Thursday, January 3, 2013

Homeless people to get 24-hour warnings before being arrested for camping

Posted By on Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 1:40 PM

click to enlarge The scene under I-90 a few weeks ago. - CHRISTIAN WILSON
  • Christian Wilson
  • The scene under I-90 a few weeks ago.

Homeless people camping illegally under I-90 will now have 24 hours to seek shelter before they're cited or arrested.

At this morning's monthly Homeless Coalition meeting, Sheila Morley from Spokane's Housing and Human Services Department told representatives from local social service agencies about the city's latest plan to address the growing camping issue downtown. If officers receive complaints about illegal camping, they'll tell Morley, who will then notify social service agencies, who will have the chance to tell homeless people about shelters and other services. Campers will have 24 hours to leave before they're arrested and their tents and belongings removed. In recent months, police have arrested people for illegal camping and thrown all their belongings — many handed out by local agencies — away, only to have the camps reappear in the following days. City representatives say this is part of a new formalized effort to do something more permanent about the issue.

"The City and social service providers don’t see homeless encampments as a viable solution to homelessness," read a city press release sent out today about the new strategy. (Read the whole release at the end of this blog.)

Lee Nelson, who works in homeless outreach for the Community Health Association of Spokane and spends most of his days helping people living on the street access everything from warm socks to healthcare, says he thinks it's a step in the right direction. Still, Coalition members agreed, it's not a solution.

"I think it's a good idea. … It gives them a chance to get all their stuff together," Nelson says. "But where are they going to go? If they had a place to go they wouldn't be [under the freeway]."

During a discussion about the issue, some Coalition members, including Nelson, suggested that people continue to camp in the area because some local organizations provide meals and services there, "enabling" homeless people to stay put, rather than access shelter elsewhere. (Councilman Mike Allen made the same argument last month.)

One of those organizations is Blessings Under The Bridge, which has been serving meals in the area near 4th and McClellan for six years. Founder Jessica Kovac says her group, which delivers coffee, food and clothes every Wednesday, doesn't plan on going anywhere. She says they've received support from the mayor and haven't been asked to change locations or quit serving. (Morley says she's invited Blessings Under The Bridge to a still-to-be-scheduled meeting about this issue in coming weeks.)

Kovac says recent buzz about a potential tent city has worried some people about her organization's fate, but she's not concerned.

"We don't pay attention to the Homeless Coalition. We don't have any connections with anybody," Kovac says. "We do attract people [to the area under the freeway], but we're not thinking about making the city worse. We're just trying to meet the needs that are out there, and that's to show these people a little bit of love."

The city's next step, Morley says, is to figure out what's keeping the people camping under I-90 instead of seeking out shelters or permanent housing. Nelson and Bob Peeler, a programs counselor for SNAP, will be conducting a "needs assessment" of the people camping in the area this week. They'll count how many people are there and ask what's keeping them on the street.

Nelson says he knows most of the people living there, and knows they're plenty aware of most services in town. But drugs, alcohol and criminal backgrounds prevent many of them from getting housing, he says. (Some shelters require sobriety. Most rentals need a background check.) 

When asked whether the city's new plan will ultimately be any different from its current efforts — kicking people out over and over again — Nelson sighs.

"That has yet to be seen, he says, "but at least the city's at the table."

The city's press release about its new strategy:

CityCampingRelease

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