Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 70° Clear
News >  Spokane

Spokane’s mayor is pushing for a cleaner downtown, but some homeless advocates question the approach

UPDATED: Sun., July 4, 2021

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward stood before television news cameras and photographers at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Browne Street last month, with a railroad viaduct and huddled homeless serving as her backdrop.

“We did lose a lot of tools during COVID when it came to cleanup, so we’re not only trying to catch up, but we’re trying to make some vast improvements,” Woodward said.

Minutes later, police and code enforcement officers directed homeless people out of the viaduct and swept up nearly all of what was left behind, sorting most items into waste bins.

It wasn’t long before people were once again huddled beneath the bridge.

The now routine sidewalk shuffle between the homeless and city cleanup crews demonstrates the complexity the city faces as it simultaneously attempts to answer increased demands to keep streets clean and safe, all while not running afoul of the constitutional rights of people who have nowhere else to go.

“Right now, if you are homeless and you get ticketed or moved on … where do you go?” said Barry Barfield, a volunteer with the Spokane Homeless Coalition.

Woodward’s administration is now asking the City Council to fund a doubling of its cleanup program this year, bringing on 10 seasonal staff devoted to tasks like litter and graffiti abatement. The bolstered staffing will cost $370,000 for six months.

In hot spots like under the Browne Street viaduct, the city’s police and code enforcement departments are teaming up with Downtown Spokane Partnership crews on twice daily cleanups. People are moved out, trash is collected and the area is doused in sanitizing spray.

The initiative is partly a response to those who felt the city slipped backward and downtown decayed during the pandemic.

But advocates for the homeless question whether the city is right to use the heavy hand of the law and invest more money in cleanup instead of diverting those resources into shelters and social services.

The trend

The city is unable to legally enforce its law aimed at preventing the homeless from lingering on city sidewalks, but it’s continuing to issue similar citations.

The Spokane Police Department has substantially increased the number of citations it issues for interference with pedestrian traffic, trespassing and obstructing police. It issued dozens of citations over Memorial Day Weekend as Woodward ordered an aggressive downtown cleanup entering the summer, part of her broader strategy on homelessness.

Spokane Municipal Court data obtained by The Spokesman-Review demonstrates the leap in citations for pedestrian interference.

From Jan. 1 through June 18 in 2019, the city had issued 98 citations for pedestrian interference. Over the same stretch of time in 2021, it had issued 165 such citations, an increase of 68% over 2019. (Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was an aberration with little enforcement.)

Narrowed to focus on the renewed enforcement efforts touted by Woodward around Memorial Day weekend, the data shows an even more significant upward trend.

From May 1 through June 18 in 2019, the city issued 37 citations. Over the same stretch in 2021, it issued 98 citations, an increase of 164%.

The city is forced to lean on “interference with pedestrian or vehicular traffic” and other charges, in part because they don’t come with the same requirements as its sit-lie ordinance, which is not being enforced.

Sit-lie bars people from sitting or lying on a downtown sidewalk during the day, but the law can only be enforced if the city can demonstrate that it has adequate shelter capacity, thus proving that the person sitting on the sidewalk had somewhere else to be.

“We don’t have day shelter to be able to enforce that, so we’re working on the ability to provide day shelter,” Woodward explained to reporters in June.

Sit-lie stipulations on shelter availability predate – but align with – the 2019 decision in Martin v. Boise, in which a federal court effectively ruled that cities cannot criminalize homelessness and enforce laws like sit-lie without offering shelter.

The city’s legal department has weighed in and approved the enforcement of pedestrian interference, according to administration officials.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said citations are issued only as a last resort when people refuse to move to allow cleanup crews to work.

“It’s a cleanup for everybody’s health and safety,” Coddington said, including the people who are sheltering there, not just those passing through.

Violation of the pedestrian interference law is referred to Spokane Municipal Community Court, where offenders can be connected with social services and the aim is to avoid jail sentences.

Advocates for the homeless believe the cleanup effort flies in the face of Martin v. Boise.

“There’s nowhere for them to move along to. It’s not just the next day they’re back, it’s two hours they’re back,” said Joan Medina, who helped launch “Stop the Sweeps,” an offshoot of the Spokane Homeless Coalition that formed an online petition. “It’s the criminalization of people who wouldn’t be criminals except that they’re homeless on the street.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs described the administration’s approach as a “game of semantics,” and argued that punishing someone for their housing status is unconstitutional.

