UPDATE: We’re happy to report that the trash and camps referenced in this article have been cleaned up. Thank you, City of Spokane!
The Spokane River is an urban treasure that many lifetime locals are still discovering along with astounded newcomers who are blown away that there is a swimmable, floatable, and fishable river of such beauty with trails along it right within city limits. A wide range of wildlife, including native trout, deer, beaver, otter, coyote, eagles, osprey, and other animals, also make their home in and along the river. Yet, sadly, our river, both upstream and downstream from Riverfront Park, is being abused and it’s getting worse as summer drags on. Illegal camps, many with accompanying piles of trash, needles, fire pits, bottles, toilet paper, and human excrement, have become a serious threat to the health of the river, our urban public lands, and public safety.
Despite a new city ordinance that makes camping on public lands within the city limits a criminal misdemeanor, the number of illegal camps along the river near downtown Spokane has skyrocketed since the ordinance passed a few months back. The law is intended to limit the impact such camps have on the river and natural areas and also increase outreach to the homeless and offer them help finding shelter and other services. Enforcement of the ordinance is also suspended when the city’s homeless shelters fill up.
There’s no doubt that this issue—a complex combination of economic disparity, lack of proper services and shelter for those in need, undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and other societal problems—is emotionally and politically charged. Protecting the river and taking better care of the growing number of people in need in our community who are suffering are intricately linked, and we need to do whatever we can to make meaningful progress on both fronts.
The Spokane Riverkeeper, a non-profit group that helps safeguard the river, emphasizes the complexity of the issue and need for a holistic approach. “Like many other service providers in our community, the Spokane Riverkeeper is responding to the issue of homelessness along the Spokane River,” says Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White Jr. “More folks on the riverbanks creates more impacts—litter, sewage and a host of other issues that affect the river and river-users. For us, it is important not to oversimplify the problem, nor judge the homeless who are often very powerless in this situation. In these times, many folks are one medical crisis away from living outdoors.” According to White, the Riverkeeper’s response has been to double down on riverside litter pick up and continue outreach to the homeless, which includes taking SNAP and other social service providers down the river by boat to help access camps and conduct needed outreach to homeless people along the river.
If you are out along the river and see a camp or trash on Spokane city park land, Carl Strong, the assistant divisions manager for park operations, says calling 311, the My Spokane city customer service hotline, is an important first step. When a report is made, Strong explains, a neighborhood resource officer, once they are free from other more pressing law enforcement duties, will post a notice that campers have 48 hours to remove property. Social services will then attempt to make contact and assist individuals with finding shelter and other resources before parks staff, often accompanied by a police officer, go in and remove trash that’s left behind. The biggest bottleneck in this process right now, says Strong, is not having a dedicated staff to get out on the ground to post notices at camps once they are reported. “More staff for the clean-up work would also really help,” he says.
The outdoor recreation community, including river and trail users, should also do their part. Always take note of the location of camps and trash on city park land along the river, which includes much of the undeveloped land downstream from the Spokane Falls to the TJ Meenach Bridge, and call 311 to file a report. With the increase in camping and campfires in the area, wildfires have also been on the rise. Anyone who encounters campfires, brush fires, obvious drug activity, or violent or threatening behavior anywhere in the city should immediately call 911. We should all also consider lending a hand to those in need by volunteering with or making a donation to an organization that helps the homeless and other people in need in our community. //
Derrick Knowles is Out There Outdoors co-publisher and a regular Spokane River floater and riverside trail walker, runner, mountain biker, and trash gatherer.
[Feature photo: Trash and camp upstream of the Don Kardong Bridge. // Keith Quien]