Amid public outcry over laws prohibiting camping, sitting or sleeping on public property, city officials and police say illegal camping is more widespread than it has been.
Director of Parks and Recreation Leroy Eadie said the number of camps on park land has increased for years and people are camping longer, sometimes over the winter, a trend that diverges from the past. He said the parks department controls about 4,000 acres, half of which are undeveloped natural areas, where most of the camping occurs.
Kelly Keenan, director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department, said there were 292 encampments reported on city property between June and November of this year. He said earlier data was not available because the department was not coordinating with other city departments until this summer.
Capt. Dan Torok, who leads the Spokane Police Department’s north precinct, echoed Eadie’s comments, adding most of the camps on public property expanded from around the downtown core to north Spokane and usually produced thousands of pounds of garbage, human excrement and bicycle parts.
In 2016, there were 66,000 pounds of debris hauled away from camps. That number grew to 73,530 pounds in 2018, Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Fianna Dickson said.
This fall, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that laws banning camping or sleeping on public property are unconstitutional because they criminalize people who have nowhere to go. Eadie argued the camping law is constitutional because of its 48-hour notice policy and that it can only be enforced when shelter beds are available.
He has also told the City Council that if it does change or repeal the law – a move activists have called for and Councilwoman Kate Burke has proposed – the Parks Department would continue to enforce the law and existing curfew rules because the department is an independent body under the city charter.
“We’re having a hard time as it is controlling the illegal camping on park lands and public lands today,” he said, “and that could get out of hand pretty easily.”
People cited under the law are first given a 48-hour notice to remove their belongings. If they’re cited, they are sent to community court, where they can be connected to housing and other resources such as food or behavior health services. The law cannot be enforced, however, if there are no shelter beds available for an individual. For example, if the only beds available across the shelter system are for women at the House of Charity, men could not be cited for camping.
The law barring people from camping on public lands was used to remove the protest camp in front of City Hall, known as “Camp Hope,” which grew up around activist Alfredo’s LLamedo’s weeklong hunger-strike protest of sit-lie and the camping ordinances. The protesters, made up of housed and homeless activists, continued to demand a repeal of both and asked for more homeless resources sooner. They camped in front of City Hall for weeks and staged protests downtown during the holiday season.
Burke’s proposal to repeal the sit-lie ordinance and law against camping on public lands was deferred indefinitely by the City Council during a briefing session. Burke argued that instead of making laws to penalize people for camping or sleeping on public property, they should increase the number of public garbage cans and public, free bathrooms around the community.
“It should be a human right to be able to relieve yourself,” she said. “We should be able to have a dignified place to go to the bathroom, and most of these folks on the streets don’t have anywhere to go because you have to pay for something to go to the bathroom at a business, or if the parks aren’t open, you’re out of luck.”
Burke said even if the rules are constitutional, she believes they create human rights issues.
Councilman Breean Beggs called a repeal a “nonstarter,” saying there are not four votes on the council to repeal either law.
“The problems and the solution are more nuanced than they’re messaging,” he said. “I agree that people should not be put in jail for simply being homeless. I think most people agree with that.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he doesn’t support repealing either law and said the city should focus on writing policy that leads to more affordable housing. He said the camp and protesters in front of City Hall may have led to some portions of the city’s warming centers opening sooner, but in some cases, it led to delays in the warming center network because it scared some potential landlords or service providers.
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