“Police will argue that if there is a lack of shelter space you can sit and lie, or perhaps even camp, as long as you don’t do it in a manner that intentionally seeks to block the sidewalk from those walking on it,” Beggs wrote to The Spokesman-Review. “But if I was an attorney for someone cited, I would argue that until the city provides a designated space to safely sit or pitch a tent, then it is no different than enforcing sit and lie.”

Tristia Bauman is a senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center, a nonprofit that helped file the original Martin vs. Boise lawsuit in 2009.

The precedent set by that case, she said, wasn’t specific to a particular law. Instead, it barred cities from enforcing anything that punishes “universal, unavoidable resting behavior of human beings who don’t have access” to shelter, Bauman said.

Many of the people he sees on city sidewalks aren’t actually blocking it, Beggs argued.

“The folks don’t have attorneys with them when confronted with armed police … in fact, they are funneled to Community Court, where they don’t have defenses or constitutional arguments by design,” Beggs said.

That design is either a feature or a flaw, depending on who’s asked.

Homeless advocates feel that Community Court isn’t about determining innocence or guilt. Instead, it’s about pushing people toward social service programs, regardless of whether they committed the crime.

Interfering with a pedestrian is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Accepting Community Court’s requirements – such as community services and behavioral health treatment – negates the risk of jail time and can seem like a safer bet than fighting the charge in regular municipal court.

While she stopped short of levying criticism of their decisions, Woodward told The Spokesman-Review that she’s spoken with Community Court judges and asked them to be more strict.

“At some point, we do have to have more accountability there,” Woodward said. “At some point, people need to face consequences.”

Effective or futile?

Ultimately, city officials argue the conditions where people congregate on the street, or under a bridge, are a public health hazard. Coddington said cleanup crews work to point people to shelter or social services.

“It’s all about building trust with people, and our litter crews are trained, our outreach crews are trained to talk to people in a very thoughtful, humane way,” Coddington said.

That’s exactly the sort of messaging that resonates with the growing number of downtown property owners and business leaders who have become disillusioned with the city’s homelessness response.

Led by Chud Wendle, the executive director of Hutton Settlement, the Spokane Commercial Property Owner Council formed in February and has implored the city to do more.

“There’s a lot of frustration toward the council side as well as toward the administration, about what we thought was a lot of apathy,” Wendle said, adding, “What I was hoping with this group is that the private side steps up to the table and understands that this isn’t going to be elected officials’ responsibility … they need us.”

Wendle worked in his downtown office through the pandemic.

“It got worse and worse last year and what I saw through my eyes is that when we turn a blind eye to it, then that behavior gets worse,” Wendle said.

Wendle described downtown as “not safe,” a feeling that persists even as Spokane police data shows that violent crime dropped nearly 17% and property crime declined by about 22% last year in the section of the city covered by the downtown precinct.

Advocates for the homeless acknowledge that people sheltering beneath a viaduct is not good for anyone. But neither are sweeps – a term the city objects to using – which only add to the trauma endured by a person who is homeless, they argue.

“They don’t help people get out of homelessness. They cite them or don’t cite them, but all they do is come back the next day,” said Dawn Shuster, a volunteer with Stop the Sweeps. “What are we doing?”

People will naturally return to places where their immediate needs are met, such as under the cool shade of a bridge, noted Bauman, the attorney.

“It is a harmful, expensive and futile exercise to displace people from one public location when they lack any alternative location to stably and lawfully be,” Bauman said.

The reasons why someone is on the street, even if shelter space is technically available, can be multitudinous. They may be struggling with addiction and unwilling or unable to stay in a shelter that does not allow drug use. Shelter beds are often tough to find for families and couples, as many adult shelters are segregated by gender. Or, a person may own a pet that isn’t allowed in a shelter.

The persistent notion that many are simply averse to living under the rules of a shelter “reveals a deep ignorance about what shelters actually provide,” Bauman said.

“While recognizing that most shelter providers are doing a service to the best of their ability, a lot of people don’t feel safe and comfortable in temporary accommodations in tight quarters with strangers,” Bauman said.

What would be more productive, advocates argue, is more shelter availability, 24/7 toilets, drinking water fountains, storage and more garbage cans.

The city isn’t just increasing enforcement, it’s adding 12 garbage cans downtown and reopening public restrooms that had been closed during the pandemic.

The Cannon Street shelter will transition this year into a year-round center for homeless services. It will operate as a day center during warmer weather, but be able to run 24/7 when the weather is cold or during other emergencies.

At the same time, Woodward expects to begin to enforce sit-lie soon.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.