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Tuesday, April 7, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City of Spokane faces second lawsuit over handling of homeless camp, demonstration

UPDATED: Fri., July 19, 2019

Homeless demonstrators established a tent encampment dubbed “Camp Hope” in front of Spokane City Hall, seen on Nov. 28, 2019. The city faces two federal lawsuits for its response to the demonstration. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Homeless demonstrators established a tent encampment dubbed “Camp Hope” in front of Spokane City Hall, seen on Nov. 28, 2019. The city faces two federal lawsuits for its response to the demonstration. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane faces a second federal lawsuit over its handling of an encampment of homeless people and a demonstration outside City Hall last winter.

Attorney Denisa Buljubasic of the nonprofit Center for Justice filed the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Richard Dahl, a homeless man who lived in the tent city dubbed “Camp Hope” until police cleared it out in early December. The camp brought together homeless people who protested the city’s lack of shelter space and an ordinance that bans sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks.

The lawsuit names the city and the Spokane Police Department as defendants, as well as Mayor David Condon, police Chief Craig Meidl and police Capt. Dave Singley, who oversaw eviction proceedings.

“The city of Spokane has organized a campaign against its homeless citizens with a series of ill-planned, ruthlessly executed and cruel raids designed to harass these citizens and essentially drive them away,” the suit alleges.

Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman for Condon’s administration, said in an email Friday, “The city has been served with this suit. Our attorneys are reviewing it. The city has no other comment.”

Like the other lawsuit, filed last week on behalf of a family that is homeless, the new suit says the city failed to provide enough shelter space and violated the rights of demonstrators by destroying their belongings while tearing down Camp Hope.

“All of the residents’ tents and personal belongings were thrown away into a garbage truck,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants had no plan, nor did they make any attempt, to store the residents’ property, identify and retain items of value, or preserve the property in any way.”

Those who tried to retrieve their belongings, including Dahl, the plaintiff, were threatened with arrest, according to the lawsuit. The suit notes that violations of no-camping laws end up on homeless people’s criminal records, making it harder for them to get jobs.

Both lawsuits hinge 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 people who are homeless from camping, sitting and lying on public property if there isn’t enough shelter space available.

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.

The lawsuits note that the warming sites did not provide meals, beds or places to store belongings.

Councilwoman Kate Burke, who chained herself to City Hall along with other demonstrators a day before the camp was torn down, said Friday the warming centers were also unsanitary places.

“They were completely uninhabitable,” she said. “You know, one of them didn’t even have a bathroom in it.”

The city is moving forward with plans to expand services for people who are homeless beyond the downtown core. But Burke said there are many reasons a person who is homeless might choose to sleep outside rather than in a shelter. They might want to avoid contact with an abuser, or they might have a pet or service animal that the shelter won’t allow. And loud, crowded spaces can be troubling for people with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

“First and foremost, the city should be treating people with dignity and we’re not. We’re not doing that,” Burke said. “I don’t feel like it’s constitutional, what we’re doing.”

In addition to damages, the Center for Justice said it’s seeking “an injunction that will forbid the city of Spokane and its agents from continuing its illegal practices of harassing our homeless citizens.”

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