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City Leaders considering new restrictions on camping

Rebecca White/SPR
Spokane city leaders could make camping illegal on city property, as well as other areas that could be damaged by tents or camping gear.

The Spokane City Council is considering cracking down on illegal camping. Under two proposals that will come before the panel later this summer, camping on the banks of the Spokane river, under a train underpass or in a city park would be illegal.

Spokane has already had a code against camping on the books for years, but hasn’t been able to enforce it. Police can only break up camps if there’s shelter space available. In Spokane, there are often not enough beds, especially for homeless women.

Two solutions are before the city council, one supported by City Council President Breean Beggs and councilwoman Lori Kinnear, and one supported by Councilman Michael Cathcart.

Beggs’ and Kinnear’s proposal would make a few parts of the city permanently off limits for camping, and give police the authority to break up a camp if they feel its unsafe. Beggs said he hopes the restrictions will go into effect when the city’s newest shelter opens later this summer.

“At the end of the day the answer is more shelter, and the variety of shelter that really works for people, Beggs said, “And a variety of shelter that really works for people. Some people think there’s a one-size fits all shelter and if you don’t go to that, you’re a criminal, and that’s not my experience.”

Kinnear said more restrictions are needed to protect ecologically vulnerable areas, such as the river, or areas, like city parks, where a long-term tent could cause damage.

She said their proposal is more limited than Cathcart’s because they fear being too restrictive could drive people who are camping into neighborhoods.

“Not everybody’s going to like this, people want an exclusionary zone around downtown, and all downtown is off limits,” she said. “That’s all well and good, but if you create those types of exclusionary zones, you’re moving the problem, not solving it.”

Cathcart’s proposal would ban camping in many of the same areas as Begg’s and Kinnear’s ordinance, but also includes downtown, business districts during certain hours and a zone around homeless shelters. It would also make camps of more than 25 people illegal. The city’s largest homeless camp, commonly known as Camp Hope, has around 500 people.

Cathcart said camping in business areas is a hazard, and is impacting the livelihoods of the people who work there.

“We hear from employers concerned about the safety of their employees,” he said, “we hear customers say they don’t want to visit downtown, or they don’t want to visit some of these areas because they’re concerned about their safety.”

He said some of his proposals may not have the support of the full city council, but he hopes one component, a no-camping buffer around homeless shelters, will stay. He says finding a place to site a shelter is challenging, and restricting camping may open more areas.

Neither proposal would send people who camp illegally to jail on the first or second violation. Instead, they would be sent to community court, where they are connected to housing, addiction or mental health resources outside of the traditional criminal justice system.

Under Cathcart’s proposal, if they are caught camping in an illegal area four times in a single year, they could face jail time.