Spokane City Council looks to pass illegal camping ordinance Monday

Sep. 18—The Spokane City Council will vote Monday on a law that would prohibit camping along the Spokane River and Latah Creek, under and near downtown railroad viaducts and within three blocks of homeless shelters, regardless of whether shelter space is available.

"It's just a hard situation," Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said in Monday's city council meeting. "There are people who don't have housing and need a place to live, and we don't have shelter appropriate for all people. And yet, at the same time, we need to provide some basic safety and protection from imminent harm in those locations. So this tries to balance all of those competing needs."

Spokane already has a law that treats camping on all public property as a criminal misdemeanor. The city council passed it in 2018.

The city hasn't been enforcing the law, though, due to a 2018 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit ruled that cities can't ban people from camping on public property unless they provide them with adequate shelter. The court determined that punishing people for being homeless when they had nowhere else to go violated the Eighth Amendment.

City leaders believe they can pass and enforce an illegal camping ordinance now that will hold up in the face of lawsuits.

For one, the ordinance prohibits camping in specific areas, not on all public lands. The Boise decision allows camping restrictions, even when shelter beds aren't available.

Spokane increased its shelter capacity last week, too. A new facility on Trent Avenue will have 150 or more beds. Since it opened, the city has resumed enforcement of its law that prohibits sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks during most of the day.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said the illegal camping legislation is necessary.

Camping along the river, under viaducts and near shelters isn't safe, she said.

"It's not a safe situation for the people who are camping or the people who are coming into contact with the campers," she said.

Kinnear said camping on the banks of the Spokane River and Latah Creek has significantly degraded riparian habitat and increased garbage in the water.

Camping under viaducts causes problems for pedestrians, she said, and people camping near shelters too often prey upon those staying inside.

"People have said, 'Oh, you are criminalizing homelessness.' I disagree," Kinnear said. "It is about compassion. It is about offering people services. It is about getting people into safe spaces."

Individuals who violate the proposed law would be cited by Spokane police officers, released and directed to community court.

Community court handles low-level crimes and connects people with housing, medical assistance and addiction treatment resources. Judges require offenders to complete community service and meet with providers in order to have their charges dropped.

Homeless individuals and advocates have criticized the ordinance.

Dave Bilsland, a longtime homeless activist who has fought different iterations of the city's illegal camping laws over the past 18 years, denounced it in a passionate speech during a city council meeting.

"This proposal punishes a person for lacking the means to live out the universal and unavoidable consequences of being human," he said.

Melanie Cochran and Tim Crider, a homeless couple, said they don't think the law will be effective. It will make their lives worse, though, they said.

"It'd make it hard to find a place to sleep at night, for sure," Cochran said, noting that she gets woken up most mornings by angry business owners or police officers. "People are going to camp anyway. People have got to go somewhere."

City Councilman Michael Cathcart said he doesn't think the ordinance is strict enough. He said he'll bring forward multiple amendment proposals Monday.

The law should ban camping within half a mile of shelters, not just three blocks, Cathcart said, explaining that he believes extending the distance will protect residents near the Trent shelter.

Cathcart said he wants an additional restriction that prohibits camping within 1,000 feet of schools, day cares and other child-centric places.

"I think we have to be enforcing in those areas vigilantly," he said.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward described the law as "a good start," but would like it to go further.

"It's not as strong as it should be," she said.

Beggs emphasized that the ordinance won't solve homelessness. To do that, Spokane needs to solve its housing shortage, he said.

The law is a compromise, Beggs said — an imperfect, legally defensible piece of legislation that seeks to address legitimate issues in a humane way.

"Nobody's going to be happy with it," Beggs said in an interview.

Crider stressed that he and many other homeless individuals aren't living under viaducts and along the river for fun.

He said that he and Cochran were evicted a few months ago after a new landlord took over their property and they couldn't find a place to live.

"We're not homeless because we're deadbeats or don't want to work," he said.

Illegal camping laws simply make life harder for people who are struggling to get by, Crider said.

"It's like a war on the homeless."