It’s already illegal to camp on city property in Spokane Valley if shelter beds are available, but officials want to amend city code to clarify certain areas are always off limits.
On Tuesday, Spokane Valley City Council discussed an amendment to its camping ordinance that would specifically designate Appleway Trail, the Spokane Valley Police Precinct and the Spokane Valley Street Maintenance Shop as areas where camping is never allowed, even if shelter beds aren’t available.
Those locations would join City Hall, Balfour Park and Mirabeau Meadows/CenterPlace as city properties where camping is never allowed.
The amendment would also always prohibit camping in rights of way, on ballfields or courts, at pools, near stormwater drains and near park structures such as playgrounds and bathrooms.
There are exceptions in the amendment that allow individuals to remain where they’re camped if they’re in the process of moving into housing.
The amendment will have to appear before council twice more before it can be adopted.
City councilmembers are generally supportive of the proposal.
Councilman Rod Higgins said he’s in favor of the amendments, but emphasized they wouldn’t be necessary if people were complying with city code – which generally bans camping anyway.
“I think these are excellent additions,” councilwoman Linda Thompson said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I hope that it really will help educate and inform our community.”
Morgan Koudelka, Spokane Valley’s senior administrative analyst, said during Tuesday’s meeting that these amendments are necessary for public safety.
“It’s not our intent with these changes to punish those that are currently living unsheltered in Spokane Valley,” he said. “It provides a safer environment for everyone.”
New rules, new conflicts
The Spokane region has seen a significant increase in homelessness in the past few years. For instance, in 2019, the Spokane region’s Point-in-Time count found 1,309 people experiencing homelessness in the county. By 2020, that number had jumped 19%, to 1,559.
The increase was starker for unsheltered people. There were 319 unsheltered people in 2019. In 2020, there were 541, a 70% spike.
Spokane Valley has been struggling to deal with the increase in unsheltered people, Koudelka said.
“The problem really hasn’t been very bad until a couple of years ago,” Koudelka told The Spokesman-Review.
New federal court rulings have forced cities to change their ordinances, too. In 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities can’t punish people for being homeless. If there aren’t shelter beds available, a city can’t criminalize camping on public property.
“(Boise v. Martin) has gotten them scrambling, because they know they’re in violation of it,” said Maurice Smith, who has been a homeless advocate in Spokane for 15 years and produces documentaries about homelessness.
Smith said cities need to do more to solve homelessness, not just ban camping on public property.
“The problem is homelessness is growing and our plan to solve it is not as big as the problem,” he said. “That’s the bottom line: Your plan is not as big as the problem.”
The region needs more shelter beds, Smith said. There are only 805 in the county.
“Where do you want these people to go?” he asked. “If they’re not going to camp and you don’t have enough shelter beds, what’s the third option?”
Spokane Valley doesn’t have a homeless shelter. Instead, the city financially supports shelters in Spokane and Spokane County.
Koudelka said that many individuals experiencing homelessness in Spokane Valley don’t want to go to shelters. He said the problem isn’t the number of available beds.
“What we need are more treatment options for addiction recovery,” Koudelka said.
Local government officials and homeless advocates agree that the region’s housing shortage is a big part of the problem.
“We’re in the tightest housing market Spokane has ever seen,” Smith said, adding that the problem’s not going away in the next few years.
“The homeless are some of the hardest to get housed when things are going good, and things are not going good right now.”
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