The Spokane Police Department says it will continue to enforce the city’s laws against camping on public property and sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks – but only after pleading with people to move along or find a shelter.
“If people aren’t willing to cooperate, we will as a last resort (cite them),” said Lt. Steve Braun, who oversees the department’s downtown precinct.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the city’s bustling downtown core to a standstill and strained its network of shelters, raising the question of how aggressively police would enforce laws aimed at reducing the visibility of homelessness.
Those laws, both as written and under a federal court ruling, can only be enforced when there is sufficient capacity at city shelters. Rumors quickly spread last month that they were, briefly, maxed out when capacity was reduced to improve social distancing last month – although the city said in a statement on Wednesday that was never actually the case.
A monthly report filed with the Public Safety and Community Health Committee last week showed that police had not issued a single citation for the sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the daytime, since March 11.
Braun did not have the most recent figures available on Wednesday, but said the number of people cited remains “low.”
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee, received complaints from Browne’s Addition residents about an increased number of people camping at Coeur d’Alene Park.
“As you can imagine, children are not in school, so there’s more park usage, and therefore more opportunity to encounter needles and garbage with children,” Kinnear said.
Police responded to the complaints, according to city spokeswoman Kirstin Davis.
“Officers talked to homeless individuals and reminded them they should not be camping in the park and encouraged them to move to a shelter,” Davis said.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, meanwhile, said he’s heard from homeless advocates about the lack of shelter space more than neighbors impacted by the proliferation of camping.
Confusion in the shelter space
To support shelters’ transition to a social distancing model, in which every guest sleeps at least 6 feet apart, the city scrambled late last month to open a temporary homeless shelter inside the shuttered downtown Spokane Public Library.
But amid that transition, there was a brief period in which some shelters had already reduced capacity prior to the library’s opening, Kinnear said she was told by police. Therefore, camping and sit-lie laws could not be enforced and people were entitled to camp.
But according to the city, the shelter system never actually hit full capacity in March, even though it was notably stressed at two points – on March 11, when limitations on gatherings and social distancing were first recommended, and on March 24, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.
Receiving an exact census on available beds has been a challenge during the pandemic, the city acknowledges.
“Staff have more to do, resulting in less consistent reporting,” Davis said.
And while there technically may be capacity in the citywide network, specific shelters within that system can be at capacity and turning guests away on a nightly basis. Beggs, for example, noted that Jewels Helping Hands tends to be in particularly high demand because it offers space for both adult men and women to sleep.
The city legally can continue enforcing camping laws, but the process for doing so has become muddled.
Citations for sit-lie and public camping are referred to Community Court, which aims to connect people with a wide spectrum of social services in lieu of imposing jail sentences. But Community Court has suspended operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, Braun said the department is leaving the court date blank on the citation and hoping to track down the offender later via a summons, or putting a date down and hoping court is open again by that point.
Braun said many people are using city shelters and, if they’re camping, they’re doing so in areas out of sight.
Officers, meanwhile, have been forced to adapt to a new way of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our officers are using (personal protective equipment), masks and gloves when we need them, and trying to maintain the social distancing like everyone else,” Braun said. “(But) we’re trying to stay as ‘business as usual’ as possible.”
With nearly $3 million in block grant funding awarded to the city as part of the congressional COVID-19 relief package, Beggs sees an opportunity to enact lasting change and sufficiently shelter the city’s homeless population.
“We have never funded things adequately, we’ve never had that situation,” Beggs said. “It’s always been difficult for me to tell – is this someone being an outlaw, or is there nowhere else to go?”
The region has stepped up to enhance services to the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic by offering free bus service, opening a new shelter for the homeless and reducing the jail population to the “right level,” Beggs argued.
“It’s about getting through this next few weeks and hopefully coming out the other end at an elevated level of service for the most needy,” Beggs said.
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