For years Spokane property owners have hammered city government over homelessness — but as they get more organized, could they be part of the solution?

click to enlarge Andrew Rolwes is the interim CEO of the Downtown Spokane Partnership: "The day-to-day experience of downtown workers, property managers and property owners is that the situation has deteriorated 
as a result of COVID." - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Andrew Rolwes is the interim CEO of the Downtown Spokane Partnership: "The day-to-day experience of downtown workers, property managers and property owners is that the situation has deteriorated as a result of COVID."

For six days a week every week for seven months last year, Selkirk Development CEO Sheldon Jackson drove the long way to his office. Sometimes he'd take his Subaru, sometimes he'd take his pickup truck, but he'd always drive the same winding route, past the city gateways and underpasses, past downtown's hot spots of homelessness and vandalism.

He'd narrate notes into his phone about each location, logging graffiti, garbage, broken windows and evidence of drug use, and counting car campers, RVs and homeless encampments. Then he'd tap out an email back in the office, grading each location on a scale of "worse, same, better, best" — with an occasional "terrible" and "disgusting" thrown in for good measure.

"A person sitting on a traffic barrier writing up his plea for drug money," he wrote about the Browne Street overpass on one day in June. On another, he detailed "a man ripped out of his mind showing his butt to traffic, near the Salmon artwork" at Pacific and Division.

He'd call it the "Morning Camping Update," and each day he'd send a new edition to a selection of City Council members, other elected officials and business owners. The Inlander came across his emails in unrelated public records requests for some of these officials. Sometimes, he'd include salvos against nonprofit charities like Catholic Charities and City Gate, against the mayor and the City Council. He'd describe canceling his vacation to "to stay in town and secure one of my properties from damn vagrant/homeless damages."

In one sense, Mayor Nadine Woodward's administration has been listening. On at least one day in August, City Administrator Johnnie Perkins took over the Morning Camping Update, following the same route and issuing grades for each location.

But about four months ago, Jackson says he gave up. Checking in on multiple hotspots six days a week was taking too much time, he couldn't find volunteers to take the monitoring over more permanently. He feels things keep getting worse year after year. Yet when the Inlander reached out, Jackson sounded almost hopeful, a far cry from his dire emails. He believes businesses like his can be a key part of the solution downtown, but also recognizes that he's only scratched the surface of such a complicated issue.

"I've learned a tremendous amount" about homelessness in the past year, Jackson says, "and I've learned that I don't know much about it."

"We need results now. Nadine was elected to fix these problems," Jackson wrote to then Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services Director Cupid Alexander in March. "That was her platform."

You could point to Jackson's properties, including one Second Avenue downtown, as one reason he's so passionate about the issue. But there's another. Jackson says he grew up poor, in a dying logging town. He had relatives who were addicted to drugs, and every one of them, he says, died as a consequence. They never went to rehab — he says someone always swooped in before they hit rock bottom.

"I came from a heroin family and know what enabling does," Jackson wrote to Alexander. "It kills."

And when their email exchange grew testy, with Alexander offering to "alleviate the misguided and frankly wrong statements" he said Jackson continued to make, Jackson countered, pointing to the last city Alexander had worked for — Portland — as a grim potential future for Spokane.

"We would all rather let our leaders lead and stick to our core businesses," Jackson wrote. "But they will not stand by and let our City turn into the City that you came from."

Woodward tells the Inlander that Spokane has made massive strides in slashing the rate of homelessness for veterans, families and youth. But she says the city needs to zero in on chronic homelessness, the most difficult — and most visible — type of homelessness to try to solve.

"That is a tougher demographic to connect to services," Woodward says. "And it tends to be the most expensive to help rehabilitate their lives."

On top of an ongoing drug epidemic and massive housing crisis, the pandemic itself has continued to dog downtown.

"We have not had that activity of people visiting downtown that would disperse the transient vagrancy element we're seeing right now," Woodward says. "That element is much more visible and much more active."

In a recent survey of Downtown Spokane Partnership ratepayers and newsletter subscribers, 85 percent agreed that the "downtown cannot fully recover until addiction, mental health, and public safety problems are addressed."

"The day-to-day experience of downtown workers, property managers and property owners is that the situation has deteriorated as a result of COVID," says Andrew Rolwes, interim CEO of Downtown Spokane Partnership.

In one thread responding to one of Jackson's Morning Camping Updates, downtown hotel owner Jerry Dicker writes that tourists "witness the First Avenue vagrant environment" and then cancel their stay.

Hutton Settlement director Chud Wendle was hammering the City Council on homelessness and crime in 2017, too, two years before his wife at the time narrowly lost her bid to become City Council president. Last year, he formed the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Council, bringing other property owners together to lobby on the issue.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson agrees that conditions have gotten worse, but she also says she's disturbed by the way that some people refer to those suffering.

"They're using the word 'vagrants,'" Wilkerson says. "That is such a dehumanizing term."

