When a divided Spokane City Council passed a law banning sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks, advocates said the law was intended to clean up downtown, not criminalize homelessness. Nearly two years later, a majority of people cited under the law are homeless, though many cases are dismissed and jail time is rare.
Supporters say the sit-lie law is working as intended: downtown feels more welcoming, and homeless people are directed to social services. But even if they’re unlikely to go to jail or get a conviction on their record, many homeless people say the sit-lie law is just one more tool used to make them feel unwelcome in public places.
Joel Wilson James has ended up in court twice in the past two years for sitting under the railroad bridge on Browne Street.
James, 25, has been homeless since he was 18, when mounting bills from his mother’s cancer treatment caused his family to lose their home. In June, a downtown police officer cited James for violating the sit-lie ordinance, which is in effect between 6 a.m. and midnight. According to the police report, he was sitting on the ground and had been warned about the law previously. He had also been cited once before, in 2014.
James said he was hanging out at the Greyhound station nearby when he heard police were headed to the area under the Browne Street bridge. He walked over to warn others and said he was crouching and talking to other people when the officer wrote him a citation.
“All you’re doing is sitting on the ground. How can that be wrong?” he said.
The sit-lie law is just one of nearly a dozen ordinances in Spokane that advocates say disproportionately affect homeless people, often by making life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping, illegal in public places. Others laws prohibit aggressive panhandling, camping in public places and public urination.
Spokane’s current sit-lie law was approved at the end of 2013 by a 4-3 City Council vote, which expanded the hours it’s illegal to sit on downtown sidewalks. The law requires police to notify someone they’re in violation of the law before citing them, and prohibits citing homeless people when shelter space is unavailable. Breaking the law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $5,000 fine or one year in jail.
Laws like this are on the rise across Washington. In a report released in May, researchers with the Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project found Washington cities enacted 288 new laws since 2000 targeting activities primarily undertaken by homeless people, including panhandling and sleeping in public.
In Spokane, sit-lie citations are relatively rare – police have cited 65 people a total of 76 times since April 2013, municipal court data show. After reviewing a list of people cited, House of Charity director Ed McCarron said many were regular clients at the shelter. About 80 percent are men, and most people cited are between 20 and 39 years old. Other laws, like the section of the city code prohibiting aggressive solicitation and obstructing pedestrian traffic, result in more citations.
Police, prosecutors and supporters of the law agree most people cited under it are homeless, but they say the law is directing homeless people to social services, not criminalizing them.
Sit-lie citations are usually handled in community court, a weekly session at the downtown library where people accused of low-level crimes can talk to representatives from about a dozen agencies, from the Department of Licensing to mental health service providers. Homeless people cited under the sit-lie ordinance often have other pending court cases, usually for other misdemeanor crimes like trespassing or drinking alcohol in public.
About half of the 24 citations issued in 2015, including James’, were dismissed, according to data provided by city prosecutor Justin Bingham, often in exchange for guilty pleas in other cases or community service. Five have warrants pending for failure to appear. No sit-lie charges resulted in jail time, though defendants in a few cases that included sit-lie citations served time for other charges.
“Our aim is not to jail people for this offense,” Bingham said. Instead, it’s “to drive down crime by fixing the root of the problem.”
Bingham would not say whether he personally supports the law. He said his job as prosecutor is to fairly apply the laws passed by the City Council.
“This is something that they believe is a priority to deal with issues downtown, so what we’re trying to do is what’s in our opinion just and equitable for the community,” he said.
Capt. Brad Arleth, who runs the downtown police precinct, said police don’t go out looking for people to cite under the sit-lie law.
“The amount of enforcement that we do on that is fairly small. We refer far more people to service providers,” he said.
Enforcement is driven by calls from residents and businesses, Arleth said. Often, people call police complaining about things that go beyond sitting on the sidewalk, like open containers of alcohol or people having sex in public. Police keep track of people who have previously been warned about the law and may cite them if they’re found in violation again, Arleth said.
“It’s much easier for us to get compliance because we don’t have to write a ticket, we don’t have to write a report, we don’t have to tie up the court system,” he said.
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said he worked with social service groups to draft the current ordinance in response to complaints from many business about large groups of people loitering downtown, spitting, swearing and making people feel unwelcome. Many complaints he’s heard about the law are from cases where homeless people were actually cited for something else like trespassing, he said, and he encourages people to contact him if they feel the law is being unfairly applied.
Richard said the current law has made it easier to connect homeless people to social services while encouraging people to come downtown.
“It’s a very, very positive, holistic approach,” he said.
But homeless people say they feel the impact of laws like sit-lie even if they’re not cited, because police can ask them to move along when they’re minding their own business. Though Spokane has been praised for the community court model, advocates say as long as the sit-lie law is on the books, the city has the option of jailing and fining homeless people for breaking it.
“All it takes is a new administration to come in on a platform to clean up the streets to decide that all of a sudden we’re going to start enforcing these laws with vigor,” said Justin Olson, an author of the Seattle University study.
Teresa Rodriguez was sitting on the sidewalk near Browne Street and Third Avenue in August when she was cited. She had a sign with her but wasn’t displaying it or asking for money, she said. The police report agrees with what she said happened and notes people had complained about panhandling in the area and Rodriguez had been warned about the sit-lie law before.
Rodriguez said she’s sympathetic to business concerns about people being rowdy and making downtown uninviting, and she has no issue with the officers who cited her. But laws like sit-lie make it difficult for homeless people like her to find places to spend time during the day.
“They take all the wood off the benches and leave the metal bars on them” she said. The downtown public library is one of the few public places homeless people can reliably spend time during the day without being told to move, she said.
House of Charity is another place homeless people can spend time, but its hours are being reduced January 1 due to lack of funding, McCarron said. The downstairs area will no longer open from 6-8 p.m., and morning hours will start at 7:30 a.m. rather than 6.
For people with nowhere to go at night, laws like sit-lie can make life even harder. Spokane’s homeless shelters can fill up or close their doors after a certain time, and not everyone feels safe going to a shelter.
The Department of Justice weighed in on a Boise law banning sleeping in public earlier this year, siding with homeless advocacy groups who said enforcing the law when shelters were full was a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“When adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public,” the filing said. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalized her for being homeless.”
Human Rights Commission Chairman Blaine Stum does homeless outreach and said he regularly talks to people who don’t feel shelters are a viable option for them. Sometimes, it’s because they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and have been harassed by other shelter residents or don’t feel comfortable in a facility run by a religious organization. Families and couples also have trouble because most shelters are single-gender. People with substance abuse issues may not be welcome in shelters that require sobriety to get a bed.
“The populations that I’m reaching definitely feel targeted. They feel that they aren’t safe at shelters or the shelters aren’t meeting their individual needs so they don’t feel like they have another option,” Stum said. Even where the sit-lie law doesn’t result in citations, it makes people feel “they have to be constantly on the move because they don’t want to get cited, they don’t want to get targeted,” he said.
McCarron said he’s sympathetic to people who want to go downtown without being harassed and said the retail area is much nicer now than it was a few years ago. But he knows laws like sit-lie make it harder for homeless people to be downtown or rest when they need to.
“I wish I had a better solution for it too,” he said.
Lead photo credit: When he missed court on a sit and lie citation, Joel Wilson James said he was picked up by police on a warrant and had to throw away the food he just bought. "You can't sit anywhere, really, except for on a bench." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)