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Washington State News

Spokane Mayor, Council President at Odds over new homeless camping rules

(The Center Square) — A standoff is brewing between Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and City Council President Breean Beggs over rival proposals to regulate urban camping.

Woodward has strongly endorsed a proposal put forward by Councilors Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart.

Their plan will be reviewed at 1:15 p.m. on July 11 by the Public Safety & Community Health Committee.

Also on the table is the draft camping ordinance recently brought forward by Beggs and Councilor Lori Kinnear.

Under Spokane’s current codes, camping is not allowed on public property and a person cannot sit or lie on the sidewalk between 6 a.m. and midnight.

Both proposals from councilors ban camping at all times within 100 feet of railroad viaducts, within 35 feet of the Spokane River and in city parks.

Cathcart and Bingle also want enforcement allowed in areas with heavy foot traffic, or those where fire or other safety hazards exist.

They seek to expand enforcement to within a half-mile of city-supported congregate shelters, as well as within the boundaries of the Business Improvement District and the downtown police precinct.

The downtown police precinct boundary, according to the legislation, extends from Spokane Falls Boulevard/Riverside Avenue and I-90 between North Division Street to Maple Street.

The downtown business improvement district includes much of that area. In addition, it extends north of Spokane Falls Boulevard and between Division and North Monroe streets.

As with the Beggs-Kinnear version, a camping ban on all other city-owned property would be enforced only if there is enough available shelter space.

Neither proposal would apply to people camping on private or state-owned land.

While Kinnear and Beggs’ only dealt with urban camping, Bingle and Cathcart want to amend the sit and lie ordinance to remove the exemption for homelessness during regulated hours.

Beggs told The Center Square in an email Thursday that the Bingle-Cathcart camping ordinance does not appear to be legal based on his 30 years of experience as an attorney practicing and teaching constitutional law.

He warned that, if approved, the regulations could put the city in “serious legal jeopardy.”

He said that city legal counsel was sought when he and Kinnear were crafting their ordinance, which he believes better meets the letter and intent of the law.

“I expect that the council will vote to enact it in the near future,” he said.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Woodward said the Bingle-Cathcart ordinance had been reworked with input from the city attorney, business leaders and community members.

She held the July 6 news conference just down the street from the Sprague Avenue-Division Street viaduct, where she recently ordered a fence built to keep the area clean and safe.

The mayor was flanked by Bingle and Cathcart, and each councilor was provided with an opportunity to address the crowd of about 60 people.

“No decision was easy,” said Bingle. “Every word of these ordinances was scrutinized to make sure it was both good and legal to be enforced here in Spokane. This was desperately needed by our city.”

Cathcart stated his belief that the proposals complied with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Boise v. Martin case. Four years ago, the federal court found that prohibiting sleeping or camping on public property is unconstitutional when individuals do not have a meaningful alternative, such as shelter space or a legal place to camp.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the case, which let the Ninth Circuit ruling stand. The ruling has since been clarified to allow cities to set time and place restrictions on these activities if there is no ban on all public locations when shelter is unavailable.

Woodward said the Bingle-Cathcart version “strikes a balance between the other proposals, community expectations, and court requirements.”

“We make it easy to be homeless,” she said. “I know that’s not a popular thing for some people to hear, but these ordinances and their updates are not to push people around. It is to push them into assistance.”

Beggs said he wasn’t notified by the mayor about the press conference or invited to attend, so he had only media reports to consider.

“I understood that she said she feels like she is making it too easy for people to stay homeless and that she doesn’t know how to provide adequate shelter for all the people who are currently unsheltered, which is estimated by her office to be at 800,” he said.