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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local attorney’s anti-camping initiative is set to make the ballot in November

A cyclist takes pause in front of the tent city outside Spokane City Hall in this photo from December 2021.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Roberta Simonson and Samantha Fuller The Spokesman-Review

Local attorney Brian Hansen’s initiative to prohibit encampments within 1,000 feet of Spokane schools, parks, playgrounds and child care facilities is set to make the ballot this November.

What that would mean for homeless people in Spokane is more of a struggle to find a temporary place to sleep or store their belongings.

Hansen believes children are being exposed to illicit behavior by homeless people near areas where children gather.

The issue landed in a City Council meeting last Monday, where council members voted unanimously to send it to the November ballot .

The initiative has collected about 7,397 signatures, with a minimum requirement of 2,624 – or 5% of the last general municipal election’s votes. The city clerk will now verify the signatures.

“All you have to do is kind of walk around the city and you see that there are places where children congregate, and some of those things they should not have to confront in their very young lives are very present in their very young lives,” Hansen said.

John Estey served as signature-gatherer, helping the initiative qualify for the ballot. He is the campaign manager for Cathy McMorris Rogers and the executive director of Spokane Good Government Alliance, an organization that spends significantly to influence local campaigns.

Hansen said he sought Estey’s help to navigate the initiative process.

“This is something where it is a very technical process, and I am a lawyer of 27 years,” Hansen said. “I know my way around legal processes. Do I know my way around political processes? No.”

He compares this to getting on a plane but still needing a pilot.

“I did not look at what their affiliation is, was, or what their viewpoints on things were,” Hansen said. “I was looking for someone with experience in the process to make sure I did it correctly.”

He said he did not need help convincing anyone, and Estey’s politics didn’t influence the effort.

Due to personal funds and other unspecified sources, Hansen was able to hire Groundgame Political Solutions, based in Missouri, for help to gather signatures.

Julie Garcia, founder of Jewel’s Helping Hands who works with the homeless including operating the now-closed Camp Hope, said she feared the homeless will have no place in Spokane if the initiative passed.

“Where then do people experiencing homelessness go?” Garcia asked.

City lawmakers were mixed on the proposal. Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart are supportive of the initiative, pointing out that the measure is similar to an ordinance they supported last fall.

“I think it makes a ton of sense, and I’m grateful that the voters will have an opportunity to weigh in,” said Cathcart.

“From my view, the goal of the ordinance is to add protections to our community, to our neighborhoods, to protect those children’s family-related activities from illicit activities that go along with camping,” he added.

Council member Lori Kinnear is neither voicing opposition nor support for the initiative.

Kinnear said the measure may run into legal obstacles if it passes.

In a 2018 ruling, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities can’t prohibit encampments if there is not enough shelter space in the city to house the homeless population.

“There has to be enough space for people to go in low-barrier shelters,” Kinnear said, referring to shelters that do not have sobriety rules for admittance. “If there isn’t, you can’t enforce the ordinance.”

Kinnear and Cathcart agree the initiative has a reasonable chance of passing this November.

“Seeing as how he got a lot of signatures, I’m guessing it probably will,” Kinnear said.

How the city will implement and enforce the initiative, if adopted, remains to be seen.

“I think the enforcement of it really depends upon our ability to have enforcement teams that could be made up of a number of folks, including behavioral health specialists, law enforcement officers, code enforcement officers and other service providers,” Cathcart said.

Hansen doesn’t know how much of Spokane will be off limits to encampments if the initiative passes.

The city was unable to provide an estimate or a map last week of areas where encampments would still be allowed.

There are 87 city parks, dozens of day care centers and 64 public schools in Spokane. That does not include private schools.

Roberta Simonson and Samantha Fuller's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.