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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Valley considers camping ban, shorter hours in parks to curb presence of homeless

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 11, 2019

Angela Dallman and Nic Mischke, along with their possessions, spend the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, at Balfour Park in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Angela Dallman and Nic Mischke, along with their possessions, spend the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, at Balfour Park in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Angela Dallman huddles behind a small wall of blankets, lawn care supplies and a stack of golf clubs in the farthest back corner of Balfour Park in Spokane Valley.

Dallman, a domestic violence survivor with PTSD, said she prefers the park to the streets and doesn’t want to stay in a shelter in Spokane. Crowds and enclosed spaces are overwhelming for her, and Spokane Valley is her home.

“I just want somewhere safe to be,” she said, “without being looked at for being homeless.”

Dallman and her boyfriend, Nicholas, say they are not camping. They arrive at the park early in the morning and leave before it closes. Every night, they pack up their belongings and move to a nearby church’s property.

But a set of new park rules and tightened camping laws Spokane Valley is considering this Tuesday could mean the couple would not be allowed to keep their possessions in the park.

If the measure passes, others across Spokane Valley’s park system will be barred from camping on public land and from living in vehicles on the right of way or in city-owned parking lots. The city is also considering a second ordinance that reduces the hours parks are open to the public and would ban certain activities, such as golfing.

The new camping rules would only be enforced when there is space in shelters, except at City Hall, Mirabeau Meadows, CenterPlace Regional Event Center and Balfour Park, where camping would never be allowed.

There are no homeless shelters in Spokane Valley, but the city does financially support shelters in Spokane through a partnership with Spokane County.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said he wanted to avoid a large homeless camp around City Hall, as Spokane experienced last year. He said the other three locations listed in the proposed law are the park system’s “crown jewels.”

“There are some places homeless (people) shouldn’t be allowed, period,” he said.

When asked if people who are homeless and follow the rules should be allowed in those locations, he said the homeless aren’t following the rules.

“If you bring your belongings and are squatting or intending to stay there all day,” Higgins said, “that is not what parks are for.”

Parks have had issues with vandalism, families feeling unsafe and criminal activity since a 9th District Court of Appeals ruling in 2018. That ruling barred governments from citing people for sleeping outside if there is no shelter space available.

Spokane Valley Parks Director Mike Stone said the department had to close down the restrooms in Balfour Park early this year after people lit warming fires in the bathrooms.

The parks department also no longer takes reservations for picnic shelters in Sullivan Park, after people who rented the space said they had a bad experience or uncomfortable interactions with people who appeared to be homeless or living in the park.

“It’s still very popular,” Stone said. “We just didn’t feel right about having them pay for a reservation and not having a totally positive experience.”

Both the city of Spokane and Spokane County have already passed similar laws barring camping on public land, when shelter space is available.

Spokane Valley Councilwoman Linda Thompson said regulating camping and activities in the park is one aspect of the city’s overall approach to homelessness. She said plans for a shelter, and rules for public lands, need to move forward together.

“This conversation has to happen at the same time, and if we’re going to work regionally, we need to have the same rules to work with,” she said.

Councilman Arne Woodard said he is working with the county on a new facility including shelter beds that would serve the region, though it may not be on the border of Spokane and Spokane Valley, a location several council members hoped for. He said he believed it would come together in the next few months, but said he could not release any details until things were finalized.

“We’re frustrated,” he said. “We thought we were going to have something that was going to work on the border, and the city moved it to the west.”

Spokane is working to open a warming shelter, but it is near downtown, not Spokane Valley.

Councilwomen Pam Haley and Brandi Peetz said a shelter is still needed, but the city needs to pass something to address the issues in its parks in the meantime.

“Right, wrong, indifferent, having a homeless camp in a park makes parents uncomfortable,” Haley said.

She said many of the people who visit the parks are children who are vulnerable – and so are the people who are camping there.

“We’re trying to protect the rights of all individuals,” she said. “I don’t know if there is an easy and perfect solution.”

Councilman Ben Wick said the city needs a camping ordinance, but he is concerned that there isn’t enough leeway for people staying in RVs parked in the right of way.

“A lot of people are camping in the right of way longer than normal, and it’s not safe, and I understand that,” he said. “But I’d like to see a little wiggle room for people coming up to stay with their families.”

Thompson agreed with Wick, saying the city should consider giving families permits to place on an RV they have given permission to park outside of their house.

According to a draft of the new law, if police determine a camp is harmful to anyone, they may immediately remove it. On other camps, the city posts a 48-hour notice that says the city will remove any property that isn’t removed.

Violators will face up to 90 days in jail as well as a $1,000 fine.

Morgan Koudelka, a senior administrative analyst for the city, said staff already know where many of the camps are and are considering allowing outreach teams to visit them several times before police do.

“At this point, just sending law enforcement to clean up camps may just be pushing the problem around,” he said.

He said a SNAP and Frontier Behavioral Health team, which visits camps in Spokane, has visited Spokane Valley camps a few times. The city has asked them to expand their efforts countywide, according to Koudelka. He said the city has also talked to nonprofits about potentially providing transportation for those who are homeless to shelters in Spokane.

He said Spokane Valley is also working with the city of Spokane and shelters in Spokane to find out when shelter beds are available so the ordinance can be enforced.

Spokane Valley police Chief Mark Werner said he would prefer to connect people with shelter before they enforce the law.

“Our No. 1 goal here is to try to work with these people and get them connected to resources,” he said. “Our last resort is enforcement.”

Spokane Valley will also vote on an ordinance that will restrict park hours, as well as other activities. According to the draft ordinance, parks are currently open until 10 p.m. Under the new rules, they would close at 9 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. in the winter.

Councilman Sam Wood was the only council member to speak out against the new hours, calling them “ludicrous” and saying they hurt working families who live in apartments near parks.

“I don’t like criminals stealing from our families the right to use our parks,” he said.

Wood said he wouldn’t vote for new park rules as long as new hours were a part of the proposal.

Staff suggested the updated hours after years of issues in Brown and other parks.

In 2017, the city paid $10,000 for security in Brown to deal with vandalism and other issues. Stone, the park director, said that’s the only time parks have paid for security, but several others have had issues with crimes committed at night.

Spokane Valley City Council will consider both proposals Tuesday at their 6 p.m. council meeting.

Dallman, who has lived in the Spokane area since the 1990s, said she loves Spokane Valley for the same reason many others love it:It feels like a small town and is close to the country. She said she also loves its parks and wants them to feel clean and safe, too.

She and her boyfriend have tried to work with the company that maintains Balfour Park to keep it clean and to keep needles and other unsafe items off the grass and out of the park, Dallman said.

“There are some people who are very disrespectful,” she said. “But we’re not all like that. You’ve got to give us a chance.”

This story was changed on Nov. 11, 2019 to include that Frontier Behavioral Health and SNAP visit camps in Spokane, and have visited Spokane Valley camps a few times.

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