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While Spokane County bans camping on public land, Valley leaders fear legal issues if they attempt the same

Crews clean up a homeless camp under the Maple Street Bridge, June 20, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Bicycles, needles, baby strollers, funiture and a little red wagon were some of the items hauled away from the site.  Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Crews clean up a homeless camp under the Maple Street Bridge, June 20, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Bicycles, needles, baby strollers, funiture and a little red wagon were some of the items hauled away from the site. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Camping on public land is now illegal in both Spokane and Spokane County, but Spokane Valley leaders worry they won’t be able to enforce a camping law if they pass one.

After a federal court ruled that Boise couldn’t enforce a law that barred people from sleeping on sidewalks if they had nowhere else to go, local governments across the West have been uncertain about how to constitutionally keep people from camping in publicly owned places.

Last month Spokane County commissioners approved a law barring people from camping, living in vehicles or storing their property on public lands and right of ways. Once deputies post a notice to vacate on the camp, campers have 48 hours to leave. If they don’t comply, they can be arrested and jailed for up to 90 days and ordered to pay a fine of up to $1,000.

The new law also includes a caveat that it can only be enforced when there is open space at shelters in Spokane County.

County Commissioner Josh Kerns said most homeless camps were in his district in the northern part of the county and that they represent a fire, sanitation and public safety hazard. Kerns argued that enforcing a camping ordinance would also get people out of unsafe camps and into downtown Spokane, where they can get help.

“The services do not exist on the far ends of the county,” he said. “The services are located in the city, whether it’s in the downtown core or nearby. … If you think about it, this ordinance could get you to those services.”

Kerns said he doesn’t anticipate the ordinance will affect the jail population, because most people will pack up their camp before their 48 hours are up.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said his office is still developing a policy and finding a way to check if shelter space is available.

He said officers will enforce the law but that first-time offenders might not be cited.

Knezovich said people who want to live a transient lifestyle and are repeatedly arrested for camping or living in vehicles will face jail time or fines.

“There are plenty of services,:” he said, “But if they don’t avail themselves to that, they will be charged and they will be arrested.”

Spokane passed its camping ordinance last summer but changed its enforcement approach this spring, creating a group that includes code enforcement, law enforcement and a litter team.

Marlene Feist, city spokesperson, said the city has cleaned up 256 illegal camps and about 60,000 pounds of trash since May 1.

The City of Spokane’s camping law also allows police to cite violators with a misdemeanor, but because there is a clause that requires law enforcement to refer people to Community Court, people cited have a chance for their charge to be dismissed.

People in Community Court are required to seek services and report their progress weekly, and people who don’t follow the requirements may still face jail time or a fine. Sex offenders and people who already have been convicted of violent crimes aren’t eligible for Community Court and face jail time or fines if they are cited for camping.

Spokane County does not have a Community Court, but Chris Anderson, the deputy prosecuting attorney for Spokane County said people who are arrested for camping can still go through other courts, such as Mental Health Therapeutic Court or Veteran’s Court, if they are eligible.

Elected officials in Spokane Valley say they also are concerned about the increase in camping on public land and in motor homes or other vehicles, but fear they may run afoul of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ Boise ruling if they pass a law.

The court argued in its September ruling that the city of Boise couldn’t enforce a law that bars people from camping, when a homeless person’s only alternative is staying in a faith-based shelter with religious iconography or requirements. Some shelters in Boise also had non-religious restrictions that people could only stay for a set number of days.

The court clarified the ruling in April, saying cities are only violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable fines or cruel or unusual punishment, if they criminalize sleeping, sitting or lying in all public spaces when there are no other sleeping spaces available.

Boise has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Spokane Valley does not have any low-barrier shelters and has prohibited camping in the city’s park system since 2003. City attorney Cary Driskell said city staff is developing a proposal it could enforce that would prohibit camping or living in a vehicle on public land, but it won’t be released until sometime next month.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Driskell argued Spokane Valley should be able to enforce a no camping ordinance because it pays for some of the beds at low-barrier shelters in the city of Spokane.

Instead of financially supporting shelters in Spokane directly, Spokane Valley funnels money from real estate transactions as well as federal and state affordable housing and homeless funds through the county. A committee that includes Spokane Valley Councilman Arne Woodard as well as law enforcement, service providers and other government officials makes recommendations on what programs the county should fund.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said camping on public land is an issue the city needs to address soon, but he isn’t sure what proposal the city could realistically enforce.

“Until we get this Ninth Circuit thing cleared up, anything we do is kind of a roll of the dice,” Higgins said.

Higgins said he is interested in potentially supporting a plan for the City of Spokane to buy a building and convert it into a shelter in collaboration with Spokane County, but he’s concerned about how Spokane has managed other homeless services, saying their approach has made the problem worse.

‘If we could add accountability and responsibility and take away the ‘come one and come all, no questions asked’ policy, that would be more palatable to the Valley,”’ he said.

Higgins said he prefers Union Gospel Mission’s approach to homelessness over that of Catholic Charities, which is one of the nonprofit shelter providers the City of Spokane supports.

The privately funded Union Gospel Mission requires people who stay at their men’s shelter to pass a drug test, and men can stay for only three months if they don’t enroll in a program. They are also required to attend one religious service for every three meals they eat and help out with chores.

The capacity at the House of Charity, which Catholic Charities operates in downtown Spokane, has fluctuated between 100 and 400 over the last three years due to changes in city-controlled funding. Catholic Charities doesn’t require drug tests, and spokespeople for the shelter say it tries to accept people where they are.

Spokane Valley Councilwoman Linda Thompson said she was concerned about a proposed shelter for 120 people on Havana Street and Sprague Avenue in the City of Spokane, near its border with Spokane Valley.

While some have argued that the presence of that shelter would allow Spokane Valley to show it is offering beds to local people without shelter and to meet the Ninth District’s requirements, Thompson isn’t convinced it’s the best option because it’s so far away from the services in the rest of the city and far from some areas in Spokane Valley.

Thompson said Spokane Valley should consider supporting their own shelter, not only to enforce the law, but also to ensure there is a place for people to go.

Thompson said camping is an issue and that the city should try to do something to address it, but he doesn’t believe “locking people up” will solve homelessness.

“I’m open to hearing the proposal,” she said. “but I want to do everything we can not to punish people for being homeless.”

Higgins said he would only consider a shelter in Spokane Valley once the city “exhausts all other possibilities.”

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