Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Action needed now on issues related to homelessness


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City leaders should operate on parallel tracks of expanding services and bed accessibility for homeless people while updating and reinstating bans on camping in the city’s core and public areas. And they should do so now.

It’s time for analysis and debate to be converted into action. City leaders should come together, compromise where necessary, and do something to help vulnerable people and make the city streets cleaner and safer.

Earlier this month, the Downtown Spokane Partnership came out in support of reinstating the city’s Unauthorized Camping Ordinance within the downtown Business Improvement District and the downtown police precinct boundary. The organization argues that such a ban is necessary to remove obstructions from public rights of way and to provide a cleaner, safer environment for visitors and downtown workers.

Some City Council members have proposed a less-expansive change to the code that restricts camping under or near railroad viaducts, city-owned property, along rivers in the city, and anytime such activity proposes a “substantial danger to the community.”

While the Journal leans toward backing more expansive rules that apply to a broader area and give residents and property owners greater recourse, we place a greater priority on getting something done, at this stage. This is especially true because the proposals might not be as different as one might think. The “substantial danger” language in the Council proposal could be interpreted in a way that makes the ordinance apply on a broader scale. And the misdemeanor penalty in the other version could be changed so homeless people wouldn’t face jail time for sleeping on the street. In that light, the two proposals might not be as far apart as it appears on the surface.

Much of the consternation over the correct approach to a camping ordinance stems from a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a 2019 case known as Martin vs. the city of Boise. In that case, the court ruled a municipality can’t enforce camping restrictions if it doesn’t have shelter beds available for those in violation.

Legal interpretations vary, but the DSP quotes a memo from a law firm that states the court’s decision in no way requires governments to “allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets … at any time and at any place.” In other words, there’s room to make progress on a camping ordinance regardless of the status of efforts to increase shelter beds.

That said, the parallel track of increasing housing options is crucial to sustained success to all efforts to reduce vagrancy. The Washington state Department of Commerce has allotted $24 million to Spokane County to provide more housing options, in part as an effort to create places for people at Camp Hope, the encampment on state land fronting Interstate 90. Spokane City Councilmember Lori Kinnear says a number of proposals are being discussed, including buying an old hotel in west Spokane and creating places for pallet camping and RV living.

In reference to new housing options and camping bans, Kinnear says, “We’d like them to coincide so when (ordinances) pass, we have places for them to go.”

That’s good reasoning, but we should be operating with the understanding that an ordinance needs to be passed in days or weeks, not months or years. Our community deserves that sense of urgency.

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