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Spokane orders protesters of homeless policies to remove tents from City Hall

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 14, 2021

A cyclist pauses in front of the tent city outside Spokane City Hall on Tuesday. People in the encampment have been ordered by police to remove their property or face criminal charges.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A cyclist pauses in front of the tent city outside Spokane City Hall on Tuesday. People in the encampment have been ordered by police to remove their property or face criminal charges. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The city has given protesters of its homelessness response 48 hours to remove their property – including dozens of tents – from sidewalks outside Spokane City Hall.

City officials acknowledge that there is inadequate shelter space during the day to enforce the city’s laws against camping on public property, which require shelter space to be available as a condition of enforcement.

But the city plans to clear the encampment on Thursday morning, and people could be cited if they interfere. The city claims the demonstration poses a health and safety risk, and has impacted access to nearby businesses and City Hall.

“The people are able to come back and spend time and protest and have their voices be known. We’re moving property, not people,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

The city’s hope is to not issue any citations, Coddington said.

The tent city popped up last week in protest of the city’s homelessness response, which its occupants claim is inadequate to meet the needs of the homeless population in Spokane. Julie Garcia, founder of homeless services provider Jewels Helping Hands, has supported the protest and requested that the city offer her organization land to erect a tent city for four months.

Demonstration leaders on Monday questioned the legality of enforcement of the 48-hour notices.

“It’s illegal. We don’t have enough shelter beds,” Garcia said.

City attorneys have signed off on the planned operation, according to Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Coddington said the city issued the notices to ensure people have time to make arrangements to store belongings and find shelter. While acknowledging that the city camping law can’t be enforced because there is not adequate shelter space available during the day time, he said there is available shelter space at night.

“The bottom line is there’s places available to sleep inside,” Coddington said.

Woodward said the nearby Mobius Discovery Center closed early due to the protests and city employees have felt unsafe coming to work.

“This is a protest. They’ve had sufficient time to make their cause heard,” Woodward said.

People huddled around a propane heater near City Hall on Tuesday appeared mixed on whether they were willing to force police to remove their property and risk citation.

Chris Roofener, who arrived in Spokane by way of Tennessee last week, joined the protest after staying at a Spokane hotel for a few days. He said he does not intend to comply with the city’s 48-hour notice.

“I’m a vet. I’m thinking about just sitting there and letting them forcibly remove me,” Roofener said.

Several people gathered at the site on Tuesday rejected the city’s assertion that the encampment was obstructing sidewalks or posed a health risk. Coddington said the city has photos of human waste at the site, but protesters said the site is regularly cleaned and there are two portable bathrooms.

Coddington also argued that the site is a risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential spread of other diseases.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he’s not demanding tents be removed, “but I am demanding that they not obstruct people, and be safe.” He said he had not seen evidence that the camp warranted removal at this point, and noted that “this is the intersection of free expression as well, so they get extra protection” under legal precedent that requires the city to have a compelling interest in dispersing the protest.

“It certainly leaves the city vulnerable to those arguments. At the same time, I’m glad I’m not in the mayor’s shoes because it’s a hard situation when people are protesting hard like this,” Beggs said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said the issue is not political to her, but “simply a question of humanity.”

“Where are people supposed to go? That has been my question all along. Are they going down under the viaduct? Are they going to camp by the river? Are you just moving the problem, or are we offering solutions?” Kinnear asked.

The administration and advocates for the homeless remain at odds over whether there is sufficient space in city shelters.

There is no extra shelter space during the day for people on the street. The city-owned Cannon Street shelter is open 24/7, but is typically operating at capacity.

Woodward said the city will work with shelter providers, including the operator of the Cannon Street shelter, to more effectively connect people to services and place them in housing, thereby freeing up more space in shelters.

“People need to be directed to services so they’re leaving Cannon, they’re not just staying in Cannon permanently. That’s kind of the focus we want to take now,” Woodward said. “That’s the fundamental shift that we’ve been advocating and trying to get to anyway, is to get people through the system.”

Still, Woodward said she has heard the protesters’ calls and noted that she included funding for a new low-barrier homeless shelter in her 2022 budget proposal, which won the City Council’s approval on Monday night.

The location for the new shelter has yet to be announced, but Woodward has said the search is for a spot outside of downtown. There is no exact timeline for its opening.

Woodward and Coddington also touted several improvements to the shelter system under her tenure, including the launch of a new transitional housing shelter, a new young adult shelter and planned expansion of the Crosswalk youth shelter, as well as a commitment to operating the Cannon Street shelter year-round.

“We’re moving ahead, (but) maybe not as fast as some people would like. I just don’t know how that’s possible, to move as fast as some people would like,” Woodward said.

The City Council also approved the administration’s request for additional emergency shelter options on Monday, including up to 40 hotel rooms a night when shelters are at capacity. They will be prioritized for women and families, according to city officials.

Garcia questioned how the city can claim there is adequate nightly shelter available when clearing the encampment at City Hall, but simultaneously request additional funding for hotel stays and acknowledge the need for a new low-barrier shelter, or one that doesn’t put requirements like sobriety on its guests.

City leaders do not appear keen to permit a tent city while they plan for a new shelter.

Coddington said a tent city is not in the plans, and Beggs also questioned it.

“I think that should be in the toolbox. There are challenges. You have to have adequate security,” Beggs said.

Garcia said she is not committed to a tent city as the only solution and simply presented it as an option.

According to the city’s shelter capacity reports, there were no beds available this weekend at low-barrier shelters for women, and no beds available at the city’s only low-barrier coed shelter.

Garcia estimates that there are more than 100 people camped outside City Hall.

Roofener is among those advocating for the city to authorize a tent city.

“It’s just a base of operations where people can get their lives going. It’s hard to go out and get a job when you don’t have a shower every day, if you don’t have clean clothes,” Roofener said. “You tell someone you’re living on the street, they don’t really want to hire you.”

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