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Non-profit sues to keep Spokane anti-camping initiative off ballot

Rebecca White/SPR
A Spokane County Judge will consider whether to allow an initiative that would bar people from camping near parks, schools or daycares from appearing on the November ballot.

A non-profit homeless service provider is suing to stop an initiative that would ban camping across a large swath of Spokane from appearing on ballots in November.

Attorneys for housing advocate Ben Stuckart and nonprofit group Jewels Helping Hands argue the camping ban is beyond the scope of the initiative process and that regulating land use and homelessness policy is the city council’s job.

“Allowing homeless policy to be established by local initiative would open a floodgate to local initiative and referenda on homelessness, which could be used to derail action to address affordable housing and homelessness,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit also argues the initiative is also too broad to enforce, and that it conflicts with a 9th Circuit Court ruling that requires local governments to provide shelter before criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness, known as Martin versus Boise.

The initiative, sponsored by attorney Brian Hansen, would bar people from camping within 1,000 feet of daycares, public parks and schools as well as make it illegal to camp near homeless shelters, or railroad underpasses. The proposal is mostly funded by developer Larry Stone, who has donated $75,000 of the roughly $80,000 raised to collect signatures, and pay for other ballot measure campaign costs.

According to the text of the initiative, police are directed to check the city’s shelter bed tracking system to see if a bed was available before writing a citation, unless the person is believed to be damaging the natural areas around the Spokane River or Latah creek, or on public property.

Mark Lamb, an attorney representing the initiative’s sponsor, said in a statement the lawsuit was an attempt to subvert the democratic process and voters’ right to be heard.

“The people of Spokane have a right to petition their government and vote on issues concerning the safety of children,” Lamb said. “We are confident that this suit is without merit and look forward to demonstrating this in court.”

Attorneys for Stuckart and Jewels Helping Hands have asked a Spokane County judge to block the initiative from appearing on the ballot in any future election.

The lawsuit will likely come before a judge this week due to state requirements and ballot printing deadlines, according to court documents.

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.