Advocates for Spokane homeless people on Monday decried a proposed anti-camping ordinance as harsh and unfair to people in need.
“I think it’s a moral outrage,” said Jim Green, a South Side resident.
“Our own society is kicking us,” said Dave Bilsland, of the People 4 People organization, which is arguing against an ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to camp on city streets, parking lots and other property.
Spokane City Council members heard testimony on the ordinance Monday and are scheduled to continue the hearing next Monday. A vote on the plan is expected on June 28, said Council President Dennis Hession.
The council twice last year deferred action on similar proposals, which have been supported by the police department but opposed by groups representing the homeless.
Sister Patty Beatty, a member of the leadership team for the Spokane Homeless Coalition, told the council that homelessness should not be made a crime. She said enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance would become another financial cost to the city.
Rather, the city should police transient camps with existing laws and provide approved camping areas for homeless people. She said the city needs more shelter facilities for homeless youths.
Police officials did not testify Monday but in the past have said that uncontrolled transient camping leads to defacement of public property, problems with trash and sanitation and increased crime involving transients. A separate city law already makes it illegal to camp on park property.
In an interview outside the hearing, Police Chief Roger Bragdon said his department would give illegal campers 24 hours notice before making any arrests, and a supervisor would have to approve police action against a camp.
The proposed ordinance authorizes the director of public works and utilities to grant permits for transient shelters on streets, parking lots or other publicly owned areas.
Councilman Brad Stark proposed an amendment to reduce the maximum fine of $1,000 for what would become a misdemeanor violation. His proposal died for lack of a second after city officials explained that state law sets fines for misdemeanors, which are punishable by maximums of 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.
“Do you think anyone sleeps in their car for fun?” asked resident Steve Kiefel. “These are cruel laws.”
Michael Cain, representing Catholic Charities, read a letter from the charities Executive Director Donna Hansen arguing against the proposed camping law. Hansen said the law and the fines will add to the burdens of homeless residents trying to rebuild their financial lives.
She also said shelter grants could be threatened.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo said proposed legislation in Congress would restrict grant funds to cities that have laws against transient camps, but the proposal is not expected to emerge from congressional committee in the near future, and the proposed federal law has a number of legal questions surrounding it.
Proponents of the anti-camping law got support from Phil Altmeyer, executive director at the Union Gospel Mission, who said that open camping could cause the public to become unsympathetic to the troubles of the homeless.
“I don’t think you will find a city that cares as much for its homeless as this one,” Altmeyer said.
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