Shawn Vestal: Enforcing sit-lie law would be bigger crime
Supporters of the city’s new sit-lie law said repeatedly Monday night that they were not trying to criminalize homelessness.
Starting with City Councilman Mike Allen – who put air quotes around the words “criminalize homelessness” – virtually everyone who testified in favor of the law that criminalizes sitting or lying on city sidewalks emphasized the exact same point: They are definitely, absolutely, totally not trying to criminalize homelessness.
This may be true. But what they have criminalized catches homelessness in its large, vague net. The City Council criminalized seediness, unsavoriness, smelliness. They criminalized idleness, aimlessness, other-ness. It is a bum’s rush, this law, an effort to roust undesirables, to send a message that the city’s downtown sidewalks belong to shoppers and merchants and decent folk. The law helps ensure that those who aren’t any of those things can be moved out of sight quickly – directed toward a shelter, in the most humane version, or jailed, in the least – under a set of flimsy pretenses that includes sitting or lying on public property.
Allen, who has worked for months on the issue, said there are definite instances where panhandlers and others downtown have been aggressive, offensive and threatening toward others. But he said he was motivated more by a desire to direct people on the street toward shelters and other services. He noted that the city lost a $300,000 transitional housing grant last year, because not enough homeless people wanted to use the program. That’s a fair point. It’s not like we don’t have the people who could use the help.
And yet, it was clear from the testimony Monday night that it was the nuisance problems that drew supporters out. Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, made it crystal clear: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
These unsavory street people, in other words, are making us look bad.
Which prompts the question, once again: Who do we mean when we say “us”?
The sit-lie ordinance clarifies this. We definitely do not mean homeless people. They are not us. Homeless people are meant to go away and be un-looked-upon. Their mere presence is very likely to make people feel unsafe. Also not us are certain kinds of not-quite-homeless people – those who dress a certain way, talk a certain way, curse or smoke or merely clutter up our good first impression in a certain way. Not us.
Those testifying in favor of the sit-lie ordinance at Monday night’s City Council meeting brought up many concerns about downtown hooliganism. Very few of them had anything to do with sitting or lying. Almost all of them concerned behaviors that are already illegal. Many people expressed concerns about safety. Many expressed concerns about “feeling” safe. The problem of spitting was cited. Cursing and smoking – check. Intimidation. Rudeness. Aggressive panhandling.
Downtown business owners talked about drug-dealing and threatening behavior. Concerns about “mob rule” at the planter outside Olive Garden were raised. It’s like “The Lord of the Flies,” apparently, and without a sit-lie ordinance those of us with our Nordstrom bags and restaurant leftovers are like poor, doomed Piggy.
Richard raised the notion that we must enforce community standards of behavior. Business representatives spoke about the difficulties of competing with other commercial areas where sitting and lying are not such an oppression upon the safe feeling of shoppers. Two representatives of River Park Square testified; one suggested that without a sit-lie ordinance, all retail activity in downtown Spokane might cease. Everyone would go to the Valley Mall.
The new ordinance updates one that’s already on the books. It expands the hours it is illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalks. Allen first brought it forward six months ago but has since tinkered with it in an effort to address concerns. Among the changes: It adds a warning for a first offense; it requires police to direct people to shelters and services; and it is suspended when the shelters are full.
Allen also noted that the Riverside Neighborhood Council, which represents 4,000 people who live downtown, supports the ordinance, and that – whatever my take on it – many people have concerns about their safety in some corners, and at some times, downtown.
“You have a right to come into our city, downtown or elsewhere, and feel safe,” he said.
The region’s Criminal Justice Commission is getting ready to produce a comprehensive report on how the region can best handle nonviolent offenders. This commission will almost certainly not be recommending jail time for offenses like sitting and lying on sidewalks. It is almost certain to produce suggestions that grow from the model known as Smart Justice, in which smarter, cheaper and more effective alternatives to warehousing nonviolent, mentally ill, homeless people in jail are sought.
Threatening others is illegal. Drug-dealing is illegal. Aggressive panhandling is illegal. The sit-lie ordinance is a makeshift attempt to make it illegal for some people to make other people feel unsafe simply by virtue of who they are.
If our short-handed police department actually enforces it – actually expends its insufficient resources on chasing away human beings in order to improve our first impression – it would be a bigger crime than the most dastardly sitting or lying in history.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.