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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Fentanyl foils, feces, tons and tons of garbage’: Woodward declares Spokane is ‘resetting expectations’ around problem area of 2nd and Division

At a press conference held Thursday in a parking lot near the corner of Pacific Avenue and McClellan Street in downtown Spokane, Mayor Nadine Woodward decried the increase in open drug use, violence and garbage in the neighborhoods around Second Avenue and Division Street  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Mayor Nadine Woodward, flanked by the city’s top police officials and local business owners, said Thursday that the city is now “resetting expectations” around the troubled intersection of 2nd Avenue and Division Street, which police officials say has hit a crisis point.

“What they see on the street is open drug deals, drug use and the devastating impacts of addiction,” she said. “Fentanyl foils, feces, tons and tons of garbage, and they see the result of failed policy.”

Downtown business owners and their employees have long complained about shootings, open drug use and rampant crime in the area, Woodward said.

“We understand their frustrations, we understand their concerns, and we too have had enough,” she added.

The mayor pointed to work to broadly address crime and visible homelessness, noting ordinances passed by the City Council to expand the city’s ban on sleeping on public land, and more recently to reinstate criminalization of open drug use while the state Legislature stalled on the issue. The mayor pointed to the opening last year of the Trent homeless shelter, the largest in the city, which can currently shelter up to 350 and as of Thursday morning had only two available beds, according to a city-run website.

She also noted a major reorganization of the police department precincts that concentrated more officers downtown at the beginning of this year.

Woodward argued that these efforts have been largely successful, citing a 12% decrease in overall crime downtown, a 17% decrease in property crime, a 20% decrease in theft and a 16% decrease in vehicle thefts since this time last year.

But around the intersection of 2nd and Division, Woodward said there’s still much to do.

Spokane police officials and Catholic Charities CEO Rob McCann recently met with the City Council to discuss the increase of visible drug use and prostitution in the area, and presented ideas for addressing homelessness and crime in the general vicinity of Second and Division. Catholic Charities runs the House of Charity, a low-barrier homeless shelter for men, directly next to the intersection. Those shelters have minimal requirements for guests, such as sobriety.

McCann said at the Aug. 28 Public Safety and Community Health committee meeting that his organization spends $1.5 million a year on security.

“There’s probably no nonprofit in the state of Washington spending that amount on security, and it’s not enough,” McCann said. “The folks in this area, they refuse to let us help them. They don’t just say no, they say … no or they assault the staff talking to them.”

McCann said the people hanging around the area are violent criminals carrying weapons and engaging in human trafficking, and that the residents of House of Charity were afraid to leave the building.

At the time, councilmembers discussed putting up fences, playing music to prevent people from sleeping and cutting down trees that some gather under for refuge from the summer sun. Lt. Dan Waters even noted that a street preacher who frequents the downtown Spokane Transit Authority plaza had been effective at clearing people from the area.

McCann said his organization was turning to possible solutions they would have “never considered five years ago,” including reaching out to several evangelical churches to try to recruit street preachers.

“Because that absolutely works, every time,” McCann said. “The only problem we ran into, we talked to a couple, and they ended up being connected to crazy Christian white nationalist militia groups, and we were worried they would come down and start shooting.”

For now, the city has turned to using the new police task force to try to tackle crime in the area.

Last week, the Spokane Police Department began to emphasize patrols in the area, including with members of the downtown police precinct, the Violent Crimes Task Force, the Special Investigations unit, the homeless outreach team and others, Chief Craig Meidl said Thursday.

From Sept. 6-13, the Spokane Police Department conducted 81 arrests, citations and infractions within the general area, according to numbers provided by the department.

“The Spokane Police Department has seen successes when we dedicate adequate resources to high-crime problem areas,” Meidl said. “The demands require that we also have officers out here on overtime.”

A constant presence is needed, Meidl added, saying many bad actors return shortly after police leave.

In June, the police department was already projected to spend a record-breaking $7.2 million on overtime on uniformed officers, $3 million more than was budgeted for 2023. Despite concerns over overtime and broader worries about city spending, Woodward said public safety has to be the city’s first priority.

“Overtime has been a concern for quite a while,” Woodward said. “But this is a priority. We will find a way to be able to pay for the overtime that we are accumulating to be able to concentrate public safety efforts in this area.”

However, while Woodward and police officials stated that significant investments would continue to be made to “reset expectations” in the area, long-term solutions remain elusive. Police officials reported that many of those arrested during the emphasis patrol couldn’t be booked due to strained capacity at the county jail, and claimed that none of those contacted accepted services offered by law enforcement.

“Public safety has to be the number-one priority, and we will find a way to address the other challenges,” Woodward said.

“We need more officers,” she continued. “We need more space in a criminal justice center. We need more programs for people who are incarcerated to rehabilitate them.”

Woodward also identified the concentration of homeless services in the immediate area, including the nearby House of Charity, as exacerbating the blight in the area.

“You look at this area, we’re talking about a concentration of hundreds and hundreds of formerly chronic homeless and chronically homeless; the density is just too great,” she said.

While Woodward acknowledged that the area would still be challenged if those services were dispersed, she argued it would be a meaningful step forward. Working with Catholic Charities to move the House of Charity was a goal highlighted in Woodward’s 2022 State of the City Address, but the facility remains downtown more than a year later.

“Where you put it is probably the biggest challenge,” Woodward said Thursday. “But we’re still working on that, because I do believe that that would make a big improvement in the environment.”

Woodward argued that best practices have changed, from concentrating homeless services in an area downtown to make them maximally accessible, to decentralizing services throughout the community to dilute their impacts on neighboring businesses and residents.

“The impact on the businesses and the people that want to use downtown and work downtown is too great,” she said.

Neither would it be appropriate to simply concentrate services elsewhere, Woodward cautioned, pointing to growing frustrations in the West Hills neighborhood, where Catholic Charities late last year opened the Catalyst shelter to house former residents of the Camp Hope homeless encampment.

“We’re not going to de-concentrate downtown and concentrate in another neighborhood,” Woodward said.