The team dedicated to clearing and cleaning illegal homeless camps in Spokane largely disintegrated last year, and the city is struggling to keep up with complaints from residents.
Under a pilot program launched in 2019, the city knit together a “pod” of social workers, police officers and city code enforcement officials to help mitigate camping on public property and direct people who are homeless into social services and housing.
The program was initially met with enough praise to secure a new round of funding in 2020, but for myriad reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the effort has stalled and struggled.
After early success in whittling down the time it takes between a resident complaint and camp cleanup, city officials now say they’re back where they started, needing several weeks to complete the task.
From mid-March to the beginning of May 2020, the pod was shut down because of concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 to public safety officials.
In the summer, the city relaunched the program with a neighborhood housing specialist borrowed from another department in part because Frontier Behavioral Health and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, or SNAP, reduced their participation.
Nonprofits still conduct outreach on their own but no longer regularly participate with the city team, instead sharing their findings with city code enforcement officials.
The organizations have expressed concern that members of the homeless community have begun to conflate their outreach efforts with law enforcement, potentially limiting their ability to make inroads with the homeless and direct them to social services.
“Once we got boots on the ground and we actually were doing the program we realized it could potentially lead to some sticky situations or some misconception to some folks we are in service to,” explained Arielle Anderson, SNAP’s homeless services coordinator.
SNAP receives a list of complaints made through the city’s 311 system that helps it focus its outreach efforts and make contact before code enforcement officers arrive, Anderson explained.
That outreach can include helping people obtain government ID and helping them apply for rapid rehousing, but it can also meet more immediate needs.
“If they want to be outside, that’s fine, then we’re going to bring to them those tangible items that they’re going to need in order to stay alive — water, food, blankets, hand warmers, whatever it is — while we continue to work with them in the context of finding permanent housing,” Anderson said.
Obtaining housing was always a challenge, but since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything has ground to a “standstill,” Anderson said.
Meanwhile, some people are wary of entering an emergency shelter, even if there is room for them, given the potential for outbreaks of COVID-19.
“Shelter plays a critical role in our system. That being said, if folks are scared to go in there, you can’t force them to go in,” Anderson said.
Still, she acknowledged that some camps are simply unsafe, with feces and discarded needles posing a health risk. In those cases, Anderson said, they help people clean up and try to educate them.
With social service agencies stepping back, the city housing specialist took the lead, Carly Cortwright, the city’s director of community programs, told the Spokane City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee last week.
In addition to outreach, the employee conducted scouting for the city, assessing which camps were active and which were vacant, relaying the information back to code enforcement officials.
The employee had to return to her normal job in the fall, but Cortwright said “we want to keep that going when we can.”
In mid-November, the Spokane Police Department dropped out of the pod team, as well, because the city’s shelters were routinely full. If there are no beds available at local shelters, the city is unable to legally enforce its prohibition against camping on public property.
That could leave city code enforcement officials on their own. They typically focused their efforts on vacant camps, citing safety concerns about occupied camps.
“If they feel like there’s anything insecure going on there, they will back off,” Cortwright said.
The city’s efforts were also hampered by the pandemic-related loss of cleanup crews downtown deployed by Geiger Corrections Center. Without that help, city teams have spent more time downtown, limiting their cleanup and enforcement efforts in city neighborhoods.
Consistent space at local shelters in recent weeks should allow Spokane police to resume enforcement, Cortwright said, but there remain legal questions.
The city’s attorneys have advised that, to comply with the law, the city should probably be conducting removals only when beds are available at 24/7 shelters, of which there are fewer.
One answer might be to conduct enforcement at night, when shelters are available and people can check in, but Cortwright expressed hesitancy about that approach.
“Are we rousing people in the middle of the night to say, ‘Hey, there is shelter space available right now and you should have been there?’ ” Cortwright asked. “To me, that’s even worse than doing it based on space the night before.”