Letter: WSDOT pushes back on Spokane's Camp Hope blame game, and other highlights

click to enlarge Letter: WSDOT pushes back on Spokane's Camp Hope blame game, and other highlights
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WSDOT has sent yet another letter to the City of Spokane as they fight over how to deal with Camp Hope.

In a lengthy, fiery letter, the Washington State Department of Transportation "strenuously objected" to the city's threats of legal action over Camp Hope,  calling Spokane's actions "unlawful," "constitutionally suspect," and "unreasonable and unrealistic."

The letter is in response to a "Chronic Nuisance Notice" Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl sent to WSDOT on Oct. 5. The notice blamed WSDOT for multiple crimes being committed on or near the large East Central homeless encampment, and proposed an agreement that would see the camp cleared by mid-November. WSDOT’s letter rejects that timeline and some of the steps the city says the agency needs to take.

Earlier today, city spokesperson Brian Coddington said the city was in regular meetings with the state as the parties try to work towards a solution. The meetings are behind closed doors, so we don't know whats going on in there, but the letter doesn't paint a pretty picture. 

WSDOT spokesperson Joseph McHale says the agency isn’t taking interviews about their reply to the nuisance notice. The agency's 8-page letter is full of legal jargon, so here's a simplified breakdown of some of what WSDOT is saying:

1. We tried to call the cops when people first started camping there, but you said they couldn't come.

While laying out the history of Camp Hope, WSDOT reminds the city that they did not “authorize, permit, or in any other way condone the protest moving to [WSDOT] property or the establishment of an encampment of displaced individuals on this site.”

In fact, WSDOT says the Spokane Police Department was immediately contacted for help coordinating a plan to close the camp. But WSDOT says the police weren’t allowed to help.

“Following the protesters’ trespass onto WSDOT property, the agency sought to work with the City to coordinate an effort to humanely remove those individuals from the property. Indeed, WSDOT immediately contacted the Spokane Police Department and Code Enforcement to attempt to coordinate a plan to close off the property. The Spokane Police Department and Code Enforcement, however, advised WSDOT they were directed to not respond to trespass calls involving WSDOT’s property or its surrounding parcels.”       
2. You later signed an agreement saying the cops could come. One day later, you hit us with a nuisance notice.

WSDOT says they signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the city that would allow cops to enter the property and issue trespass orders. In the agreement, the parties also pledged to work together to solve the issue and work to get camp residents housed. The “working together” part of that understanding was undermined a day later, WSDOT says, when the police issued the chronic nuisance notice.

"WSDOT continues its efforts to coordinate with the City, which recently finally agreed to a 'Memorandum of Understanding Between City and Washington State Department of Transportation,' acknowledging the City’s law enforcement’s authority to 'enter, issue no trespass orders, and to enforce state and municipal law' at Camp Hope. In addition, the City finally professed to agree to 'cooperate in efforts to address homeless encampments' and 'utilize its social services outreach resources to connect at-risk populations with critical housing and social services.' The following day, however, the City issued this purported Notice of Nuisance.'

3. Your city’s code for chronic nuisance properties is illegal because it doesn’t allow for due process.

Here, WSDOT appears to say Spokane's entire city code that regulates chronic nuisance notices is illegal because it requires property owners to enter an agreement with the city to clear their property, without providing a process to dispute whether the property is even a nuisance. There's also no process to contest a city-approved "agreement" outlining steps to clean up the property.

"Although SMC 10.68.040 mandates a response to Chronic Nuisance Notice, it provides no timelines, process, or standards for consideration of the response. Moreover, the code further provides that after a response is submitted, '[t]he person in charge shall enter into an abatement agreement or otherwise produce a plan approved by the chief of police or his designee to abate the nuisance within fifteen days of the issuance of the chronic nuisance notice'—irrespective of whether the respondent objects to the Chronic Nuisance Notice.

Here, for instance, WSDOT contests the Chronic Nuisance Notice and does not agree with the proposed 'Chronic Nuisance Abatement Agreement' drafted by the Spokane Police Department. But the code provides no mechanism by which respondents can challenge the proposed agreement. Instead, the code purports to require WSDOT to agree to the 'agreement' drafted by the City without any input from WSDOT or meaningful legal process whatsoever, produce a plan approved by the chief of police or his designee (in their sole discretion, apparently), or else be guilty of a class 1 civil infraction. See SMC 10.68.050.B ('It is a class 1 civil infraction for any person in charge to fail to enter into an abatement agreement or otherwise produce an approved plan to abate the nuisance within fifteen days of the issuance of the chronic nuisance notice.'). Requiring a respondent to enter into a contested 'Chronic Nuisance Abatement Agreement' with no means by which to challenge it or else be subject to civil penalties, falls far short of the minimum due process required by our State’s constitution."

4. We’re trying to fix the problem but don’t feel like you’re giving us enough information.

In their chronic nuisance notice, the city said there is "adequate shelter space capacity for all involuntarily homeless in the City of Spokane." WSDOT does not think that is true.

"Moreover, the site population is beginning to further decrease as limited shelter beds have become available (although WSDOT disputes that Trent Resource and Assistance Center has capacity for '250 minimum with additional flex space to 400,' as you assert at page 4 of the Notice)."

The city’s notice listed available shelter beds at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, the Catalyst Project, The Way Out Center and VOA. WSDOT says that glosses over the complexity of shelter bed availability.

"The City’s Notice appears to quantify potentially available shelter beds, but WSDOT’s understanding is that a significant number of those beds are not currently available. Clarity and confirmation surrounding how many beds and where those beds are available is key to solving this complex issue — a discussion that should have taken place long ago but for the City’s resistance to coordinating efforts."

5. You’re blaming us for what is essentially your problem.

WSDOT thinks the city is trying to blame them for a city-caused problem. WSDOT notes, as they have done several times, that Camp Hope began as a protest over the city’s failure to provide sufficient resources to homeless residents. Specifically, they say the protest resulted from a "lack of shelter beds and other housing options and the dearth of social and health services to assist those most in need."

"Moreover, your failure to work effectively with the State when Camp Hope was first established, and contained less than 100 residents, led to its growth and the conditions that you complain of now. Because the City both caused and contributed to the conditions at Camp Hope through its own actions and inactions, its attempts to shift blame to the State must fail."

WSDOT goes on to say that, despite the city’s "blame-shifting approach," the agency has been able to work with local organizations to find solutions and take major steps to improve safety and security for residents and neighbors alike. That includes towing away RVs, installing fences, creating a badging system, providing on-site security, helping residents with identification restoration and more. That’s all on the state’s dime — not the city’s.

"The City's counterproductive approach of seeking to shift blame onto WSDOT rather than working collaboratively ignores not only the complex challenges at Camp Hope but is also constitutionally suspect. Moreover, the City's approach and artificial deadlines will not benefit the people living within or outside of the encampment and will very likely continue the cycle of displacement and encampments within City limits on the eve of the holiday season."

You can read the full letter below: 

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About The Author

Nate Sanford

Nate Sanford is a staff writer for the Inlander covering a variety of news topics. He joined the paper in 2022 after graduating from Western Washington University. You can reach him at 509.325.0634 ext. 282 or nates@inlander.com