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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Protecting children or sweeping the problem under the rug: Spokane voters asked to criminalize encampments near kids

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)

Proposition 1 on ballots for Spokane residents this November will ask whether it should be a citable offense for people who are homeless to camp within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and licensed child care facilities in the city.

If passed by voters, police could issue tickets to anyone who camps or stores personal property on public land in much of the city and nearly all of downtown, according to a map prepared by Eastern Washington University Professor Robert Sauders.

Brian Hansen, the Spokane attorney who submitted the ballot initiative, and supporters say the new law is needed to protect children from criminal behavior associated with encampments. He has pointed to reports of open drug use and indecent exposure at Camp Hope, which occupied a city block in the East Central Neighborhood and was once the state’s largest homeless encampment. It closed in June.

Opponents argue the law runs afoul of legal precedent and would push homeless people away from services in the urban core and into the neighborhoods like East Central or to the city’s fringes to the north and south.

The proposal has proved to be a dividing line in a big election year for Spokane, with candidates for local office split evenly in either direction.

Mayor Nadine Woodward, City Council President candidate Kim Plese and City Council candidates Katey Treloar and Earl Moore support the proposition, as does incumbent Councilman Michael Cathcart, who’s running for re-election. Several have attacked their opponents for disagreeing.

“People are pretty outraged to hear that my opponent is against Proposition 1,” said Treloar, who is running against Paul Dillon to represent south Spokane. “We have to put our kids first.”

Dillon and fellow council candidates Kitty Klitzke and Lindsey Shaw, as well as Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who is running for City Council president, and mayoral candidate Lisa Brown have argued the law would just shuffle the homeless around, and that the city should instead focus on housing and services.

“I think this initiative itself is political in nature,” Dillon said.

“It’s not Brian Hansen: concerned dad, ‘save our children,’ ” Dillon added. “It’s Larry Stone, and it’s John Estey, and it’s all the Cathy McMorris Rodgers kind of conservative players who are using this to really move us backwards this election.”

Local developer Stone, who frequently bankrolls efforts to influence local politics, such as with the 2019 election-season video “Curing Spokane” and more recent sequels criticizing rampant homelessness and investments in public transit, paid for the signature gathering campaign to put Proposition 1 on the November ballot.

Estey served as lead signature-gatherer. He is the campaign manager for McMorris Rogers and the executive director of Spokane Good Government Alliance, an organization that spends significantly to support conservative candidates for local office.

Several who are skeptical of the proposal still think it will pass this November.

“We have unhoused people living all over our city, every neighborhood I go to,” Brown said. “So when it comes to a measure that says, ‘I don’t want them living there,’ I believe people will pass it.”

It is 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.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018 ruled that cities can ban camping on some but not all public property. A city can only fully ban camping if there are available shelter beds. Prohibiting camping on all public land amounted to criminalizing people for the act of being homeless, which was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the court ruled.

Exactly how much public land can be restricted to encampments without violating the Martin v. Boise decision is a matter of ongoing legal debate and periodic court battles. Regardless of shelter space, Spokane police can already enforce a prohibition on camping within 50 feet of any railroad viaduct downtown or within three blocks of any congregate homeless shelter.

If voters enact the significantly broader anti-camping law in November, it likely will face legal challenge. Some of those arguments were previewed in August during a lawsuit that sought to have the proposition removed from the ballot on the basis that the proposition would usurp the administrative powers of the city, which state law would not allow.

On Aug. 23, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel disagreed, denying a request to pull the proposition from the ballot from Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Executive Director Ben Stuckart and Jewels Helping Hands, the service provider led by Julie Garcia that once managed Camp Hope.

Hazel acknowledged that the initiative could come into conflict with Martin v. Boise, but added that it would be “improper for the court” to rule on such matters prior to the election.

Spokane lacks sufficient beds to house every homeless person living in the city, and shelters are often at or near capacity, but the city typically reports some available beds on any given night.

If Proposition 1 passes, camping or storing personal property on public land near schools, parks, playgrounds and child care facilities also would be a crime that police could enforce regardless of shelter space, as is already the case with camping under viaducts or near shelters.

Camping or storing property near schools, parks, playgrounds and day care facilities would be a cite-and-release misdemeanor offense. Those arrested for this offense would not be booked into jail unless there was an outstanding warrant or probable cause that the person had committed another crime.

Citations would be a last resort, said Spokane police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.

“We will always look to education and service connection first,” Humphreys said. “Our goal is not to arrest homeless people.”

The police are also unlikely to have the resources to respond to illegal encampments in the greatly expanded area under the proposition, Humphreys added.

“I think what we’ve seen is, as people get used to officers being in those areas where they’d previously been able to camp, then the trajectory changes a little bit,” she said. “Will they come back two days later? They might.”

However, Humphreys argued officers can change behaviors even if the department doesn’t have the manpower to contact everyone, pointing to a re-criminalization of open public drug use in May.

“What we’ve found with the drug ordinance, it has made a difference,” Humphreys said. “It changes what people understand they can be arrested for.”