A homeless family is suing the city of Spokane, claiming officials violated their rights by threatening them with misdemeanor citations and destroying personal belongings after the family camped in tents outside City Hall last winter.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Spokane, denounces the city’s handling of the encampment dubbed “Camp Hope,” where homeless people slept and demonstrated through late November and early December.
“Camp Hope was, in part, a protest of the city of Spokane’s lack of shelter space for the homeless; however, it was also a result of homeless individuals having no other place to go,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs are David Ham, his wife Cynthia Ham-Sanchez and their son Michael Ham, who were forced to leave the camp along with dozens of others. They and their attorney, Jose Trejo of the Northwest Justice Project, argue the city had no right to tear down the camp because the homeless demonstrators had nowhere else to go.
The lawsuit hinges on the question of what defines a homeless shelter, as opposed to a warming center that is not open 24/7. A recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says cities can’t enforce ordinances that prohibit homeless people from camping, sitting and lying on public property if there isn’t enough shelter space available. A shelter, the lawsuit contends, should provide “temporary residence.”
After the House of Charity shelter lost funding for hundreds of beds, city officials suspended enforcement of a sit-lie ordinance and allowed Camp Hope to remain in place for weeks as the City Council approved funding to open new warming centers at Salem Lutheran Church and 527 S. Cannon St.
But, the lawsuit notes, those shelters were only open at night and closed at 7 a.m., and the Cannon Street location did not allow pets or children.
“The warming centers were not homeless shelters,” the lawsuit states. “The warming sites did not provide any place to stay, or to store personal possessions during the day.”
The two warming centers were not open on the morning of Dec. 9, when David Ham returned to Camp Hope to find that police had seized and destroyed his family’s tent and other belongings, according to the lawsuit.
The family is seeking damages for what the lawsuit describes as “an illegal taking of private property.”
“These measures do not accomplish any significant or legitimate public policy goals,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, they perpetuate the cycle of homelessness by decreasing opportunities for homeless individuals to find housing, gainful employment and the ability to take care of their health needs.”
The suit continues: “The criminalization of homelessness deprives homeless individuals of their right to basic existence even if there is no arrest. The mere threat of arrest, whether written, verbal or implied, by an authorized agent of the city, has the effect of punishing the homeless individual for their status.”
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