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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City to resume sit-lie enforcement in February

In this photo from Nov. 15, 2018, a homeless man sleeps near a chalk drawing in front of City Hall in Spokane. Police will soon began enforcing a city ordinance which bars people from sleeping on the streets of downtown Spokane during the day. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Now that Spokane’s shelter capacity has increased by 275, the city will resume enforcing a law that bars people from sitting, sleeping or lying on the streets of downtown Spokane beginning Feb. 8.

The “sit-lie” ordinance, which was suspended by the City Council in November amid protests in front of City Hall, allows law enforcement to cite people who violate the ordinance and send them to community court, where they are connected to behavioral health, food and housing resources. The law is only enforced when there is space at certain shelters and between 6 a.m. and midnight in downtown Spokane.

According to the suspension, police could not enforce the ordinance until there was shelter space available for an additional 200 individuals for 30 days.

Sit-lie supporters, such as City Councilman Mike Fagan and Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard, argue the law is a tool that law enforcement can use to compel people to seek resources. Opponents, such as City Councilwoman Kate Burke and Alfredo LLamedo, the activist whose hunger strike evolved into a campout in front of City Hall, argue that it criminalizes the homeless when they have nowhere to go or aren’t comfortable staying in a shelter.

According to a letter sent in response to the City Council’s actions, Mayor David Condon said he was opposed to the suspension. He said there are already exceptions written into sit-lie for when shelter space is not available, as well as exceptions for medical emergencies or a disability.

According to a separate letter sent from the city administration to the City Council, the requirement laid out in suspension was met Jan. 9 when the Ermina Avenue warming center came online.

City Councilman Breean Beggs, one of the council members who suggested amending sit-lie, said the city could run into similar issues in April, when the contracts with service providers to increase capacity by 275 end. He said the city rarely enforced the law before the suspension due to lack of available shelter space, and if the number of homeless people in Spokane has remained constant, police will likely run into the same enforcement issue.

He said the city has not committed to extending the contracts for the warming centers, but the renewed conversation around sit-lie could be an opportunity to continue city support for warming centers.

Fagan, the only council member to vote against the suspension, said he would like to see sit-lie expanded citywide. He said he didn’t have a proposal in the works yet, but has discussed expanding the law with Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who said some of her constituents outside of the downtown enforcement area had contacted her with concerns about people sleeping around their businesses and homes.

“They are compassionate,” Stratton said. “But patience is running thin for those who are refusing services, don’t want to change or remove themselves from that lifestyle.”

Stratton said she was willing to have a discussion about expanding sit-lie citywide, or enforcing the law 24 hours in downtown Spokane and only in the daytime for the rest of town.

Burke proposed repealing sit-lie and the camping on public lands ordinance in their entirety, but her proposal was indefinitely deferred by the rest of the council.

Richard said since the suspension, he has had daily conversations with business owners who report people staying for long periods of time around their businesses. The owners say they did not have a legal way to remove them.

He said many DSP members are experiencing “homeless fatigue,” and want to help, but are also frustrated by the sheer number of people staying or doing inappropriate activities around their homes and businesses.

“Just like any other part of the population, 98 percent of the people that are homeless are great people and they’ve fallen on hard times,” he said. “But people’s hearts are kind of getting hardened because they walk by and somebody’s treating them horribly or they’ve stolen something from them or peeing on their car as they drive by.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who said he doesn’t support a sit-lie repeal, said there wasn’t yet a consensus on any possible changes to the law.

“If someone was to bring forward adjustments, I don’t know if you could find four votes,” he said.

Stratton said even if the City Council doesn’t approve changes anytime soon, it should clearly communicate with the public when the law can be enforced and when it cannot. She said, over the past few months, both the homeless and complainants who phone in a sit-lie issue have been confused as to when the ordinance is to be enforced.

“Maybe the good thing is we’re talking about this,” she said, “but there are no easy answers.”