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Spokane Valley considers updating ban on camping on public property

Spokane Valley may revise its law banning people from camping on public property.  (Kathy Plonka)
Spokane Valley may revise its law banning people from camping on public property. (Kathy Plonka)

Spokane Valley lawmakers are exploring several revisions to the city’s ban on people camping out on public property, including some new restrictions.

Tuesday’s Spokane Valley City Council meeting saw council members review several proposed amendments to the camping ordinance instituted in November 2019. No formal decisions took place; the presentation briefed officials on the possible changes ahead of their formal introduction in the near future.

Morgan Koudelka, senior administrative analyst, said the law’s main goals are to provide permanent and stable housing for those in need and to demonstrate to business owners that the city can quickly respond to camping-related issues.

“The camping ordinance provided us some tools in some cases,” Koudelka said, “but this time has given us the opportunity to identify areas that we can improve upon that we think would allow us to continue upon that success and allow us to achieve even more as we move forward.”

The ordinance bars camping on public property, including roadways, sidewalks, City Hall, parks and park facilities. The regulations also authorize city crews to remove unlawful encampments after a 48-hour notice.

The Spokane Valley Police Department has not issued any citations for illegal camping, city spokesman Jeff Kleingartner said.

Violating the ordinance could constitute a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or a maximum of 90 days in the Spokane County Jail.

Under the current ordinance, that penalty applies to any and all violations involving City Hall, Balfour Park and CenterPlace at Mirabeau Point Park. A proposed amendment would add the following to that list:

• Appleway Trail

• Spokane Valley Police Precinct

• Spokane Valley Street Maintenance Shop

• Any park structures/facilities/fixtures (along with any property within 30 feet)

• Public rights of way (and any city-owned property within 30 feet of those)

• Any city-owned stormwater drainage facilities

In accordance to federal court precedent, however, there are exceptions with other cases involving the homeless.

Criminal penalties are suspended whenever there is no space or beds at any regional homeless shelters that accept people from Spokane Valley. A proposed amendment defines these exceptions even further, preventing criminal penalties against those who are “actively engaged in the process of exiting homelessness.”

This would be based on whether someone is working with a case manager, entered into a coordinated entry process, seeking mental health/substance abuse treatment or is participating in any other activities deemed necessary to secure housing, according to the proposed revision.

Koudelka said Spokane Valley police requested the amendment out of concern with perceived selective enforcement in parks.

“In some cases, displacing them or forcing them to move multiple times not only causes them to slide back in the process, (but) it may cause us to lose contact with them altogether,” he said.

Law enforcement will not actively check for shelter beds in some cases where a camper is cooperating with outreach services and moving toward permanent housing – especially if the person has an aversion to shelters, Kleingartner said.

“So while the police do look to the city and outreach services for guidance regarding homeless campers, the change to the ordinance will define how and why we would make an exception to a rule, such as camping or park hours, while continuing to enforce such rules for other users of public spaces,” he said.

Erik Lamb, deputy city attorney, said the language in the proposed amendments could change between now and the point they are formally introduced, by which time the city’s new housing and homeless coordinator, Arielle Anderson, and Spokane County prosecutors will have looked them over.

Anderson, who is the homeless service coordinator for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, will be tasked with creating and implementing a plan to address homelessness in Spokane Valley. That will include working with regional partners to update a five-year strategic plan to end homelessness and coordinating with service providers to explore options to maintain sleeping arrangements for the homeless in Spokane Valley, among other duties, according to the city.

She will start in her new position March 16.

‘There has to be an alternative’

Koudelka said Spokane Valley has successfully housed 21 people since the regulations were put into place.

That number is insignificant, however, compared to the thousands of homeless people documented every year throughout Spokane County, said Julie Garcia of Jewels Helping Hands, a nonprofit homeless service provider based in Spokane.

Garcia commended the city for not issuing citations for camping violations, saying criminalization can serve as a barrier. But Garcia said the city and the community need to work together to get to the root of the problem, which is creating available services within Spokane Valley.

“Community solutions have proven to be the best solutions available,” she said.

“If we’re able to see people on an individual basis instead of an ‘us versus them’ outlook that we have now, it helps.”

Spokane Valley does not have any homeless shelters within city limits.

“I understand the need to enforce laws. I understand we can’t have people camping in doorways or businesses,” Garcia said, “but there has to be an alternative to camping in doorways and offices and parks, and there isn’t one.”

Lamb said the proposed amendments are part of the city’s recent and ongoing efforts in the last two to three years to address homelessness issues. Among those, he said, are ongoing discussions with Spokane and Spokane County for a young adult shelter and a continuous-stay transitional shelter.

“This isn’t a permanent solution or a long-term solution,” Koudelka said Tuesday. “It’s a means to address some issues in the short term while we coordinate with other efforts that we’re making, and trying to achieve maybe some permanent shelter beds.”

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