Spokane voters overwhelmingly approved major restrictions on camping in Tuesday’s election. But they also backed four of the five candidates who opposed those restrictions.
What it all means depends on who you ask.
Was the strong passage of Proposition 1 meant to act as a check on the progressive impulses of the liberal City Council majority? Or was it a way for the public to tell leaders that they just want something done about the visible homelessness in Spokane?
Regardless, Proposition 1 is already facing legal challenges, and police say they lack the legal authority and manpower for a quick crackdown based on the new city law.
Police Chief Craig Meidl has said that the department fields hundreds of homeless camping complaints without sufficient staffing to quickly respond.
Proposition 1 greatly expands the areas where the homeless are restricted from camping or storing their personal property, encompassing most of the city and almost all of downtown.
It was already illegal to camp on any public property in the city, but police can only issue citations for camping in most areas if there are shelter beds available, thanks to a 5-year-old legal precedent.
Exactly how much public land can be restricted to encampments without violating the Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals ruling called the Martin v. Boise decision is a matter of debate and legal appeal .
Attorneys representing Jewels Helping Hands and Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Executive Director Ben Stuckart filed a lawsuit in August against Brian Hansen, the lawyer leading an effort to ban camping within 1,000 feet of schools, day cares, parks and playgrounds. The suit sought unsuccessfully to have the initiative pulled from the November ballot.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel ruled against them, prompting an appeal that remains pending.
“If we win the appeal, the vote is invalid,” said Julie Garcia, founder of Jewels Helping Hands, a homeless advocacy group. “If we don’t win on appeal, we have to fight it with a constitutional lawyer using Martin v. Boise, which we plan to do.”
Garcia said she believes voters misunderstood the new law and its impacts if it were enforced.
“The unintentional consequence will be Camp Hope encampments on the few areas where they can camp on,” Garcia said of the former Spokane homeless encampment, which was at one time reported as the largest in Washington.
Garcia was a leader in the 2021 protests in front of City Hall over a lack of homeless shelter space that eventually spawned Camp Hope .
“We’re telling people there’s nowhere in our entire city where they can exist,” she said. “I just had a family whose RV was taken, and you know why they were sleeping near a school? Because their kid goes to that school. Where do they go?”
What the people want
Proposition 1 made no mention of increasing the availability of housing and services to address the homeless crisis, but many of the politicians elected Tuesday believe that’s how voters want to see the city respond, or else the electorate would have chosen other candidates.
“My theory is that voters approve it because they’re so frustrated with the problem, but they voted for us because they want someone with careful and compassionate solutions,” Councilwoman-elect Kitty Klitzke said.
“Criminalizing poverty and criminalizing homelessness, we know it’s unconstitutional and we also know it’s wrong.”
How a new City Council and administration should move forward remains to be seen, Klitzke said.
“I don’t think we were talking about how to deal with enforcing it during the election, just what we think about it,” she said. “I’d like to see us try to use our resources to create some sense of safety for people, even if it’s not a perfect model temporarily.”
Mayor-elect Lisa Brown said she would determine how to address voters’ concerns with visible homelessness through “community advisory groups” as part of her transition team.
“What we have not had in the last four years is a clearly articulated plan, with some common-ground view on how to address the crisis,” Brown said. “The candidates opposed to the proposition weren’t opposed to addressing unhoused people, it was a question of how to do it, and the sense that simply saying you can’t be here would not address it.”
Some disagree that the will of the voters was ambiguous. Councilman Michael Cathcart, the only conservative with a clear victory on election night, said voters wanted a guardrail around the progressive politicians they otherwise supported.
“The voters seem to see it as a protection, so I am free to elect a politician that supports other issues I care about, even if they disagree with me on this one,” Cathcart said.
He acknowledged that law enforcement would be limited in its ability to respond immediately to complaints about homeless encampments and argued that most voters did not want to see mass arrests. But Cathcart said the law would give law enforcement the flexibility to contact homeless people and move them along, even if it’s not always a quick process.
He also said the city should invest in emphasis patrols to educate the homeless about the new law.
“We do need to build trust with voters, so we need to take note of this and make sure we prioritize the response to this,” he said.
Councilman Jonathan Bingle, the other conservative on the council, agreed with Cathcart and said he expected police would make productive use of the new law under Mayor Nadine Woodward, despite insufficient staffing. With Brown set to be mayor next year, Bingle was unsure whether voters would see the kind of enforcement they demanded on election night.
“I’m not sure how it will get applied now or what the emphasis is on it,” Bingle said. “I think that future is unclear.”
Still, others believe that voters were sold a bill of goods from the beginning, and that there were never any plans to use Proposition 1 to meaningfully address the concerns of voters.
“I think the language in the initiative was deceptive,” Councilman-elect Paul Dillon said. “It was absolutely a right-wing ploy, a get-out-the-vote opportunity.
“We don’t have the resources to enforce this, and it will just push people around.”
Dillon argued that the city should respond to voters by investing in housing and services, which he argued would be more productive for getting people off the streets, and would prevent them from camping in neighborhoods.