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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City holds back on sit-lie enforcement, downtown cleanup plan

Sgt. Jason Hartman, left, of the Spokane Police Department walks around soiled bedding inside the Browne Street underpass, often a camping spot for homeless people, on June 9, 2021. The city uses police officers, a litter crew and employees of the Downtown Spokane Partnership to completely clean up and sanitize the areas frequented by homeless campers.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The city of Spokane was days away from launching an extensive plan to clean up graffiti and litter, remove homeless encampments and cite people lingering on downtown sidewalks.

Now, city leaders will likely need weeks to clear hurdles before implementing their strategy.

“We wanted to improve the downtown environment. That’s still the goal,” Mayor Nadine Woodward told The Spokesman-Review this week.

City Administrator Johnnie Perkins outlined the aggressive plan in an email.

Starting Aug. 3, Perkins called for seven-days-a-week litter and graffiti cleanup, enforcement against illegal homeless encampments, and the city to resume enforcing sit-lie, a law that prohibits people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the daytime.

Riverfront and Coeur d’Alene parks were to be canvassed twice daily.

City employees would be asked to volunteer for overtime shifts cleaning city streets, with Perkins promising to find any extra money needed for the effort.

“Welcome to Beautify Spokane, where the mission is to become the cleanest, safest and best city in America,” Perkins wrote.

But the plan has yet to get off the ground.

Spokane City Council members have questioned the legality of enforcing sit-lie, while the city has struggled to establish an adequate workforce for the cleanup effort.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs warned officials last week that enforcing sit-lie would violate the precedent set by Martin v. Boise, a federal case that effectively prohibits cities from enforcing laws like sit-lie unless they offer adequate shelter to the homeless. Beggs feared the city would be placing itself in legal jeopardy if it began to enforce sit-lie.

“If you’re going to arrest people, you have to document that you have plenty of shelter space for them 24/7, and we do not,” Beggs said.

Woodward told The Spokesman-Review that the city would not enforce sit-lie unless it is legal to do so.

“We’ll be very careful and make sure we have the shelter space for that,” Woodward said.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said the concerns of Beggs and other council members did not play a role in the city’s decision to hold off on enforcing sit-lie and implementing the broader plan. The city’s legal department has been involved in discussions about sit-lie enforcement, he said. Part of the reason for the delay were the recent cases of COVID-19 in homeless shelters, some of which stopped taking in new people, according to Coddington.

While it has not enforced sit-lie, the city has continued citing people for infractions like pedestrian interference. City officials have maintained that the law is enforced when a person refuses to move off of a sidewalk to allow crews to clean a sidewalk, and only as a last resort. The people cited are directed to Community Court, where the goal is diverting people from jail sentences and into rehabilitative programs.

“We will always lead with passion and compassion, and offer to provide services including health care, mental health, job training, housing, among others, however, we will not allow illegal activity, scare tactics, unsanitary conditions or violations of city rules, regulations and ordinances to take place,” Perkins wrote.

As of Tuesday, the city had issued 207 citations for pedestrian interference this year, nearly matching the total of 222 it issued in all of 2019, according to Spokane Municipal Court records.

Beggs has advocated that the city launch an publicly accessible online dashboard that would show real-time shelter capacity information, allowing officials to point homeless people to an available bed.

Woodward confirmed that such a dashboard exists and could be launched publicly, but the city is unable to ensure its accuracy.

“The biggest challenge is getting the service providers to provide the information,” Woodward said.

Beggs also wants the city to open an intake center. It would not have beds like a shelter; instead, the center would be a place to which people experiencing homelessness could be directed to a shelter or other services.

“If we really stood that up robustly, I think we would be fine on Martin v. Boise,” Beggs said.

Beggs envisions the intake facility being somewhere around Second Avenue.

Woodward agrees with the concept of an intake center, but plans to embed it into the city’s Cannon Street shelter, located west of downtown. Transportation could be provided by police or by providing people bus passes, she said.

Advocates for the homeless people reject sit-lie and laws like it.

“It is in direct violation of the Boise decision and in violation of constitutional liberties and freedoms that we have,” said Joan Medina, a leader of Spokane’s Stop the Sweeps movement. “The problem is not just in the sit and lie itself, as a law, but it’s in the arbitrary enforcement of it and the lack of due process.”

Fellow advocate Ken Lee does not believe the city has adequate shelter space.

“Any block downtown, you can find enough people unsheltered to fill up every available shelter bed in the city. I don’t know how they can argue that we haven’t criminalized the condition of homelessness,” Lee said.

Legal questions about sit-lie are not the only obstacle to the city’s cleanup plan.

In July, the City Council signed off on a $370,000 request to hire 10 seasonal employees who would help with downtown cleanup efforts.

Since then, the city has only been able to hire three people, citing the same challenges in recruiting employees that have become common in today’s economy. The six-month-long litter crew positions are advertised at a wage of $18 an hour, for 40 hours a week.

As a bridge until it can hire more employees, the city had hoped to entice volunteers from other departments to work overtime shifts on cleanup crews on the weekends. Only one person volunteered.

“(Perkins) was hopeful that he was going to be able to do some creative things through overtime and juggling of schedules to at least, in part, start the downtown cleanup piece of it. That’s going to take a little bit more time,” Coddington said.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton described the city’s overtime offers as “tacky, and it’s unprofessional.”

“If they are serious about doing this, stop asking people to volunteer,” Stratton said.

Coddington stressed that the shifts would be completely voluntary, and would be used as a way to fill in a gap that exists in the city’s current cleanup efforts.

“You always want to look for opportunities to utilize existing resources where you can, and the idea was to gauge interest from employees,” Coddington said.

The city’s efforts have been bolstered by the return of inmate cleaning crews from Geiger Correctional Facility, which had been suspended earlier in the pandemic, to six days a week. At points last year, even the city’s own crews were unable to work due to COVID-19 concerns.

The mayor also highlighted progress in other aspects of her plan to respond to homelessness, including The Salvation Army’s preparations to open a bridge housing shelter in November.

Although the plan outlined by Perkins has not been fully implemented, Woodward said “it has resonated” because business and property owners are “frustrated by the litter and graffiti and impact to their businesses.”

Selkirk Development founder Sheldon Jackson is one of many to participate in the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Council, an organization that formed earlier this year amid frustration with the city’s progress in addressing homelessness.

Reading Perkins’ plan, Jackson said it “was great to be reaffirmed that we were just going to enforce what we have on the books, not anything more.” But the group was disappointed that the city was forced to pause its plans, and questioned what it would take for the city to resume enforcing sit-lie.

Jackson routinely checks in on nearly a dozen “hot spots” in Spokane.

“I said, ‘OK, if somebody gets off an airplane at Spokane International Airport and they come to town, what are they going to see?’ I drive that route six days a week and I write a report up for the city, and it’s pretty nasty,” Jackson said.

Still, he said the city has already made progress. Some hot spots have improved dramatically, he said, while others have plateaued due to what Jackson believes is the inability to enforce laws like sit-lie and the loosening of drug laws in Washington.

Jackson also believes that private citizens shouldn’t wait for government to take action.

“It’s going to need to be us in the private world that helps. The city needs to oversee, but we can sure as heck be out there doing the work – picking up garbage, cleaning up landscaping – when things are cleaner, it just makes everybody feel safer and better,” Jackson said.