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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City resumes ban on sitting, laying on sidewalks in part of downtown Spokane during certain times

Sgt. Jason Hartman, left, of the Spokane Police Department walks around soiled bedding inside the Browne Street underpass, often a camping spot for homeless people, on June 9, 2021. The city uses police officers, a litter crew and employees of the Downtown Spokane Partnership to completely clean up and sanitize the areas frequented by homeless campers.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The city of Spokane on Wednesday resumed enforcement of a ban on sitting and lying on public sidewalks for most of the day in a roughly half-square-mile part of downtown Spokane.

The ban prohibits sitting and lying on a public sidewalk – or on a blanket, chair, stool or any other object placed on a sidewalk – from 6 a.m. to midnight in an area that extends from around Maple Street to Division Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard to Interstate 90.

“We are setting an expectation that individuals take advantage of the opportunities available to them to receive services in a safe, healthy, and humane environment,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said in a statement Wednesday. “Our downtown needs to be a safe and healthy place for everyone and living on streets, alleyways, viaducts, and fields is not in anyone’s best interest.”

There are a number of exceptions to the rule, such as for anyone who operates a business with permission to occupy the sidewalk; people attending parades, festivals or similar events so long as those events are properly permitted; sitting in a bus stop zone; and anyone engaged in “constitutionally protected expressive activities.”

Anyone who is homeless is also exempt when shelter space is unavailable.

Woodward said Wednesday she decided to resume the sit-lie enforcement measures with the opening of the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, the new city-owned homeless shelter on East Trent Avenue.

The center, which opened Tuesday with 75 beds, is working toward a minimum 150-bed capacity with room for more as needed.

“Our first priority is to get individuals connected to services that will help them take their next steps in their homelessness journey,” Woodward said in her statement. “Adding the enforcement element presents those who are reluctant to accept help with an option and an opportunity.”

The sit-lie ordinance is separate from another city ordinance that prohibits unauthorized camping.

That ordinance, which the city is not enforcing at this time, bans camping on public property.

The city has not enforced the sit-lie ordinance or the unauthorized camping regulations for at least a year due in part to federal precedent set by Martin v. Boise requiring cities to have adequate shelter space to enforce such laws.

“Both of those ordinances are meant as tools, but they’re narrow tools. They’re for people who have options and willfully disregard them, and that’s only a portion of the population right now,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said. “It’s not a panacea for homeless people trying to find shelter wherever they can.”

City spokesman Brian Coddington said officials decided to hold off on resuming enforcement of the camping ordinance since the City Council is set to vote Monday on major revisions to the regulations. No such revisions are planned at this time for the sit-lie ordinance.

“Rather than create additional confusion, we just emphasized sit and lie, but camping could be enforced as well because of that availability of shelter space,” Coddington said. “There’s already confusion on the two (ordinances) about whether they’re connected or separate.”

Enforcement of the sit-lie ordinance will be based on shelter availability the night before, or by a phone call by police officers to appropriate shelters.

“If (officers are) talking to an individual on the street and make a phone call to a shelter and there is space available, that documentation or that report is enough to enforce sit and lie,” Coddington said. “Provided that if they’re talking to a man, there’s space for a man, and if they’re talking to a woman, there’s space for women.”

With Trent open, Woodward said her administration anticipates the region’s shelter system will have enough capacity for all demographics to allow the city to enforce the sit-lie ordinance for the foreseeable future.

The mayor said Spokane police performed outreach last week to let people know not only about the opening of the Trent center, but that sit-lie enforcement would begin this week.

While the region’s shelter system has availability throughout the summer, Woodward said they have typically been available only to men.

“With women, we’ve struggled in the past to have availability. If there were two spots available for a woman last night, just as an example, probably the general rule would be that using last night’s capacity would not be enough. They’d want to check with the shelter to make sure those spots were available,” Coddington said. “If there were several dozen spots available, that would be different.”

Beggs, who was informed late Wednesday morning by the administration of the resumed enforcement, said shelter availability had been limited this summer for couples as well.

While the Trent center is open, Beggs said he hopes to see the shelter soon add a services provider, while the city has requested funding from the state to add more beds in the form of 60 two-person private “pod” units.

“It’s hard because people are in crisis, they’re poor and they can’t afford housing, and they’re going to be moved along from one spot in the city to another,” Beggs said.

“The most effective thing is more shelter, more services. The community is trying to come together to build that infrastructure. We just don’t have enough yet.”