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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Needles, meals and church services: Spokane passes new law aimed at cleaning up parks

Pedestrians walk under vibrant fall colors on Nov. 15 in Spokane’s Riverfront Park.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In a nod to frustrated neighborhood residents, the Spokane City Council adopted a new law Monday that sets stricter rules for public parks.

After debating whether it unfairly targets homeless people, the council codified rules that require hosts of large events in city parks obtain a permit beforehand – and ensure there is a plan for clean up afterwards.

Sponsored by Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, the law is intended to address concerns voiced by residents following large church gatherings in Corbin Park and meals distributed to homeless people in Coeur d’Alene Park.

The law passed by a 6-to-1 vote, with Councilwoman Kate Burke the only member to vote no.

In public testimony during Monday’s council meeting, residents of Browne’s Addition decried the impact that meal distributions and needle exchange programs had at Coeur d’Alene Park this year.

Rick Biggerstaff, chair of the Browne’s Addition Neighborhood Council, said neighborhood residents spent hundreds of volunteer hours trying to better coordinate with the well-intended organizations attempting to serve the homeless this summer, but to no avail.

“We spent day after day picking up garbage, unused food, in our park, in our neighborhood, at a quantity we’ve never seen before,” Biggerstaff said. “Needles should simply not be found in city park playgrounds and neighborhoods should not be used as recruitment centers for Spokane’s homeless population.”

Burke alleged the law is discriminatory against homeless people and that it would not address the underlying issues.

Though she acknowledged the concerns of neighborhood residents, Burke said “I don’t know why we’re spending so much time on trying to get people who are experiencing homelessness out of a park when we could be working on real solutions.” She offered measures like public restrooms, washing stations, and financial support for affordable housing.

But Kinnear countered that it is “not a law aimed at (the homeless),” just organizers of events and “holding them accountable for cleaning up after themselves.”

“It’s pretty darn simple,” Kinnear said.

Unless an event uses a park shelter, there is no cost to submit a special event permit application to the Parks Department. But the host must still present a clean-up plan. If they fail to comply, they will be charged for the cost of the city’s cleanup of their event.

The law does not create any new criminal penalties. State law already prohibits the use of drug paraphernalia but under the new city law, a person convicted of doing so in a city park could face a one-year ban.

The city law also clarifies that the use or distribution of drug paraphernalia is not only illegal in a city park, but near it, as well.

Although much of the discussion Monday centered on activity in Browne’s Addition, Parks and Recreation Director Garrett Jones said the law is not targeted at Coeur d’Alene Park. Rather, it’s about proactive “communication of what that impact” of an event will be and allows Parks staff to take action like adding trash cans.

“This allows for better communication, coordination, and follow-through afterwards,” Jones said.

Councilman Michael Cathcart said the new law would empower police officers to refer people to social services.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson owns Moore’s Assisted Living, a residential care facility adjacent to Coeur d’Alene Park. She agreed with Burke that the city could do a better job providing amenities like public restrooms and hand-washing stations, but she supported the ordinance.

“The park is for everybody, but I will support (the law) because I want it to be safe,” Wilkerson said. “But it is for everyone, even the homeless, because they live in this city, too.”

Council President Breean Beggs had aired concerns about earlier versions of the legislation. But after amendments that made it less punitive and put more emphasis on “harm reduction,” Beggs supported the measure.

“It really gets at the problem instead of blaming people,” Beggs said.