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Spokane Mayor supports ban on camping, sitting, lying downtown

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Rebecca White/SPR
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Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward stands with City Councilmen Jonathan Bingle, left, and Michael Cathcart, right, at a presser announcer her support for their ordinance. They called for new restrictions on camping downtown, along the river and next to homeless shelters.

City leaders are divided in how to address the growing issue of illegal camping in Spokane. Mayor Nadine Woodward as well as two city council members say the city needs to make it permanently illegal to camp downtown. Other city council members say her proposal is too restrictive, and could lead to unintended consequences.

All city of Spokane leaders say the city needs to do more to address illegal camping. They’ve found common ground in protecting the Spokane River, keeping campsites away from train underpasses and city parks.

They differ on how to approach downtown and business areas. The mayor says camping should never be allowed downtown, or around homeless shelters.

“We make it easy to be homeless,” she said, “and I know that’s not a popular thing for some people to hear. Instead, these ordinances and their updates are not to push people around, but it is too push them into assistance, and into the services that they need to get them off the street.”

The city has struggled to enforce its current regulations on camping, and sitting, or lying on sidewalks because of a Ninth Circuit Court decision, Martin v. Boise. The court ruled that cities may place time and place restrictions on camping, but can’t make an entire city off limits. They also must provide an opportunity for a person to access a low-barrier shelter bed. A low barrier bed means a person experiencing homelessness doesn’t have to pass a drug test, participate in a religious service, or pass other tests to stay.

Woodward argues making some areas permanently off limits to camping, and restricting sitting and lying in zoned areas, will survive a legal challenge.

Her proposal has the support of a large swath of downtown businesses, who say camping downtown has made employees, and customers feel unsafe.

“Our downtown is the economic engine of our region, where we have the majority of our businesses located, where we have thousands of people who work downtown and live downtown,” she said, “The impact that we're seeing from camping and sit and lie, we can't continue to let that happen.”

City Council President Breean Beggs, says some of the changes are likely to be challenged in court. There may not be enough shelter beds, and even if people are cited multiple times and are arrested, they’ll be released because there is not room in the jail for non-violent misdemeanor offenders.

“I think we owe it to our community to be straight up with them on what we can do and can't do, and work for real solutions instead of political points,” he said.

Beggs is one of several council members who support a less restrictive camping code proposed by councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

He says he supports some of Woodwards’ other initiatives, such as a new shelter, and says city leaders should focus on root causes such as housing.

The proposal will likely not come before the city council for a vote for several weeks. It will be briefed in a city council committee Monday.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.