives and their experience exiting homelessness matters. These people can no longer be pawns in this political garbage game.”
The city of Spokane and state agencies will meet Wednesday to discuss their Camp Hope response.
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