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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City of Spokane files suit to clear Camp Hope

With snow falling and a temperature in the low 30s, homeless residents of Camp Hope huddle around a space heater in a warming tent on Nov. 30, 2022. At the time, 400 Camp Hope residents were dealing with the snow collapsing their tents and the impact from the cold weather. But camp officials said earlier this month that only about 65 residents remained in the camp.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Mayor Nadine Woodward says she has run out of patience with Camp Hope and the state agencies, she argues, that don’t care about how it affects the community.

Now, her administration wants the homeless encampment – once the largest in the state with more than 600 people living in tents and campers – declared a chronic and drug nuisance. If a lawsuit the city filed Monday is successful, it will allow the camp to be cleared from land along Interstate 90 in Spokane’s East Central Neighborhood.

The mayor’s critics claim she is more focused on the upcoming election than solutions to helping the approximately 65 people who remain at the camp.

The camp is located on land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, and the state Department of Commerce has been administering state funds to remove the campers by providing social services and alternative shelter.

But it hasn’t happened fast enough, the Woodward administration claims.

The city filed the suit less than two months after Spokane County withdrew a similar chronic nuisance lawsuit in an apparent show of good faith amid commitments from state officials to work with the county on a plan to close the camp.

But in a Tuesday interview, Woodward said she had lost faith that the state was committed to closing the camp in a timely manner. Though there have been frequent conversations with state officials, Woodward said they had not provided a clear timeline for closure or for managing crime in the vicinity of the camp.

She contrasted this to the state’s response to an encampment under the Ship Canal Bridge in Seattle. She argued that a recent fire and ongoing protests over the Seattle camp’s effect on the Wallingford neighborhood were met by a pledge from the state Department of Transportation to close the camp by the end of the month. Gov. Jay Inslee also said the camp needed to be closed “as soon as humanely possible.”

“The state acted quickly and decisively in Seattle to protect the neighborhood interests and we expect the same in Spokane,” Woodward said in a Tuesday news release.

Mike Faulk, press secretary for the office of the governor, rejected that comparison, arguing that the Seattle encampment was far smaller than Camp Hope.

“It’s pretty clear how different they are,” he said. “And the statement ignores all of the progress we’ve made at Camp Hope – progress we’ve made in spite of having some local partners who have chosen to not be very helpful.”

In its own Tuesday news release, the state Department of Transportation wrote that the suit was disappointing and unproductive, arguing that work was well underway to close the camp.

“Such drastic action would not actually solve or reduce the homelessness crisis facing the City of Spokane; but simply continue the cycle of shuffling homeless individuals from one location to the next without actually addressing its root causes,” the agency wrote.

The city’s 25-page filing asserts that “ongoing and criminal activity continues to have a tremendous negative impact upon the quality of life, safety and health of the surrounding neighborhood and community.”

The suit named the state of Washington, the state Department of Transportation, as well as Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar, Assistant Secretary Mike Gribner and Regional Administrator for Development Michael Frucci as defendants.

The filings include dozens of affidavits from owners of nearby businesses, residents living near the camp, law enforcement officers and at least one person working at Camp Hope. Their filings allege ongoing criminal activity and unsafe conditions at the encampment, including public drug use and sexual conduct, as well as human trafficking.

“Despite the fence, badges and curfew, the camp is still lawless,” the filing asserts.

Woodward also pointed to an incident Friday when a propane tank exploded at Camp Hope, injuring two residents. One woman was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle due to the extent of her injuries. She was released back to the camp Monday night.

According to Jewels Helping Hands founder Julie Garcia, a resident of the camp had been trying to transfer propane from a large tank to smaller ones, which is against camp rules, so that it could be used for cooking.

The resident who transferred the propane and declined medical services was kicked out of the camp for breaking rules of conduct, Garcia said.

Flames and smoke could be seen from miles away and the explosion could be heard throughout the city, according to the mayor’s Tuesday news release.

“We are taking this action before anyone else gets hurt,” Woodward said in the statement.

Fires caused by propane tanks are not uncommon in homeless encampments, where the fuel is used for cooking and warmth. Last winter, two people were hospitalized after a propane explosion at a small encampment near the Spokane River.

“It is the cause of every fire in every encampment ever,” Garcia said.

Garcia argued that Camp Hope residents would not need to rely on propane if the city had agreed to connect the encampment to electricity.

At one point, City Administrator Johnnie Perkins had offered to allow the connections, but only in exchange for a list of names of those staying at the camp, Garcia said. Service providers managing the camp refused to provide that list, arguing it would violate state law.

In a text, city spokesman Brian Coddington said that the permits hadn’t been approved because camp managers never filed a permit application or work plan. In response, Garcia claimed city officials had made it clear that any such permit request would be denied regardless unless the city was provided the list of names, so no paperwork was filed.

The first hearing in the case is expected Thursday, according to the mayor’s office.

If the judge in the case issues the warrant of abatement, the city states in its filings that closure would not come immediately. Instead, occupants would be given a “practical opportunity” to find new shelter, and shelter would be made available to them, according to the filing.

The city also asks that defendants not to be allowed within two blocks of the property. Finally, the city asks that the judge award damages to Spokane for security, garbage collection and other services provided during the camp’s duration, which approach $1 million, though a final figure has not yet been provided.