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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Court rules people can’t be prosecuted for sleeping in streets; Spokane to review its own ordinances

After a federal appeals court ruled earlier this week that prosecuting people for sleeping on the street was unconstitutional, Spokane’s city officials are reviewing local ordinances that restrict sitting, sleeping and camping in public spaces.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees the western United States, ruled Tuesday that the city of Boise had violated several homeless residents’ constitutional rights when enforcing an ordinance that banned sleeping on public property. Attorneys for six homeless plaintiffs argued that thousands of homeless people in Boise did not have a place to sleep due to a lack of beds or shelters, as well as restrictions based on religious participation, gender, age or length of stay. In its published opinion, the court wrote that enforcing ordinances penalizing people who have nowhere else to go violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars excessive fines, bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

Spokane, like many other cities across the West, bans people from sitting or sleeping in doorways and sidewalks between 6 a.m. and midnight. Law enforcement does not enforce the ordinances when shelters are full.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo said Spokane has been following the Boise case for a few years, but couldn’t comment on specific steps or details until he and officials had an opportunity to analyze the ordinances and the court’s opinion.

“The decision is only 24 hours old,” he said. “So we need to sit down and review it.”

City Councilman Breean Beggs, former director of the Spokane Center for Justice, said criminalizing homelessness and poverty is illegal, and Spokane’s ordinance, in its current form, could potentially conflict with the court’s decision.

“I wouldn’t say we’re completely out of bounds on its face because we have allowed people to block the sidewalk from midnight to 6 a.m.” he said, “but we’re on the edge.”

He said there are several shelters in Spokane that are specifically for women or families or shelters that require sobriety or religious participation, meaning that even when there are beds available, there may be certain people who do not have access.

Beginning this month, the downtown shelter House of Charity will no longer be a 24/7 shelter. Staff estimated the shelter would have 100 fewer beds starting this month, and for now, may need to scale down operations. Beggs said the reductions in beds at shelters like the House of Charity puts even more pressure to address ordinances that affect the homeless population.

He said that during his time on City Council, he’s often heard that barring sleeping or sitting in public spaces during the daytime would create a safer and more welcoming downtown, but he would prefer to find a way that does not pre-emptively criminalize behavior that is normally legal.

Beggs said the council already updated an ordinance that banned camping on public land, except when homeless shelters are full, but still needs to address the sidewalk ordinance. He said he will introduce updates later this fall, but could not comment on specifics yet.

Those who are cited for sleeping or sitting in public are referred to Community Court, where people with low-level violations meet weekly at the library and can connect with community resources. City Councilwoman Kate Burke said regardless of what court people who violate sit-and-lie laws end up in, enforcing the ordinance still criminalizes the poor and homeless.

“We shouldn’t be criminalizing people,” Burke said. “They’re our constituents just as much as anybody who is housed.”

She said she would prefer the council rescind the ordinances that bar people from sleeping or camping on public land and sidewalks, instead of amending them.

Burke was the only council member to vote against the camping on public land ordinance when it passed in May and said she is looking forward to discussing possible solutions, such as investing in affordable housing, at future meetings.

The Associated Press contributed to the report