In Tuesday afternoon’s heat, Spokane city workers following a garbage truck picked up debris from a camp along the river near East Trent Avenue and North Waterworks Street, where a few dozen people lived until told to leave earlier in the day. Several Spokane police officers watched from patrol cars after helping with the cleanup.
For years, the area has been a place where homeless people camp. In January, two people staying in the area were hospitalized after a propane explosion in their tent.
Crews have cleaned out the area multiple times, and this week it was among a number of area encampments removed after the Spokane City Council voted to ban camping along the Spokane River and Latah Creek.
While the illegal camping ordinance will give the city new avenues to cite people, it has yet to change the city’s practice of cleaning up encampments, and the removal of the prominent camp along the river near Trent and Waterworks this week was unrelated to the new law, said Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the Community and Economic Development department.
New ordinances take 30 to 45 days to be enforced. During that time, crews are trained and public notices are posted informing people of the ordinance, Davis said.
The city’s Homeless Outreach Team does partial or full cleanups based on unauthorized camping complaints several days a week, Davis said. The team is made up of code enforcement officers, public works employees and police officers, she said.
Those complaints come through the city’s 311 line, a customer service line used by multiple city departments. In August, the city received 267 complaints, according to data provided by Davis.
Complete abatements, where crews cleaned up the entire area, were completed at 123 sites. To do a total cleanup, the site either has to be abandoned or have an enforceable component, like someone with a warrant for their arrest or who is unlawfully camping, Davis said.
The city completed 69 partial abatements last month, done at sites that were occupied and didn’t have an enforceable aspect.
Documentarian and longtime homelessness activist Maurice Smith said they city’s cleanup procedure has largely remained the same for the last few years.
They deliver notices, come in and throw everything away and tell people to leave, Smith said.
“They force the people to move, and there’s nowhere for them to move,” he said.
Davis said crews don’t come into an area and “just start taking things,” but instead engage with people there or monitor locations to make sure they’re abandoned.
Often, people who aren’t violating the ordinance will give crews garbage or unwanted items, Davis said.
There were also 37 duplicate complaints and 48 complaints where no violation was found.
More than 56,000 pounds of waste was taken from those camps, Davis said.
The partial cleanups were largely focused in the downtown area, with full cleanups scattered throughout the city, according to a map provided by Davis.
In July, the city received 267 complaints and completed 83 full cleanups and 111 partial ones. In June, there were 210 complaints with 68 completed cleanups and 107 partial cleanups.
Smith wishes the city would alert providers near where they plan to remove the camps in advance, so they can help people move their things or find a place to relocate.
“It’s one more trauma,” Smith said of people losing their belongings.