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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Homeless advocates file lawsuit to pull anti-camping initiative from November ballot in Spokane

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

Advocates for the homeless will try to persuade a judge to pull an anti-camping initiative from Spokane’s general election ballot.

Attorneys representing Jewels Helping Hands and Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Executive Director Ben Stuckart on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in Spokane County Superior Court against Brian Hansen, the lawyer leading an effort to ban camping within 1,000 feet of schools, daycares, parks and playgrounds.

Hansen gathered enough signatures to get his anti-camping initiative on the November ballot. The proposal would make Spokane’s existing law far more strict and ban camping throughout much of the city. Hansen has said he believes the change is necessary to protect kids.

Knoll Lowney, one of the Seattle-based attorneys who filed the lawsuit, says Hansen’s initiative would be illegal. Lowney argues that citizens can’t use local ballot measures to usurp authority that the Washington Legislature has granted to municipal governments, such as the Spokane City Council.

In the lawsuit, Lowney says state law gives city councils the power to craft homeless plans and make land-use decisions. Hansen’s initiative would supersede the Spokane City Council’s authority and is therefore invalid, according to the lawsuit. In an interview, Lowney said a judge in 2021 pulled a similar initiative off a Seattle ballot.

The lawsuit also says Hansen’s proposal would violate federal court rulings if it became law and likely would be overturned.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018 ruled that cities can’t ban camping on all public property unless they can offer campers a bed. The court found that criminalizing people for being homeless was cruel and unusual punishment, and violated the Eighth Amendment.

Mark Lamb, a Seattle-based attorney representing Hansen and the political action committee funding his initiative, pushed back against Lowney’s arguments.

Lamb said the state’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Act, which Lowney cites, allows local governments to develop homelessness plans in order to apply for state grants.

“That doesn’t address camping in front of public schools,” he said. “It doesn’t address camping in front of playgrounds.”

Lamb also said he doesn’t think Hansen’s initiative would be overturned if voters approve it. If it’s overturned based on the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Lamb said, then Los Angeles’ ban on camping within 500 feet of schools, parks and daycares will be overturned too.

Voters should be allowed to have a say on issues that involve homelessness, Lamb said.

“This is an issue that the people of the city of Spokane have a right to be heard on,” he said. “I think it is fundamentally an attempt to subvert the will of the people through litigation.”