HEAT WAVE DAY 4 | Meanwhile, City Council has plans that would allow the shelter to remain
UPDATE on July 29 at 3:50 p.m. | The Washington Department of Transportation issued a joint statement with the state Department of Commerce saying they will not comply with the city's order to remove Camp Hope's cooling shelter, saying, "Ultimately, the safety and well-being of people is our paramount concern." See their full statement here.
Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration intends to force Camp Hope to dismantle its cooling shelter amid 104-degree weather days, according to a series of emails obtained by RANGE today, Thursday July 28.
The key email in the thread was sent just before noon today, and came from Interim City Attorney Lynden P. Smithson, wherein Smithson details a plan to tell the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) that the temporary cooling shelter is an illegal building and demand the agency remove it from their property by Monday, Aug. 1.
In the email, Smithson says the intent is to draft and send this letter to WSDOT today. By mid-afternoon, WSDOT eastern region administrator Mike Gribner confirmed that they’ve received this letter and plan to respond within a day or two. “We’re still contemplating how we’re going to respond,” he said.
Separately, members of city council, spearheaded by Council President Breean Beggs, have been in communication with WSDOT and local safety officials, including Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, on the necessary steps required to allow the shelter to remain onsite and functional at Camp Hope.
The documents, and RANGE’s subsequent reporting, outline a fundamental disagreement between city administration and city council about how best to help not just the people at Camp Hope, but everyone affected by this heatwave.
Smithson’s email was sent to a large group of city leaders, including the Mayor’s cabinet, all city council members and their staff, Chief Shaeffer and Fire Marshal Lance Dahl.
In the email, Smithson outlines the administration’s position that the cooling shelter at Camp Hope is unpermitted and therefore illegal, and also not a part of the administration’s extreme heat plan, which currently extends the working hours of four local Spokane Public Library buildings to serve as cooling shelters.
The closest authorized shelter to Camp Hope is over a mile away, at the Liberty Park Library on Pittsburg St. That distance makes these locations practically useless for people at Camp Hope.
Smithson details that a core part of the plan to get people to the approved cooling shelters is via the Spokane Transit Authority, and that STA is offering free bus fare to anyone seeking cooling shelters. That might work for people with easy access to transit, but the closest bus routes to Camp Hope — the 94 and the 90 — either require a half-mile walk to catch the bus (Route 94) or a half mile walk to the library after exiting at the nearest bus stop (Route 90).
Many Camp Hope residents have mobility issues, making a walk of that distance impractical at best, if not outright dangerous in the extreme heat. One Camp Hope resident, Christy Sumner, told Range that she spent yesterday in the hospital getting fluids after getting overheated and dehydrated in her van.
As our reporting has detailed, residents often face theft when they leave their things unattended or are forced to haul all of their belongings on a bus and then into a library.
Smithson’s email was in response to an email sent by Councilmember Michael Cathcart early Thursday morning to Smithson and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins asking them to address “legal questions and precedence concerns” Cathcart had surrounding permitting the Camp Hope cooling shelter.
Cathcart’s email, in turn, was in response to an email sent on Wednesday night by Council President Beggs giving councilmembers an update on a conversation Beggs had with Fire Chief Shaeffer about the steps needed to make the cooling tent legal, permitted and permissible.
Taken together, the three emails paint a picture of conflict between City Council and the Mayor’s Office. On one side, the council’s progressive majority is pushing to allow Camp Hope to continue providing direct on-site heat relief to its residents. On the other side, conservative councilmember Cathcart expressed his concerns and the Woodward administration is actively opposing any on-site cooling structures for Camp Hope.
In addition to wanting to keep the cooling efforts to the specifically sanctioned libraries, Smithson states in no uncertain terms that “The Administration does not want the encampment to expand and at City Legal we have some concerns for liability with the tent that has been erected.”
An email to Smithson seeking comment was not returned by publishing. A phone call to city Communications Director Brian Coddington sent us to Communications Manager Kirsten Davis. Davis eventually responded by email with a statement that read, in part:
"In light of the heat wave and purpose of the tent, the City has issued a Notice of Violation to WSDOT for the tent structure on their property with the request to have it disassembled on Monday, Aug. 1 when temperatures are expected to return to normal. The City and its leadership are very concerned that an occupant could be injured or there could be a serious fire event at the site causing mass casualties. The goal is to balance compliance with existing health and safety laws and the risk the City and its tax payers are undertaking with the untenable situation on the WSDOT property."
