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City to allow temporary homeless camps

This homeless camp on private property along Napa Street caused much concern in the surrounding neighborhood  last November.  (File / The Spokesman-Review)
This homeless camp on private property along Napa Street caused much concern in the surrounding neighborhood last November. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

Rules require permits, govern safety

Temporary camps for the homeless will be allowed within Spokane city limits.

The Spokane City Council on Monday approved new rules governing homeless camps.

The law mandates that homeless camps be sponsored by a group with a business license and requires the sponsor to work with agencies to find more permanent housing solutions for camp residents. It also sets dozens of parameters for sanitation, fire safety and security.

The action comes about seven months after the council approved a temporary ban on tent cities. City leaders passed the moratorium and started working on new rules for tent cities after sanitation and safety problems arose at a temporary homeless camp that was set up in the Chief Garry neighborhood last fall.

“It wasn’t safe for the homeless. It wasn’t safe for the neighborhood,” said City Administrator Ted Danek. “If the shelters are full, we would at least want to protect the people who would have to be in a homeless encampment.”

The rules, which were modeled on requirements in place in cities on the West Side of the state, will allow the city’s director of neighborhood services and code enforcement to issue permits for homeless camps. City police would be authorized to enforce the law. Violations could result in civil infractions, two of which could cause the camp’s permit to be revoked.

Dave Bilsland, a homeless activist who organized the tent city that stirred controversy last year, said the rules will help protect people in homeless camps and give organizations “pressure release” abilities when shelters become overwhelmed.

“My tent city last year proved the need for this ordinance,” Bilsland said.

Encampments will be restricted to 100 people and would not be allowed within 750 feet of a library, park or day care center. A tent city will also have to be at least 750 feet from a school, unless the school is affiliated with a church or similar religious organization and is run by the same group operating the camp.

Only one tent city can be located within the city at once. Camps will be required to shut down after 90 days, unless the director of neighborhood services and code enforcement agrees to a 40-day extension.

“It’s only a temporary solution,” said Heather Trautman, Spokane’s code enforcement supervisor. “There needs to be work in order to place the people. Then the encampment ends.”

Camps will be required to be surrounded by a 6-foot fence and have a portable toilet and hand-washing station for every 20 residents. A separate area will be required within the camp for families with minors 16 or younger. Sex offenders will not be allowed to enter. Weapons, drugs and alcohol are banned.

The council voted 6-1 for the new rules.

Councilman Mike Allen was the lone opponent of the ordinance. He questioned a rule requiring that homeless entering the camp present photo identification “verifiable by the issuer.”

Allen said that since the rule doesn’t require that the ID be issued by a government agency, it’s more likely people using the camp may use fake IDs.

“I really have a concern that we might be inviting criminal activity,” Allen said. “Somebody has to be watching out” for adjacent residents.

Trautman said an earlier proposal would have required government-issued IDs, but homeless advocates expressed concern that many people don’t possess such identification.

Council President Joe Shogan said requiring a state-issued ID could deter someone who is homeless from going to an official encampment.

“You want them in there rather than on the street,” Shogan said.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she also had concerns about the ID requirements, but decided other protections in the law make up for potential problems related to IDs.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at or (509) 459-5442.