Another winter, another race to offer shelter to the city’s homeless.
But this year, even if emergency shelter beds are once again unavailable when the cold weather arrives in Spokane, city leaders appear reluctant to repeat last year’s suspension of a law that prevents sitting on downtown sidewalks.
That doesn’t mean, though, that local police will be able to enforce the law this winter. Their ability to do so will depend on enough beds being available for the city’s ordinance to apply, leaders say.
And with plans to open a new city-funded shelter stalled, it’s unlikely the city will be able to deter people from sitting or lying in public spaces this winter, unless more beds are made available.
Last year, facing a shortage of shelter beds and protests from the homeless community outside City Hall, the Spokane City Council temporarily suspended the sit-lie ordinance, which bars people from sleeping or sitting on downtown sidewalks between 6 a.m. and midnight.
As colder weather is poised to force more people to seek respite, the city has yet to secure a location for a new shelter, nor has it issued a request for proposals for temporary warming centers.
The city’s ongoing and hurried search for a new homeless shelter is critical because, per a federal court’s ruling, shelter space must be available to a homeless person before they are cited for violating laws like the city’s.
But both Mayor David Condon and Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart see no need to suspend the sit-lie ordinance, which they say already conforms to the court’s ruling.
The rationale is consistent for Condon, who opposed the council’s decision to suspend the law in 2018.
“The sit-lie ordinance was written very carefully to only allow enforcement when there is no available shelter space. That means that once again, suspension of the ordinance is not necessary,” said Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman.
The city’s assurances weren’t enough for those who set up an encampment, dubbed “Camp Hope,” outside City Hall to protest the sit-lie law and a law against camping on public land in 2018.
In suspending the sit-lie law last year, council members said it was more about optics and understanding than legal technicalities.
“We were getting reports that the police were threatening to use the ordinance even though legally they couldn’t, and it was being enforced inconsistently,” said Councilman Breean Beggs.
Currently, bed availability is shared by city staff through email every night. The city is working to create a digital reporting mechanism that will provide more rapid updates on shelter occupancy, allowing officers in the field a real-time look at the number of available beds when enforcing city laws. But it is unclear if and when a new tracking system will go live.
The sit-lie suspension was also a reflection of the council’s frustration with Condon, whose administration had failed to find a replacement for more than 100 beds lost when the city stopped funding a 24/7 shelter at the House of Charity in September 2018, Beggs added.
In explaining his outlook this year, Stuckart pointed to a legal opinion issued by city attorneys in August that addresses the Martin v. City of Boise decision. Stuckart also acknowledged the impact protests had on the council’s action in 2018.
“If it gets real cold real fast, I think having that memo from our legal department makes it pretty clear that there’s no need to suspend it, it just won’t be enforced,” Stuckart said. “There were also a group of people camping outside we were trying to get them to stop camping.”
City lawyers weighed in last month, stating that the current law complies with the federal court ruling, but warned that “continued efforts must always be made to quantify the number of persons in need of shelter and to identify locations that can accommodate them.”
“The passage of time and seasonal change will place greater demands on existing shelters, requiring proactive measures to ensure shelter capacity through those transitions. Notwithstanding the current availability of shelter space, an ability to demonstrate sufficient low barrier housing through the winter will solely determine whether City officials can enforce the camping ordinance in the coming months,” the memo states.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said last year’s suspension was “an anomoly.”
“We were in a situation where we backed into a corner. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need to suspend it,” Kinnear said.
Councilwoman Kate Burke does not support the sit-lie law at all, but wants it to at least be adjusted to state that police cannot enforce sit-lie or camping laws against a person who is on a waiting list for a housing voucher.
Burke said she believes it is unconstitutional to force people between a misdemeanor or a shelter.
“There should be campsites, parking lots – safe places for people to go that are not just shelters,” Burke said.
Adopted in 2013, the sit-lie law requires that “homeless individuals subject to enforcement under this section be directed to emergency shelters, community/drug/mental health court or other interventional services.”
City police had issued 76 citations for violation of the sit-lie ordinance since enforcement resumed in February through Aug. 20, according to a report filed with the Public Safety and Community Health Committee last month.
The city has provided no updates on its search for a new shelter since early last week.
Denisa Buljabasic, an attorney for the Center for Justice representing a homeless man in a lawsuit against the city of Spokane, said the sit-lie ordinance is “inhumane, immoral, illegal and criminalizes poverty and homelessness,” and that the nonprofit would advocate for its repeal “if the appropriate client sought our assistance.”
“If the city does not fund an adequate shelter, Camp Hope or similar encampments will inevitably form again,” she said.
If the city does rely on warming centers, they should be open 24/7, Buljabasic argued.
“The warming centers that were in operation during Camp Hope were not shelters and operated during limited hours; they opened late in the evening and closed early in the morning,” Buljabic said.
Plans were unveiled earlier this summer for a 24/7 emergency homeless shelter at the former Grocery Outlet store on East Sprague, but the proposal lost favor in City Hall after it sparked ire from neighbors and failed to win pledges of financial support from Spokane Valley and the county.
If the city needs to once again rely on temporary warming centers through the winter, Beggs said he hopes the lessons from last year make the process more efficient ahead of the upcoming winter.
“They already know what worked, what didn’t work,” Beggs said. “I’m hopeful that if the mayor’s not going to get us the shelter beds that we need and haven’t had for over a year, at least the staff will be able to figure out the warming centers.”
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.