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Woodward joins national push to overturn Martin v. Boise ruling

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward speaks to the press about efforts to overturn the Martin and Johnson rulings, Sept. 29, 2023.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward speaks to the press about efforts to overturn the Martin and Johnson rulings, Sept. 29, 2023.

The city of Spokane recently joined a legal brief that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two influential lower court rulings that guide how cities in the West treat homeless people.

The rulings in Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass barred cities from enforcing many homelessness prohibitions, such as public camping bans, when unsheltered people have nowhere else to go.

The practices established under those rulings have hampered Spokane’s efforts to get homeless people into treatment and forced the city to spend more on providing emergency “night by night” shelter space, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said Friday.

Woodward said doing away with the Martin and Johnson rulings may allow the city to adopt tougher approaches for homeless residents.

“I think what it would do is, it would help jurisdictions be able to compel people to get services. Because right now, there are—I just don’t think there are enough tough boundaries or guardrails to get them into services,” Woodward told reporters.

Woodward did not provide specific details on how the city could or would “compel” people into treatment and services. She did say that, should the rulings be overturned, the city will look at stronger penalties for violating homelessness-related ordinances. Ending Martin’s requirements, Woodward said, would also allow Spokane to spend more on transitional housing programs and other ways of addressing homelessness.

“We can strategically invest in programs that are seeing much better outcomes,” Woodward said.

Woodward said providing a bed for every unsheltered person in the city would require the capacity of the Trent Resource and Assistance Center to be duplicated “numerous times,” which is prohibitively expensive. The privately-owned shelter east of downtown costs the city about $26,000 a month. The city has also spent more than a million dollars on improvements to the building.

Union Gospel Mission (UGM) Executive Director Phil Altmeyer linked visible homelessness to broader perceptions of safety and danger, calling the current situation “lawlessness.” Overturning Martin, Altmeyer said, would “clean up” the city.

“Either people are going to move in the direction to get the help they need…but they won’t be allowed to continue in their addiction. Sit-and-lie, laying on our streets, using drugs day in and day out,” Altmeyer said.

Altmeyer placed the blame for recent homelessness squarely on the Martin decision, and expressed hope that the involvement of California Governor Gavin Newsom and politically-liberal Seattle signaled the amicus brief reflects bipartisan support for overturning the ruling.

UGM and the Salvation Army were the only homeless service providers present at the Friday press conference. Other providers, such as Catholic Charities, Jewels Helping Hands and Compassionate Addiction Treatment, were not represented.

Should Martin be overturned, both Woodward and Altmeyer described the city’s goal as compassionate treatment of homeless residents.

Hallie Burchinal, executive director of Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT), doesn’t see it that way. She told Spokane Public Radio Tuesday that she wasn’t surprised to see the city join the push to overturn the rulings. She said adopting a more confrontational model would not help what is already a bad situation.

“There truly are not options for these people that are out there,” Burchinal said. “There aren’t enough shelter beds. There isn’t housing. What are these people to do in the meantime, other fall deeper and deeper into despair?”

Earlier this month, Woodward announced more intense law enforcement directed toward homeless people at the Second and Division intersection, in CAT’s backyard. Burchinal is worried the demise of Martin and Johnson would lead ultimately to more unsheltered people in jail.

“It’s increasing the ability to criminalize people who are experiencing homelessness,” Burchinal said. “It’s criminalizing something that is outside of people’s control right now. We’re saying where a person can’t be in public, but not where a person can be.”

Burchinal says CAT works with Spokane Police Department’s behavioral health unit, and wants to work with the city to address homelessness. But she feels the Woodward administration’s attitude and approach to homelessness are moving in the wrong direction.

“We know that collaboration can work, with our city administration and our police department,” Burchinal said. “[But] we need to be more solutions-focused, rather dehumanizing people.”

As examples, she pointed to the Trent shelter, which still lacks indoor plumbing, and a measure on November ballots that would ban public camping within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers and city parks. If passed, the measure would make more than half of Spokane off-limits for sleeping in public, according to a map produced by Eastern Washington University professor Robert Sauder.

The Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to the Martin ruling in 2019. It is unclear if or when the high court will accept the current request.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.