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Sue Lani Madsen: Put children first on Proposition 1

Proposition 1 in the city of Spokane exposes the ideological divide between municipal candidates. Proponents and opponents both have pieces of the truth on their side, but have different priorities in evaluating the trade-offs. Proposition 1 supporters put the rights of children first; opponents put adults first.

The anti-camping ordinance – and yes, it is anti-camping – can just as truthfully be called a pro-child proposition, depending on how one wants to spin the story.

Pro-child Proposition 1 gives tools to law enforcement to ask squatters within 1,000 feet of any “public or private school, public park, playground or licensed childcare facility” to move along. If uncooperative, illegal campers would be subject to a misdemeanor citation.

Will this shuffle people around the city from places they have been “urban camping” to new locations in other neighborhoods? Of course it will. The proposed ordinance would limit camping in somewhere between 40% to 60% of the city according to opponents of Proposition 1, depending on how one interprets the data and draws the lines.

Law enforcement realistically isn’t going to be out measuring neighborhoods for 1,000-foot perimeters to children’s safe places. But if called, law enforcement officers will have another tool to nudge a recalcitrant adult toward accepting help via community court.

The stubbornly homeless will readily adapt. People persistently living on the street carry maps in their heads of the best places to hide out to sleep undisturbed and the timetable for free meals at each service provider. They know how to stay below the radar and duck attention from law enforcement. Word will get out among those who refuse to use shelters, they’ll adjust, and those who choose only to make trouble for themselves will still be left alone.

Adults have a right to make poor choices. In January, as a volunteer with a point-in-time count team of student nurses, we encountered a woman with serious foot swelling, dressed in a raggedy assortment of clothing to keep warm, and a bit daft but not enough to be involuntarily admitted to care. She needed help, but chose to refuse assistance. We had to walk away. It was a hard lesson for the young student handing out dry socks.

We too readily let the mentally ill “die with their rights on,” as the late psychiatrist and political pundit Charles Krauthammer famously put it. They’ll have their rights even if they have no boots.

Proposition 1 gives law enforcement and behavioral health unit team members another basis to intervene with adults insisting on exercising their rights to their own detriment.

But children have rights, too. Among them are safety, security and an environment free of needles, foil wrappers and drug residue. While many of the homeless are a danger only to themselves, drug use is rampant and a higher proportion than in the general population would flunk a child care background check for violent or sexually abusive behaviors. It is not unreasonable to protect children by keeping illegal urban campers away from schools, parks and playgrounds.

The opponents of Proposition 1 advocate for the right of adults to bodily autonomy over the right of children to a safe life. As vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, Paul Dillon has supported adults’ rights first since 2015. Lisa Brown, Kitty Klitzke, Lindsay Shaw and Betsy Wilkerson have all gone on record as opposing anti-camping Proposition 1 because it doesn’t address root causes of illegal camping, while at the same time admitting it will probably pass because people are fed up with the crime associated with rampant homelessness.

Dillon’s opponent Katey Treloar, plus Mayor Nadine Woodward, Earl Moore, Michael Cathcart and Kim Plese all support pro-child Proposition 1. It is true it doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness, which are many and complex, but it does address a more immediate duty to protect children while working on digging out those roots.

We don’t let children make all the choices because adulting is hard. It requires tough trade-offs, and adults have a duty to make choices to protect children.

Children have a right to opportunities for recreation without being confronted by indecent exposure and squatter tents at the edge of the playground. Children don’t have a vote.

As for those maps promoted by the opponents to Proposition 1 who say it creates too many barriers to illegal camping? Here’s a better use for that data: The adults in the room can work together to figure out why only 40% to 60% of the city has facilities to serve children within a short walking distance in their neighborhoods.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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