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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Residents of homeless camps in Spokane to be directed to shelters under new law

Crews clean up a homeless camp under the Maple Street Bridge, June 20, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. The city says public camping is on the rise, despite an existing ban and what the city describes as sufficient availble shelter space. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Individuals in homeless encampments on public land will be directed to shelters this summer under a new law passed by the Spokane City Council on Monday night.

An ordinance prohibiting camping within city limits in parks, conservation areas and other public property passed on a 6 to 1 vote. City Councilwoman Kate Burke cast the lone vote against the ordinance, saying it didn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable populations who may not feel safe within the city’s 24/7 homeless shelter system.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, the sponsor of the legislation, said the law was intended to protect public lands, trees and the Spokane River from pollution and the threat of wildfires.

“This new ordinance is an example of positive criminal justice reform,” Kinnear said.

The law makes camping a criminal misdemeanor, but the ordinance directs authorities to cite and release offenders while directing them toward community court, where they may receive access to housing and employment assistance. Enforcement also will be suspended when the city’s homeless shelters are full.

A half dozen city agencies and departments were responsible for identifying and cleaning up the city’s homeless encampments, many of which were established last summer under the Interstate 90 overpass downtown and near the Spokane River. The Spokane Police Department reported spending roughly $350,000 in 2017 on efforts to reduce homeless encampments, while the Fire Department reported a growing number of brush fires within city limits that could be attributed in part to camping.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said the ordinance wasn’t perfect, but represented an important step in expanding services to those experiencing homelessness, given the area’s scarcity of affordable housing.

“I just don’t want us to lose track of the housing shortage that we do have,” said Stuckart, referring to a report from the Spokane Association of Realtors showing housing inventory was down 20.1 percent in April compared to the same month in 2017.

Public testimony was mostly in support of the ordinance, citing the discovery of used needles in city parks and other illegal activity. Shelly McLallen, who moved to Spokane in 2014 and spent nine months without a home, urged the council to consider an option that didn’t direct people to the shelter system.

“You guys have been doing a little bit of work with the shelter, I appreciate that,” McLallen said. “The shelters, as they are in Spokane right now, don’t allow the majority of people that stay there to retain their sense of dignity. I think that’s a big reason why people won’t go to the shelters.”

Burke agreed, saying the ordinance could go further to give those people more options for housing.

“There’s still a section of our community that can’t access community court, and I fear for them being excluded from that process,” Burke said. “There are also people in the LGBTQ+ community that don’t feel comfortable accessing our shelters, even if there is available space for them.”

City Councilman Breean Beggs acknowledged those concerns, but said the city’s previous laws on camping were punitive and that the law represented a step toward rehabilitation.

“We’re not there yet, because there’s still way too many people suffering and dying who don’t have shelter,” Beggs said. “Until that gets fixed, any law is not going to be enough.”