Last spring had some of the lowest levels of reported property crime downtown in recent years. There has, however, been a recent rapid spike in property crimes since late July, roughly returning Downtown Spokane to where it was in the latter half of 2017.

Some have blamed the recent downtown crime increase on a controversial Washington police reform law that took effect last July arguably limiting the ability of police officers to question and pursue some types of suspects.

"Correlation is not causation," Rolwes says. "But there is actually very, very notable correlation there."

But trying to parse 2021 crime stats is particularly messy. You've also got to contend with big changes in COVID restrictions, the eviction moratorium, stimulus checks, fading unemployment benefits, inflation and skyrocketing rents. A U.S. Government Accountability Office study released in 2020 found that median rent increases of $100 were associated with a 9 percent increase in homelessness in the communities examined.

Woodward says that downtown is being hit by all these factors, from COVID to the police reform law.

"I feel like we're going backwards because of all these things," Woodward says. "It's a domino effect."

"They're using the word 'vagrants.' That is such a dehumanizing term."

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In many ways, Woodward hasn't abandoned her campaign rhetoric. She suggests Spokane's Community Court is a "revolving door of a social program" that offers too many chances and not enough consequences. "We've got to get tough on people who aren't willing to get help," she says.

But legally, she's limited. The 2018 Martin vs. Boise court decision found that if a shelter didn't have adequate shelter space, punishing someone for sleeping outside constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The courts are still untangling exactly what cities can and can't do as a result.

Last June, Woodward called reporters to the Browne Street viaduct to discuss her emphasis on cleaning downtown. Police officers had told the homeless campers under the viaduct to leave — offering them a ride to shelters. But numerous campers returned to the viaduct just a few hours after her press conference. Last month, the Woodward administration erected chain-link fences to narrow the sidewalks underneath the Browne's Street viaduct, making it impossible for anyone to sleep there without blocking traffic.

On Sunday night, as a cold February rain hammers downtown, there's plenty of trash strewn around the Browne Street viaduct, but nobody is sleeping there. Yet there's someone huddled underneath a sleeping bag under the overpass at Washington Street a few blocks away. There's a tent near the Masonic Temple on Riverside Avenue.

And there are those like Greg Lopez. Wearing a gray shawl wrapped over his head to protect himself through the rain, he walks under the Browne Street viaduct but doesn't stop to rest.

On a handful of occasions in the years he's been homeless, Lopez says, he has slept in doorways, under bridges, outside businesses. He outlines a basic code to follow. Keep the spot clean. Get up early. Maybe even ask the property owner if they're OK with it.

He's been to shelters, but more often, he says, he doesn't sleep at night at all. He doesn't feel safe.

"I have phobias," he says. "I'll just walk around, that's it."

In November, Woodward launched the Mayor's Advisory Council on Downtown Environment — a group of downtown property owners, nonprofit leaders and city officials — tasked with providing enough resources for homeless people and "ensuring that sidewalks and storefronts remain safe and accessible to the public."

Meanwhile, Washington Trust Bank hired Chris Patterson, a former Woodward adviser, and made him part of a coalition of business leaders and nonprofits called Hello For Good, aiming to address complicated issues like homelessness.

"We are looking for solid solutions that are not politically charged in any way," Patterson stresses in an email.

Yet as Woodward tries to satisfy local businesses and neighborhoods, political controversy can be inevitable. Last month, her administration pulled the plug on a proposed temporary shelter on city property in Hillyard, thanks to a flood of business and neighborhood opposition.

"Word got out about our planning for a possible shelter there, and it went sideways very quickly," Woodward says.

Local activists like James Leighty, meanwhile, have been extremely critical of business owners like Jackson. Leighty, who came across Jackson's emails repeatedly in his public records requests, accuses Jackson of being someone who "doesn't care about homeless people as much as aesthetics."

And yet, Jackson has won praise from perhaps the most unexpected corner: Julie Garcia of the sometimes controversial Jewels Helping Hands nonprofit, which helped resurrect "Camp Hope," a tent city intentionally erected directly outside City Hall as a way to protest Spokane's lack of available shelter beds.

Garcia may seem like Jackson's opposite. But in another way, she's his mirror. Camp Hope was, in its own way, a way to deliver the same flavor of message that Jackson did: that the city had failed to adequately address homelessness.

"What we've been doing is trying to bring the problem to the attention of the city," Jackson says. "Asking the city to do their job."

In a series of text messages, Garcia writes that Jackson's views have shifted over time. He has been willing to learn, she writes, that "forcing folks off the street isn't possible" and that often low-barrier options are crucial.

"He has taken time to understand why folks' behaviors are the way they are," she writes. "He believes in compassion with accountability, so do I."

Today, Jackson doesn't necessarily leap at the opportunity for a crackdown.

"If you're doing sweeps today without a shelter for these people, you're probably just pushing them around," Jackson says. "We're not trying to sweep them under the rug. We're trying to help them get into a better place." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...