In Council President Beggs’ initial email that kicked off this chain of correspondence, from late Wednesday night, Beggs gives a brief rundown of the issue that does not include any fear of mass casualties: “Because it is a large tent, it requires a sign-off from the City Fire Marshall. It sounds like the tent would comply with Fire Marshall rules, but he can't process it until he receives confirmation that the landowner consents to the tent.”
Fire Marshal Lance Dahl, who was CC'd on Smithson’s email and who was on-site at Camp Hope after the tent had been built on Wednesday morning, would not comment as to whether the building was safe or permittable.
Fire Chief Schaeffer didn’t specifically respond to whether or not he thought there was a path to permitting the structure either, or whether the administration’s 4-library cooling plan was adequate, but offered a sort of plea for peace, writing, in part:
"… it is vital from the FD’s perspective that the safety of our whole inclusive community is a priority. Extreme weather and the unhoused is a highly charged topic, and the situation has been extremely dynamic. Information is changing hourly, making communicating professionally very difficult. I ask that everyone give grace to the staff, leaders, electeds, and our community members trying to navigate the situation.”
We followed up asking both Chief Schaeffer and Davis to clarify if the core concern was truly “a serious fire event at the site causing mass casualties,” or just a matter of figuring out how to untangle a permitting mess.
Neither Schaeffer nor Davis responded to that question, but we will update this story if they do.
In Beggs’ telling of his conversations with WSDOT and Chief Schaeffer, the stumbling block was not anything inherent to the safety of the cooling shelter, but rather ambiguities around who would be authorized to build such a structure on that land. Because the land is owned by WSDOT, but the building has not been erected with the consent of WSDOT, and because of liability concerns, there’s no clear way to permit the building without help from the city.
In his email summary to council Wednesday night, Beggs wrote:
“WSDOT doesn't feel like it can consent to the tent until the City signs a brief agreement for a low cost lease and hold harmless provisions. The Mayor thus far has refused to do so. WSDOT suggested erecting the tent in the City's right of way and closing off that portion of [road] but according to the Chief the Mayor is refusing that as well. There was also a proposal to erect the tent in the parking lot at the Hive library but that was also rejected.”
Beggs was not the person who shared the email thread, and asked RANGE to make that clear as a condition of speaking with us on Thursday afternoon.
Beggs said there was no truly good solution to a heatwave during an acute housing crisis, but some solutions are better than others, and in his opinion, the best solutions involve listening to the people you are trying to help.
“Whatever you’re doing, you have to start with the population you’re trying to serve and find out what their needs are,” Beggs said. “Not because they’re in charge, but to know what is going to work.”
“It’s public health 101 to do harm reduction. You assess what the target population is going to do, or is likely to do, and create your plan accordingly,” he concluded, “It makes no sense to post tips on the web if the people you are trying to reach don’t have access to the internet.”
Camp Hope resident Chris Senn, a veteran and painter by trade, expressed this exact frustration with the way the city government makes decisions and judgements about Camp Hope without visiting the camp and understanding the needs of people who live there.
“[The City Council and Mayor] sit downtown and claim they know what we want and we’ve all said come out and talk to us,” said Senn, who lost his job and housing three months ago when he could no longer afford transportation. “Let’s have a great conversation. Let us tell you what we actually need, you can’t just sit downtown and think you know what we need.”
When we directly asked Beggs if he felt the Mayor’s cooling plan was in the spirit of the heat emergency ordinance council passed last year, the council president replied, “It is not in the spirit of that law.”
Councilmember Stratton, in an email response to a request for comment on whether the cooling shelter should be dismantled or allowed to stay, was unequivocal:
“Not only should the cooling center at Camp Hope be allowed to stay, but the Administration should be doing everything possible to provide services and relief to this population. This includes working with all partners --- instead of passing the buck, blaming other entities, and not taking responsibility to protect the people who have nowhere else to go. The dehumanizing of Camp Hope must stop and so must the political posturing. These are people and they need our help.”
While the administration and council are at loggerheads, Beggs believes council has a trump card in this dispute.
Council normally approves decisions like entering into an agreement with a property owner like WSDOT that the mayor then signs, but the mayor doesn't have to be the person signing it.
“Theoretically, under city charter, the city council president can sign agreements on behalf of the city when a majority of council members authorize and consent," Beggs told us. "Usually we authorize the Mayor to sign something, but council can also authorize me to sign it.”
It’s also possible that Empire Health Foundation (EHF) could sign an agreement with WSDOT that could clear the permitting logjam. We previously reported that EHF was the primary funder in the purchase of the cooling shelter, making them a viable candidate to shoulder the liability WSDOT is concerned about.
“That’s probably the easiest route,” Beggs said.
Read Day 5 here.
—edited by Valerie Osier