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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane City Council votes to ban camping along river, under viaducts and near homeless shelters

Sept. 19, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 19, 2022 at 9:43 p.m.

A tent is seen near the Spokane River on Friday below Riverton Avenue.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
A tent is seen near the Spokane River on Friday below Riverton Avenue. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane City Council on Monday voted to ban camping along the Spokane River and Latah Creek, under and near downtown railroad viaducts and within three blocks of homeless shelters, regardless of whether shelter space is available.

All seven City Council members voted in favor of the illegal camping ordinance.

Spokane has had an illegal camping law on the books since 2018 that treats camping on all public property as a criminal misdemeanor.

A 2018 ruling by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit made the law unenforceable, however. In Martin v. Boise, the 9th Circuit ruled that cities can’t prohibit camping on public property unless they provide individuals with adequate shelter space.

Spokane City Council members have stressed that they believe the new camping ban is enforceable and should hold up in court if the city faces any legal challenges. The new law only bans camping in specific areas, not throughout all city property. The Boise decision prevents cities from crafting blanket camping prohibitions, but it allows for camping restrictions.

The opening of a new homeless shelter on Trent Avenue may also help protect the city from legal challenges. That facility will add 150 or more beds to Spokane’s shelter capacity, giving the city a greater ability to offer homeless individuals a place to stay.

In addition to being enforceable, City Council members have said they believe the ordinance is necessary in order to protect the environment, the homeless and the general public.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear has stressed that camping along the banks of the Spokane River and Latah Creek has significantly damaged riparian areas and increased the amount of trash and waste polluting the water. She’s also noted that camping under viaducts creates a pedestrian hazard, and individuals camping near homeless shelters often prey on those staying inside.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she constantly receives phone calls from constituents who live near the Spokane River.

“They live in fear in summers, from people that camp down at the river’s edge,” she said. “I’m not judging. I’m not saying those are bad people, but I’m saying the homeowners are frightened every year.”

The City Council’s two conservative members said they wish the ordinance was more strict, while acknowledging it was better than nothing.

“I’m not willing to let perfect be the enemy of the good,” City Councilman Michael Cathcart said.

Cathcart added that he believes the ordinance is the humane path forward.

“There is nothing compassionate about letting people remain on the street,” he said. “Anyone who says otherwise, I don’t know, I guess our value systems are very different.”

Public reaction to the new law has been mixed, with some describing it as cruel and unusual punishment and others saying it didn’t go far enough.

Emilie Cameron, president and CEO of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said camping is hurting the city’s core and making people afraid to be downtown.

“Employees are telling their employers they’re scared to come back to work,” Cameron said. “Customers are staying away, choosing to visit and spend in other communities. And residents no longer feel safe in their own neighborhood.”

Homeless advocate Dave Bilsland, who has resisted different iterations of Spokane’s illegal camping laws over the years, called the ordinance inhumane. He said he believes the city shouldn’t be passing the new law while it’s in the middle of a housing shortage.

“You’re going to hassle people for being homeless when they have no choice?” Bilsland asked. “Until you get the housing, this ordinance should be dead in the water.”

City Council President Breean Beggs said he’s known from the beginning that no one would like the illegal camping law. He has said the legislation is a compromise that attempts to address legitimate public safety concerns while also being compassionate to the homeless.

Police officers will direct people who violate the illegal camping law to community court, which handles low-level crimes and connects people to housing, addiction and mental health treatment resources. Offenders have to complete community service and meet with providers to have their charges dropped.

City Councilman Zack Zappone said he has some concerns about the new law, but believes the city had to take action.

“I’m deeply concerned that this will be seen as just pushing people around and that it’s not getting people to the services they need to get back on their feet,” he said. “We’re also taking the right steps to get people services, to get people shelter.”

The new law will go into effect 30 days after Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward signs it. Beggs said the proposal was crafted in consultation with Woodward. Last week, she called the ordinance “a good start.”

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