By Chris Batten
Unauthorized camping has a significant impact on businesses, residents, workers and visitors that frequent downtown Spokane, including the most vulnerable in our society.
In recent weeks, city of Spokane administration and council members have presented updates to re-establish city ordinances to address the concerns shared by downtown’s residents and businesses daily.
Sitting, lying and camping on the sidewalks and underpasses of downtown creates conditions that prevent access, impede commerce and render our sidewalks impassable, creating detrimental economic impacts that affect our very ability to raise tax revenues that can support housing and services for individuals experiencing homelessness.
While we work in earnest to focus on housing, shelter and wraparound services, we cannot turn a blind eye to the real impacts hazardous encampments have. In a compact urban environment like downtown Spokane, there is no room for people to sit, lie and camp while maintaining access for everyone. We urgently need policies that address unauthorized camping in downtown.
The time has come for Spokane to take the necessary action of ensuring the sidewalks of downtown are safe, clean and welcoming. Implement and enforce time and place restrictions on where and when individuals can camp on downtown public property; clear encampments that pose health and safety threats; and enforce rules that keep our sidewalks clean.
As a partner in the effort to end homelessness, the downtown community appreciates the challenge of finding workable solutions. I hear desperation daily from locally-owned small businesses striving to recover from an unprecedented 2020 and 2021. They didn’t give up on Spokane, and now they wonder if Spokane has given up on them.
Creating a special set of exemptions, privileges and rights for some to occupy public and private property without complying with laws that apply to others undermines the ability of all citizens to access clean and nonthreatening public spaces, while jeopardizing the safety of residents and the economic viability of local businesses.
Earlier this year, in a detailed analysis of Martin v. City of Boise challenges, Portland-based lawfirm Tonkon Torp LLP clarified that the court’s decision “in no way” requires governments to “allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets … at any time and at any place.” The subsequent review of 13 Martin v. City of Boise legal challenges brought against cities across the West found that only two were successful, resulting in cities having to vacate the enforcement of no camping and related laws.
Nine other cases upheld cities enforcing their laws, because they properly engaged the actual principles of Martin v. City of Boise, and the final two cases provided relief to property owners whose property was damaged by a lack of enforcement of laws.
Aside from legal risks, encampments can cause substantial interference with intended uses of public facilities and increased costs from responding to emergency situations, damage to critical infrastructure, reduced urban livability and desirability, and the loss of tax revenue.
The urban core is unique. The concentration of critical infrastructure, hospitality activities and pedestrian traffic require establishing a no-camping area and clarify enforcement of sit-lie policies between 6 a.m. and midnight in the Downtown Business Improvement District/ Downtown Police Precinct.
These ordinances are a critical part of Spokane’s ability to address homelessness and promote safe and accessible public spaces. The time is right, and the time is now to take action.
Chris Batten is the principal of RenCorp Realty and board chair of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.