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Judge declares I-90 homeless camp a chronic nuisance, asks city and state to form clearing plan

The judge also reserved authorizing a warrant of abatement for the city to clear the camp.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A Spokane County judge officially declared the I-90 homeless encampment a chronic nuisance during a hearing on Thursday.

In addition to the declaration, the judge found the city of Spokane established a clear and certain right to relief from the chronic nuisance. She also asked the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to devise a plan and timeframe to clear the camp by April 19.

The judge also reserved authorizing a warrant of abatement for the city to clear the camp. Additionally, she denied the state's request to terminate the city's temporary restraining order.

The city filed a complaint against WSDOT on Tuesday, specifically asking that the homeless camp located on WSDOT property be declared a chronic and drug nuisance. That complaint resulted in a hearing held Thursday.

During the hearing, Lynden Smithson, the attorney for the city of Spokane, said the state is offering campers the same services being offered at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC). The only difference is the city is offering those services in an indoor facility, not a tent.

"We're asking the state to come to TRAC and offer those services, but let's do it out of a classroom. Let's do it out of an indoor facility," Smithson said. 

The city also argued the camp has no security oversight, meaning campers can "use drugs with no intervention." To combat this, Smithson said drug use and assaults are prohibited at TRAC.

"We have the Salvation Army, they monitor and if somebody is actively using them, they're asked to leave," he said. "They might be trespassed for a day, and the next day, if they come in and abide by the rules, there are no issues."

Joseph Ehle, the attorney for WSDOT, argued against the city's references to TRAC. He said the people remaining at the camp have issues with meeting their activities of daily living, as well as mental health and substance abuse issues.

"There's also individuals who are still at the site with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues that are so severe, they don't allow them to be somewhere where they need to be clean and sober," Ehle said. "They need to continue to work through those substance or mental health issues."

Ehle also mentioned the city's limited housing options for people with substance and mental health issues and criminal convictions. He said those individuals are the hardest to place, and eligible housing for them simply isn't available.

"The reality of it is, your honor, if they're forced to go to TRAC and they can't stay there and they're ineligible to be there, they're gonna return to the city streets, downtown, in the alleyways, but yet Commerce can continue to work and continue to see through the Right Of Way safety initiative," Ehle said.

The judge ultimately declared the homeless camp a chronic nuisance and found that the city established clear and certain rights to relief from the state. She also reserved a ruling on the city's request for a warrant of abatement, meaning she did not approve or deny the request.

Additionally, the judge denied the state's request to terminate the city's temporary restraining order. In doing this, service providers at the camp can continue offering services like normal, but if any camper is seen engaging in any illegal activity, service providers must involve the police.

Following the ruling, the city sent out the following statement:

“The judge’s ruling takes us one step closer to restoring the health and safety of everyone in that neighborhood and establishing a firm expectation for those staying at the camp that it is closing by a date certain,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said. “The closure plan will include the availability of services to those in an indoor environment with a bed and regular meals.”

WSDOT also released a statement in response to the ruling:

The Washington State Department of Transportation is pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s court hearing. Since Camp Hope first appeared on WSDOT’s property after the city’s threats to sweep it in front of City Hall, we have endeavored to work with the city to resolve this encampment. Yesterday’s ruling requires us to work together. Moreover, the Judge recognized the important role that the Spokane Police Department has to play related to the safety of encampment occupants and the surrounding neighborhood.

By not granting the city’s abatement plan, the court allows the hard work by WSDOT and our partners at the state Department of Commerce, Washington State Patrol and local service providers to continue to reduce and ultimately close Camp Hope. Our approach to get those living unsheltered at Camp Hope the services they need and appropriate housing placement to end the cycle of homelessness ultimately helps those not only living unsheltered, but the many residents living and working in proximity to Camp Hope. Since October 2022, Camp Hope has dramatically shrunk by 86%—from 467 people to just 65 people as of last week.

While the city seems focused on Camp Hope, perhaps attention would be better suited to addressing the needs of the thousands of people living in a shelter or unsheltered within Spokane. The most recent point-in-time count by the city of Spokane counted 1,757 people experiencing homelessness throughout Spokane County on a single night in February 2022, with 823 individuals living outside. A nationally recognized supplemental state system that cross matches homeless data from multiple assistance programs finds a comprehensive count of more than 5,200 people experiencing homelessness (living in a shelter or unsheltered) in Spokane County.

Our state and local partners will continue to work with laser-like focus on housing and services for the 65 that remain within Camp Hope and ultimately work to a successful resolution of one of the largest encampments in Washington state.

The city and the state are set to meet again on April 19. During that hearing, the judge asked both entities to bring a plan with clear steps and a timeframe to clear the camp.

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