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Homelessness in Spokane: Woodward, city council split on approach to public camping enforcement

July 6, 2022 Updated Wed., July 6, 2022 at 8:54 p.m.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward takes a question on Wednesday during a news conference on homelessness and updates to Spokane’s sit-lie ordinance.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward takes a question on Wednesday during a news conference on homelessness and updates to Spokane’s sit-lie ordinance. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and the City Council are working to update the city’s laws against public camping on city-owned land, with a particular focus on parks, railroad viaducts and public waterways.

Their efforts have spawned two bills aimed at changing the city’s camping law. And while both would criminalize public camping as a misdemeanor, they differ in scope.

The landmark federal ruling in Martin v. the City of Boise has kept Spokane officials from enforcing current public camping prohibitions as well as the city’s sit-and-lie law, which prohibits people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks during the daytime.

Martin v. Boise effectively prohibits cities from enforcing camping and sit-lie laws if they don’t offer adequate shelter to the homeless. The unavailability of shelter space is why the Camp Hope homeless encampment, home to hundreds on state land along East Second Avenue, continues to exist.

In an effort to bar public camping while complying with Martin v. Boise, two City Council bills propose bans on camping at all times in specific areas regardless of available shelter space. The effort hedges on a footnote in the Martin v. Boise ruling that some state laws might be constitutionally permissible in certain cases even when shelter space is unavailable.

‘There’s no guarantees’

One bill, sponsored by Council President Breean Beggs and Councilmember Lori Kinnear, would ban camping at all times within 100 feet of any downtown railroad viaduct, within any city-owned park or park facility and on any portion of land within 35 feet of the Spokane River or Latah Creek.

To justify this total ban, the bill’s language says those are “camping areas that create an unreasonable risk of harm or pose a substantial danger to the community.”

With all other city-owned property, a camping ban would be enforced only if there is available shelter space, as required by the Martin v. Boise precedent.

“There’s no guarantees on complying (with Martin v. Boise), but our version, we think, comes pretty close,” Beggs said.

Another version, sponsored by councilmembers Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle with Woodward’s input, extends the at-all-times camping ban beyond those areas to anywhere within the downtown Spokane police precinct and business improvement district boundaries, as well as areas within a half mile of a “city-supported congregate shelter.”

A city-supported congregate shelter is defined by the ordinance as any private or public facility that provides short-term or contingency communal living. This includes homeless shelters, but does not include places with individual room occupancy, such as Airbnbs, college dorms or hotels, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

The downtown police precinct boundary, according to the legislation, extends from Spokane Falls Boulevard/Riverside Avenue and I-90 between North Division Street to Maple Street. The downtown business improvement district encompasses much of that area as well as north of Spokane Falls Boulevard, between Division and North Monroe streets.

As with the Beggs-Kinnear version, a camping ban on all other city-owned property would be enforced only if there is enough available shelter space.

“You will never have enough beds for every single person who is homeless. You just won’t,” Woodward said. “So we have to do a better job of utilizing the system that we have right now, and that’s getting to functional zero, where you have as many people exiting the system as are now entering so you don’t have to continue to build more shelters and provide more beds.”

The Cathcart-Bingle version also updates the city’s sit-and-lie law.

The legislation would continue to prohibit sitting and laying on sidewalks from 6 a.m. to midnight while doing away with some exemptions, including homelessness when shelter space is unavailable. The proposal also strikes out exemptions for people “engaging in constitutionally protected expressive activities,” an apparently unconstitutional omission, said Beggs, whose version of the bill does not address the sit-and-lie law.

“This has been a long ongoing conversation that has really centered on how do we comply with the ruling in the Martin v. Boise decision,” Cathcart said.

Beggs said he and Kinnear deliberately limited the scope of their proposed at-all-times ban to parks, viaducts and the waterways, arguing the Cathcart-Bingle version covers too broad of an area to be legal under Martin v. Boise.

On the other hand, Woodward said of the Beggs-Kinnear bill, “That ordinance proposal does not go far enough.”

“I think the mayor would be happy if she could remove anybody camping anywhere, but that’s not what the law is right now,” Beggs said. “So the question is how far can we go under the law and how much risk do you take on having all our laws struck down and being sued for money?”

‘We make it easy to be homeless’

Both the Beggs-Kinnear and Cathcart-Bingle versions criminalize illegal camping violations as misdemeanors for referral to Spokane Community Court.

“Getting into community court, you have to be charged with a misdemeanor,” Beggs said. “I don’t love it, but I’m currently in the camp that a misdemeanor charge with jurisdiction by community court is slightly better than a citation.”

The Beggs-Kinnear version was discussed last week during the council’s Public Infrastructure, Environment and Sustainability Committee meeting. The latest Cathcart-Bingle version is scheduled for discussion Monday during the council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee meeting, Woodward said.

Initial drafts of the two were released within an hour of each other last week, as councilmembers sought community feedback on the proposed measures. Based on that feedback, the Cathcart-Bingle version was reworked with the mayor’s input. The latest version received a ringing endorsement Wednesday from Woodward, who was joined for a news conference by Cathcart, Bingle and dozens of community members.

“This is a way to help people in need find the things that they need,” Bingle said. “I was excited to be a part of this because I knew that this was going to be a very holistic approach that wasn’t going to benefit one group of people over another.”

Woodward said the city’s camping ordinance has not been updated since 2018, while the sit-and-lie laws have remained the same since 2014.

Wednesday’s news conference took place just down the street from the Sprague Avenue-Division Street viaduct, where Woodward ordered a fence built beneath the viaduct in an effort to keep the street clean and safe.

If the Cathcart-Bingle ordinance were to pass, the fences at the Sprague-Division viaduct as well as the Browne Street viaduct, installed in February, would no longer be needed, Coddington said.

“We make it easy to be homeless, and I know that’s not a popular thing for some people to hear,” Woodward said. “These ordinances and their updates are not to push people around, but it is to push them into assistance and to the services that they need to get them off the street, out of viaducts and off of fields.”

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