Spokane’s struggle with homelessness has, indirectly, reached the Supreme Court.
As the city of Boise waits to hear if the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on limits imposed on the enforcement of homeless camping laws, Spokane and Spokane Valley have entered the debate.
Spokane and Spokane Valley’s own efforts to enforce laws against public camping are chronicled in a brief, filed last week on behalf of a number of organizations and in support of Boise’s quest to overturn a federal appeals court ruling issued in 2018.
“Our goal was to have a greater impact by working together on this,” said Marlene Feist, a city spokesperson.
Boise has appealed a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling issued in the case of Martin v. Boise, which found the city’s enforcement of laws against camping on public property amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and violated the constitution.
The 2018 ruling set a standard that cities cannot enforce rules against camping or lying on sidewalks if they do not first provide adequate shelter for those who can’t afford or provide their own.
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the decision authored by Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon stated.
Boise appealed the decision in August to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether to take up the case. The decision’s effects have been felt by cities throughout the West that are grappling with homelessness.
Spokane is one of dozens of individuals, cities and organizations to voice its opinion to the Supreme Court through an “amicus curiae,” or “friend of the court,” brief.
Spokane is the first of four cities cited in a brief filed by the National League of Cities, Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and several other organizations.
The groups argue that the decision takes away a tool in cities’ multifaceted approach to mitigate the effects of homelessness. The Martin decision fails to define what it means by “adequate” or “sufficient” shelter, the brief states, nor does it make clear how cities can practically keep a daily count of their homeless populations.
“Providing sufficient beds to comply with Martin could hijack municipal budgets well beyond what is appropriate in light of other municipal responsibilities,” the brief states. “But if local governments do not comply, they may be left with encampments that are beyond their reach.”
In Spokane, the brief contends that the Martin decision has inhibited the city’s ability to use Community Court to connect homeless people with social services by limiting the city’s ability to issue criminal citations.
It also argues the decision has hampered Spokane’s ability to enforce its laws against camping on public property. The city spent about $100,000 to clean up homeless camps, of which about 500 were reported last year.
“At one encampment along the Spokane River, city staff recently found a garbage pit fifteen feet across and four feet deep, containing multiple five-gallon buckets filled with human feces,” the brief notes.
Feist said the city reviewed and provided comment on the brief, including “information on how we use enforcement of sit-and-lie to direct people to services, particularly through community court.”
The Spokane City Council was not informed the city was participating in the brief, according to Council President Ben Stuckart.
Councilman Breean Beggs noted that the city’s laws against camping on public land and sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the daytime predate the Martin v. Boise decision and adhere to its standards.
“Even if Martin goes away, our camping code says you can’t arrest people for camping if there’s no shelter. That preexists Martin,” Beggs said.
City officials have repeatedly said the laws comply with the Martin decision as written, because they make exceptions when the city does not have adequate shelter capacity.
“However, the decision injects a number of uncertainties into the interpretation of enforcement. We want clearer direction from the courts,” Feist said.
Beggs also said that many of the people who attend Spokane Community Court to access social services – including mental health and substance abuse treatment – do so voluntarily, not because they were criminally cited.
About half of the people who present at community court – held at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown location every Monday – are there voluntarily, Therapeutic Courts Coordinator Seth Hackenberg estimated.
“It’s frustrating that we weren’t consulted, because the report that they put together, we could’ve made it a complete and accurate report,” Beggs said of the brief.
Stuckart lamented the use of the criminal justice system to connect people experiencing homelessness with social services.
“The best way to get people services is inside a shelter once they have their basic needs met,” Stuckart said.
But neither council member has called for a repeal of sit-and-lie or camping laws. Stuckart said camps were a sign of a “public health crisis.”
“The way to get rid of them is to have housing available and shelter available, not to go with cops and give them (citations),” Stuckart said.
Spokane Valley, meanwhile, funds shelters and services that are available outside its borders.
“As a result, Martin’s requirement that a jurisdiction have shelter space available in order to enforce its laws has effectively frozen Spokane Valley’s efforts to enforce the ‘no camping’ regulations in its parks,” the brief states.
Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said the city contributes more than $1 million in federal and state grant funds to services for homelessness and housing, which it funnels through the county to the city of Spokane. He said Spokane Valley should be able to send its homeless population to beds in Spokane it helps pay for and that the court’s decision has created an “untenable” situation in Spokane Valley.
He said Spokane Valley parks aren’t meant for camping or as a place for people to live full time. The large number of people living in parks, some of whom have weapons, has made many residents feel unsafe and avoid visiting them.
“It opens the door for unreasonable use of our public facilities,” Higgins said. “It’s called camping, but I call it squatting.”
Reporter Rebecca White contributed to this story.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.