If there was a perfect ordinance to control misbehavior in Downtown USA, it would have been universally copied by now.
One does not exist, so Spokane is not alone in trying to find the combination of rules, enforcement and alternatives that might relieve the growing concern that aggressive panhandling, litter, cluster smoking and f-bombs are marring the experience of visitors and natives. Consider this headline of a Saturday Seattle Times editorial:
“Downtown Seattle feels unsafe. Fix it.”
Ah. But where’s the fix?
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart last week introduced a handful of ordinances focused on the problem. Among them are measures that would punish bad behavior in the transit center, on buses or in health care facilities; restrict bike and skateboard use on sidewalks; and crack down on possession of vehicle prowling tools. But it was a proposed “sit-lie” measure that has taken most of the flak before the City Council starts its preliminary review.
He concedes the bill is too broad to survive court review – you cannot criminalize homelessness – but the city is working with the Center for Justice to produce a version with more specifics. The balance between personal liberties and public safety is a hard one to find.
A city of Portland law that was an attempt to address its homeless population was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals a few years ago.
While the city of Spokane looks for the legal sweet spot, the Downtown Business Partnership has created an Urban Concerns Task Force to explore more comprehensive solutions to loitering and other nuisance behavior, starting with a revival of an earlier campaign to discourage the giving of money to panhandlers.
“They’re panhandling because it’s working,” says organization President Mark Richard.
Better, he says, to make equivalent donations to organizations that address the roots of vagrancy – unemployment, lack of education, lack of housing – then make the outreach that will move the willing onto paths that will take them off the street. Some of the resources are already available, but there are new approaches that could encourage community service, for example.
He hopes the task force will be able to commission a national study of best practices for maintaining vital downtowns.
And, of course, there is the lack of a police presence downtown equal to the demand for law enforcement. Mayor David Condon wants to hire another 25 officers. Once trained, many of those cops could be dedicated to the downtown. But that will take a year or two, and in the meantime a private security presence at least provides eyes and ears, as will an expanding network of surveillance cameras.
Spokane is under-policed, but so is Seattle. Until new officers are available, the city and Downtown Business Partnership must find other resources, and use them as creatively as possible. Eventually, with more tools, the problem elements can be confronted more forcefully.
The goal is a simple one: Downtown Spokane should be a welcoming place for all who do the simple courtesy of respecting others.