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Tuesday, October 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Shelter, helmet laws pass

The Spokane City Council took action Monday on two new laws making it a misdemeanor to build or occupy a transient shelter on public property and creating a civil infraction for not wearing a helmet while riding a bike, skates or scooter.

Both were adopted following emotional testimony.

Opponents of the transient shelter ordinance said that measure would criminalize being homeless.

Advocates of the helmet law talked about the personal and financial costs of head injuries.

Council members adopted the transient shelter ordinance in a 4-3 vote, with council members Brad Stark, Bob Apple and Mary Verner voting no.

The helmet law was approved in a 6-1 vote, with Apple voting no.

Both measures now go to Mayor Jim West, who has 10 days to sign the ordinances after he receives them. They go into effect 30 days after being signed.

Homeless advocates vowed to challenge the transient shelter law in court. Dave Bilsland, of the People 4 People organization, said opponents of the law hope to appeal the first citation or arrest by police.

“This is going to put people in jail and get fined when they can’t afford an apartment,” Bilsland said outside the council chambers.

The vote comes after months of debate over the issue at City Hall. The council last year deferred an anti-camping ordinance twice. The measure was modified to target construction and occupation of a transient shelter rather than the act of sleeping outdoors. The law would apply to park land, bridges, road rights-of-way and other publicly owned places.

Police Chief Roger Bragdon previously said his department would enforce the law only after giving campers 24-hour notice to vacate a camp and only with approval of a supervisor.

Police said the law is intended to stop property damage, public health hazards, thefts and other crimes associated with transients who come and go from Spokane, not to crack down on homeless residents. Camping on public property is a longstanding problem, and many campers seek to avoid the shelters and social agencies that are available to help them, officials have said.

Public testimony was taken at two previous council meetings this month, and it was not allowed Monday night.

Council members Monday said one answer to the problem of homelessness is for the community to provide $154,000 a year to the House of Charity shelter so it can keep its doors open throughout the year rather than for just five months during cold weather.

Councilman Joe Shogan held up a $50 bill and offered to donate it to the House of Charity. “That’s the solution to homelessness,” Shogan said of expanded shelter operations. Council President Dennis Hession, Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers and Stark joined in the offer to personally donate $50 each.

Councilman Al French said a law prohibiting transient shelters won’t prevent homelessness. “This is not an easy problem to solve,” he said.

Stark sought to require a “sunset clause” to terminate the law after 18 months unless the council voted to continue it. He also sought to remove park land from the law because, he said, the Park Board had not specifically voted to include park property under the ordinance. Both amendments failed.

“This ordinance cuts too close to the line of criminalization,” Stark said in explaining his no vote.

Apple said he could not vote to criminalize homelessness. “That’s against everything I believe in,” he said.

Public testimony on the helmet law focused on the horrors of head injuries versus individual rights.

Tomas Lynch, chairman of the Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board, said he was seriously injured in a bicycle accident 12 years ago and spent two years recovering.

“My life was spared by the use of my helmet,” he said.

Lynch said 83 percent of all bicycle accidents result in head injuries.

Owen Mir of the bicycle advisory board testified that helmets saved him, not once, but twice.

They were backed by testimony from the chief health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District and representatives of law enforcement, the Safe Kids Coalition and the Spokane County Traffic Safety Commission. Proponents said head injuries place a burden on the community in the cost of treatment but also in the emotional toll associated with care and recovery.

The voluntary use of helmets in Spokane County has declined from 64 percent in 1997 to about 40 percent in a more recent health district survey. Higher rates in the 1990s followed a strong public education campaign.

Opposition was summed up by Amy Walker, who said, “I don’t think it should be a law to wear a helmet.”

“This isn’t something you can legislate,” said Carolyn Pickett. “Parents have to be in on this.”

The ordinance would make it a class-4 civil infraction not to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, skates, skateboard or scooters, both motorized and nonmotorized. The fine is $25.

Parents or guardians would be responsible for children under age 16.

The state currently requires helmets for motorcycles, but lets local jurisdictions decide on expanded helmet laws for nonlicensed modes of transportation. A number of cities and counties throughout the state have enacted expanded helmet laws, including Seattle, Tacoma, King County, Pierce County, Bremerton, Bellevue and Port Angeles.

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