Last week began with a lot of finger-pointing, as state and Spokane officials blamed each other in court for the continued existence of the city’s largest homeless encampment.
By Friday, there was a lot of premature self-congratulations, as both sides spun a judge’s initial decision Thursday evening and declared victory.
“Basically we won on all counts,” said interim City Attorney Lynden Smithson, who filed the lawsuit for the city of Spokane, in a Friday interview.
Smithson pointed to Spokane Superior Court Judge Marla Polin’s declaration Thursday that Camp Hope could be considered a nuisance under the city’s municipal code.
But Polin did not go so far as to grant the city permission to proceed with its plan to clear the camp. Instead, she ordered the city and state to come before her again on April 19 with an agreed-upon plan to close Camp Hope.
“There is no imminent sweep anyone at the camp needs to be worried about,” said Ryan Overton, spokesman for the eastern region of the state Department of Transportation, one of the defendants in the case.
“The city has to come to the table now,” Overton added.
Both blame the other
On Monday, the city of Spokane filed suit in Spokane Superior Court asking Polin to declare Camp Hope – once the largest homeless encampment in the state with more than 600 people living in tents and campers – a chronic and drug nuisance property, authorizing the city to empty the camp for good.
The city in court filings accused the state Department of Transportation, which owns the property where the camp is located, as well as a number of WSDOT officials, of failing to create a concrete plan to clear the camp and of allowing crime to run rampant.
The city filed a number of declarations from witnesses working or living in and around the camp, some of which detailed circumstances from last fall, that described the camp as “lawless.”
The 15-month-old encampment poses an imminent threat to the community, the city argued, requiring immediate intervention from the judiciary. On Monday, before the state or even many city officials were aware of the lawsuit, the city requested and was granted a temporary restraining order against the defendants.
That restraining order, which the judge reaffirmed Thursday, requires the state and its contractors to immediately call law enforcement if illegal drugs are observed in the camp.
“Obviously, we know that the state doesn’t have direct impact on (drug) activity,” Smithson said. “But the judge told them that they are to call SPD.”
In return, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, filing for the state agency Wednesday, argued that it was the city’s failures that had created Camp Hope by failing to address its homeless crisis. The state charged that the city continued to delay the camp’s closure by refusing to come to the table.
The state pointed to Camp Hope’s origins outside of Spokane City Hall in 2021 to protest the lack of low-barrier shelter space in the city. In response to law enforcement notices, the protest camp had dispersed and moved to land owned by the state Department of Transportation.
At the request of the state, the city initially told campers to leave but they did not, according to the filings. After the initial request, city officials and police did nothing else to help clear the new camp, the state argued, with one officer saying they were told to “sit this one out” by a superior officer, according to a state employee.
Over the next year, the state alleged that Spokane police continued to refuse to render service at the site. Even after an October agreement clarified that law enforcement were allowed inside the camp, and despite the near-constant presence of two officers next to the camp, Spokane police “provides no law enforcement despite a clear duty to do so,” the state claimed.
The state presented declarations from several state employees and one former contractor who claimed that law enforcement had not responded to reports of drug-dealing, stolen vehicles and other incidents.
Though the state had argued that the restraining order issued Monday and reaffirmed Thursday was invalid for procedural reasons, Overton described the order Friday as a roundabout win for the state. The injunction required them to report illegal drug activity but also required police to respond, Overton said.
“It mandates they respond to the camp when we do any sort of request at the camp,” he said.
In a brief Friday interview, Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys disputed that officers had neglected to respond to the camp, though she was unable to immediately provide data on police responses in the area.
“Arrests in the camp for criminal activity have been made and will continue to be made,” she said.
She noted that city officers are often overwhelmed and have to triage to which calls they respond. She added that drug-dealing and car theft are not necessarily the highest priority.
However, in the case of an ongoing violent crime, sexual assault or an emergency, like the recent propane fire at the camp, officers enter the camp quickly, she said.
Though there have been two officers stationed outside of the camp for the better part of a year, Humphreys said that they were also spread thin, helping the surrounding neighborhoods, businesses and school.
The state argued in court that, despite a lack of support from local police, it had handled security itself with fencing, a badge ID system and other measures .
Those measures were largely successful as the camp shrank, the state argued, noting that data from the Spokane Police Department showed crime in the vicinity was down 14% from this time last year.
The city’s claims of rampant crime and lawlessness were “stale,” the state argued in court, depicting conditions last year before the state’s security measures were fully implemented.
The state also questioned the timing of the city’s lawsuit, filed more than a year after the camp formed, and the assertion that the less than 70 people remaining pose an imminent threat to the community despite improved conditions and a dwindling population.
Agreeing on a plan
The city’s proposal to close the camp was laid out in an affidavit from Spokane Police Lt. David Overhoff. After an initial posted notice to provide occupants time to find new shelter, the city would store campers’ property and vehicles and coordinate with agencies in “good faith efforts” to connect those remaining to new shelter.
The city claimed in court there was enough space in local shelters for those still living in the camp – there were over 60 spaces available at just the Trent shelter Sunday.
However, the state continues to argue that existing shelters are inadequate for many remaining at the camp, who may be disabled, need medical care that shelters are unequipped to provide or have been trespassed from other shelters.
Closing Camp Hope without creating appropriate shelter space will ultimately mean those individuals go back out onto Spokane’s streets, the state argued. Once those people are dispersed, it will also be more difficult to provide them services, the state added.
The state also argued in court that the Trent Resurce and Assistance Center, by far the city’s largest shelter, is “not the panacea the City would have the Court believe.”
People staying at the Trent shelter lack access to sufficient and timely medical care, the state claimed, pointing to reports from doctors who work at the shelter on a regular basis.
The shelter’s location in an industrial district far from grocery stores, pharmacies and doctors offices have led to issues filling prescriptions and making appointments, the state argued, and infectious diseases are hard to manage in the converted trucking warehouse.
The state’s argument that those remaining at Camp Hope were the most complicated to house also stymied their efforts to convince the judge that they had a concrete plan.
Pressed by Polin during Thursday’s hearing for a specific timeline for closure, the state didn’t have a clear answer.
“That’s something we had been working on,” Overton said. “Once we get the housing stood up for those final folks, we can put a timeline on it.”
“It’s not like we were waiting until we got this injunction,” he added.