The WSDOT Backfire
Facing a triple digit heatwave while more than 600 people living in tents, cars, and RVs on a block at Second and Ray that is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, Jewels Helping Hands (under the leadership and commitment of Julie Garcia) teamed up with funding from the Empire Health Foundation and donations of time and materials from private citizens. The team acquired, erected, and staffed a cooling tent with misters and fans to bring some relief from the heat for the homeless people who were facing temperatures in the 120s inside some of their shelters on this mostly treeless, shadeless block.
To its credit, the City of Spokane’s Woodward administration had extended air conditioned library hours to serve as cooling centers for citizens struggling with the extreme heat.
Even so, the need for the on site cooling tent for the residents of Camp Hope is clear. For many residents leaving their few remaining belongings untended at Camp Hope (or anywhere) to seek air conditioning at a library would be a daunting idea. The choice would be to tough-out the heat on site or venture out and risk losing one’s few remaining possessions. Furthermore, try to imagine the scene if even half the 600 residents of Camp Hope appeared at the nearest library and joined all the other overheated local citizens seeking refuge there from their overheated homes and apartments. Finally, although a half mile to public transit or a mile a library may seem inconsequential to many, imagine negotiating that distance in 90 degree heat with a mobility issue and generally poor health.
Led by Julie Garcia, the private coalition moved ahead—and was clearly mindful of concerns:
On that same Thursday, July 28, in the middle of our triple digit heatwave, a headline in the Spokesman read “City of Spokane puts WSDOT on notice over cooling tent at Camp Hope homeless encampment”. Greg Mason writes:
In a letter dated Wednesday [July 27] to WSDOT…Spokane Fire Department Fire Marshal Lance Dahl identified the cooling tent as an “illegally constructed temporary structure” and requested its removal.
Failure to remove the tent by 9 a.m. Monday could result in a civil infraction of $536 for every day the structure remains in place after the deadline, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Spokesman-Review.
You can surely bet that Fire Marshall Lance Dahl doesn’t send a threat like that to WSDOT without approval, and probably not without someone spurring him from the highest levels of City government—but, to read Greg Mason’s article in the Spokesman, you would think that Mr. Dahl was, on his own, engaging in a pissing match with WSDOT.
Here’s where I want to put in a plug for Carl Segerstrom and the team at local RANGE Media, an local online news start-up centered in Spokane and focusing on the region. Their work is well worth your financial support. In contrast to the Spokesman, Segerstrom and Baumgarten obtained emails from the City on June 28th that flesh out what was happening behind the scenes. Their article is entitled “Spokane mayor’s office has plans to dismantle cooling shelter at Camp Hope.” It is well worth the read as is Segerstrom’s entire six part series on Camp Hope and the heatwave.
A government, like a corporation, as an entity, has “no ass to kick or soul to damn”. Reporting that says “the City of Spokane did ‘X’” means that the reporter doesn’t know exactly with whom a policy originated. Governments are composed of individual workers guided by people we elect. The votes that elect these people depend on our having a window on what they are up to.
According to RANGE, Breean Beggs, City Council President and an accomplished legal mind who likes to have the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed, emailed the Council on Wednesday night (July 27) “giving councilmembers an update on a conversation Beggs had with Fire Chief Shaeffer about the steps needed to make the cooling tent legal, permitted and permissible.” Councilman Cathcart, true to form, apparently saw an opportunity to make the homelessness of the residents of Camp Hope “less comfortable” (to quote Mayor Woodward) by using WSDOT to take the fall for dismantling Camp Hope’s privately funded and managed cooling tent:
Councilmember Michael Cathcart early Thursday morning [July28th] to Smithson and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins asking them to address “legal questions and precedence concerns” Cathcart had surrounding permitting the Camp Hope cooling shelter.
Before noon the same day [July 28] Interim City Attorney Lynden P. Smithson sent an email that:
…details a plan to tell the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) that the temporary cooling shelter is an illegal building and demand the agency remove it from their property by Monday, Aug. 1.
It is hard to imagine that Smithson acted with Mayor Woodward’s approval of the plan. What better way to make the homeless “less comfortable” and encourage them (unrealistically) to pick up and move during the day to the air-conditioned libraries her administration apparently thought an adequate response to the heatwave. Helping to break up Camp Hope by spurring WSDOT to do the dirty work must have seemed a dandy plan.
But WSDOT would not play along. The next day, in a joint statement with its parent department, the Washington State Department of Commerce, responded (the bold is mine):
Ultimately, the safety and well-being of people is our paramount concern,” the statement read. “In response to the city administration’s notice of violation, the state will not take action during this extreme weather to remove the cooling center.
Remember this episode when you vote next year. Keep informed. Read the articles on RANGE Media’s webpage about Camp Hope for a much clearer idea than the Spokesman provides of what’s going on there. A picture emerges of humans struggling to survive a heatwave as Cathcart and the Woodward administration try to make their already miserable lives even worse.
The good news is that the City Council voted unanimously last Monday (August 1) to provide monetary support for the cooling tent at Camp Hopeand to pursue resolving the permitting issues later this week. Even “Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle voted in favor of the legislation after pitching a different proposal for spending the American Rescue Plan funding that did not receive enough council support to move forward.” Apparently, even Republicans are sensitive to the strikingly negative optics of kicking people when they’re already down.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Last week Mayor of the City of Spokane Nadine Woodward announced her candidacy for a second term as Mayor not for this year’s election, but for the 2023 election. Odd timing. The only obvious advantage of declaring candidacy is the legal ability to accept campaign contributions. Leaping in right before a whole different set of elections potentially interferes with this election’s Republican candidates’ ability to fundraise. Her announcement cited “great momentum”. Among the “accomplishments” she touted were her support for hiring more police (note: support, not success), her success at getting the downtown police station moved (to what advantage I was never sure), and the impending opening the East Trent shelter in a building leased from Larry Stone, an opening now postponed from August 1 to mid September—maybe. This is “great momentum”??
P.P.S. There is additional irony to Woodward, Cathcart, and Smithson’s joint effort to make the residents of Camp Hope “less comfortable” during the heatwave. WeBelieveWeVote.com is a local organization that attempts to weld Republican political ideology with a right wing interpretation of what it means to be Christian. Arguably, WBWV helped elect Woodward and Cathcart. (Sadly, the internet WayBack Machine did not preserve Woodward and Cathcart’s WBWV Survey responses from 2019 and 2021, so the linkage is not airtight, as WBWV doesn’t offer an archives.) Nonetheless, question 12 of the current WBWV Survey asks for agreement with this statement:
Providing a safety net for the poor and needy is the responsibility of individuals, families, churches, and local communities. It is not the responsibility of the government, which primarily exists to protect citizens from foreign and domestic threats.
Cathcart (wisely, I suspect) refused to take part in the Survey this year in his campaign for a County Commissioner seat. That said, this Republican attitude toward the responsibilities of government vs. churches and the remainder of the private sector is commonly preached in Republican circles. In spite of that, this recent Woodward administration legalistic strategy is directed against the private sector efforts to “take care of the poor and needy” at Camp Hope. What’s wrong with this picture?