While the city threatens legal action or a sweep of the encampment, there’s no clear sense of where people are expected to end up were the state or city to remove them from the lot off of I-90.
The city of Spokane on September 8 put the Washington State Department of Transportation on notice that it plans to take legal and potentially direct action to remove Camp Hope by mid-October. The letter gives the state a September 23 deadline to begin removal of the camp or face legal action and an October 14 deadline for the removal of the encampment.
Since last December, the encampment on state right-of-way land just off of Interstate 90 and east of downtown Spokane has grown to more than 600 people, becoming the largest documented encampment in the state.
As Camp Hope has grown and persisted, the city and state have repeatedly clashed over the encampment. The state has refused to take action to remove the encampment and called for patience and an orderly removal once shelter is in place. WSDOT also gave tacit approval for the construction and operation of a cooling tent on the property that the city wants removed for code violations. The state Department of Commerce has pledged more than $24 million in funding to assist in the creation of housing alternatives to the encampment.
While the state has avoided setting any timelines for removal of the camp, the city administration has grown impatient with this hands-off approach. In August, Mayor Nadine Woodward told RANGE, “I’m a little frustrated the state has not taken on any accountability for the encampment, or the behavior of the individuals in that encampment or the impact that it's had on the neighboring businesses and neighborhoods.”
Now, the city is threatening to take matters into their own hands by declaring the state property a “chronic nuisance property.” In their letter to the state, the city says that if no action is taken to abate the nuisance and evict the people at Camp Hope within ten days (which we’re reading as business days given the timing of the letter and the September 23 deadline) the city “reserves the right to abate the nuisance property and charge the Department of Transportation for all costs and fees associated with the activities including all wages paid to City employees.”
The city is also asking the state to dedicate additional policing resources to Camp Hope. Currently, the city maintains a consistent daily police presence at the encampment from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. In their letter, the city is requesting that Washington State Patrol provide additional police resources overnight. Why the city has chosen to prioritize a visual police presence during the day and not overnight is a question RANGE Media has asked SPD but not received an answer to.
City communications director Brian Coddington said the timing of the letter was due in part to the state not taking action to have the cooling center removed and unrelated to the opening of the Trent Shelter — which coincided with the city resuming enforcement of sit-lie. “WSDOT has not responded to requests to bring the large tent on its property into compliance with City code,” Coddington wrote. “Initiating the nuisance process establishes a formal path and a deadline to set expectations and develop a plan to bring the property into compliance in a manner consistent with any other property owner.”
WSDOT eastern region administrator Mike Gribner said the agency does not have any comment at this time on the letter from the city. He wouldn’t put an exact date on a response but anticipated it would be sometime next week.
Councilmember Karen Stratton said the administration’s actions could undermine the work being done to help move people from Camp Hope into housing and services. “I feel like the rug is getting pulled out from underneath the organizations engaging at Camp Hope and trying to get people where they need to be,” she said. “It’s a shame. We have people working together and engaging to help as many people as possible, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
On the same day that the city sent the letter to the state, Empire Health Foundation (EHF) convened more than 50 individuals working in housing and social services to plan next steps for helping people move on from Camp Hope. Zeke Smith, the president of EHF, said the deadlines the city is setting are unrealistic and doing more harm than good.
“I do worry about the ways in which this kind of behavior from the city raises anxiety levels and makes it harder for the residents out at the camp to actually begin to think about transition,” he said. “I'm disappointed about that, but it doesn't change the work that we have in front of us right now.”
An important part of that work is assessing local resources and figuring out new housing options. “We don't have enough capacity in the system, either in terms of services or in terms of housing, to meet the needs of all of the residents at Camp Hope,” Smith said. “There’s a legitimate urgency about how we move as many people from Camp Hope as quickly as possible just to address their basic needs. Nobody is saying that Camp Hope is a viable long-term solution for people.”
While the city threatens legal action or a sweep of the encampment, there’s no clear sense of where people are expected to end up if the state or city removes them from the lot off of I-90. RANGE asked city communications director Coddington if the city believes there is adequate shelter space for everyone from Camp Hope and where the city expects people removed from the property to go. Here’s the complete response:
“The City, at the request of the state, submitted a plan to quickly house 650 individuals in night-by-night, transitional, and affordable housing with $24.3 million in financial support from the Department of Commerce. Funding to add restrooms, showers, laundry, a kitchen, and 60 semi-private pods for 120 people at the Trent Center were part of that request. To date, Commerce has only announced that it has awarded funding to the Empire Health Foundation for assessments and to Catholic Charities for a motel conversion project.”
The city's frustrations over the allocation of the Commerce funding doesn't mean there's a place to move all the people from Camp Hope to anytime soon. For example, the Catholic Charities motel conversion project of a Quality Inn into supportive housing for around 120 individuals, isn’t close to operational. That project, which would involve significant remodeling of the building, is currently being sued by a West Hills neighborhood group, which is seeking to block the purchase and conversion of the property.
As was the case in a recent community meeting, where Mayor Woodward directed residents to blame Commerce director Lisa Brown for the project to offer supportive housing at the Quality Inn in West Hills, the administration appears to be shifting responsibility for Camp Hope and the solutions to it onto the state.
While the city administration presses for the quick removal of Camp Hope, nonprofits working on the relocation say more time is necessary and that it’s best to tune-out the administration’s rhetoric.
“It’s important to not get worked up by the city’s empty threats,” said Ben Stuckart, the executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium and former city council president and mayoral candidate. He said the city has made these kinds of threats to the state before over the cooling tent and that WSDOT and Commerce have stood by their plans and moved forward on housing solutions.
“I don’t want people to panic,” Stuckart said. “I’m pretty confident the state knows better and the city can’t derail the collaboration of the people trying to keep people alive on the streets.”