The homeless protesters who squatted on public land for 10 days early this month were victimized by bad timing. When summer finally comes to our fair city, most of us head off to "the lake." The wealthy go to Hayden; the rest head out to some pothole in the basin. All the same, we are "at the lake," so the demonstrators' audience was smaller than it could have been. When a number of the lake people returned following the Fourth of July weekend, no doubt the mayor and city council heard complaints, and the matter was resolved quickly. I might add, it was resolved far more quietly than we had any reason to expect. Our police acted in a very professional and understated way, under circumstances that could have gotten out of hand.
Mayor Jim West rightly signed the camping ban ordinance and should be supported in his decision. Actually, after the dust settled, we learned that the ordinance wasn't necessary to evict the demonstrators; our mayor used existing powers to act. He explained that the display itself (and subsequent complaints) served to underscore the need for such an ordinance. He also implied that this issue was never been about "making homelessness a crime." Being homeless isn't a crime; but squatting on public lands is (or should be). One can enjoy public lands, or maybe buy public lands; we know that the government sometimes gives away public lands, and it leases much more of it. All this is OK, but squatting isn't permitted. The public domain can't be preempted. As a matter of principle, it must not be claimed for private use, most especially exclusive private use. Yet what we saw happening downtown in Spokane was just that. And what's worse, they wanted us all to agree with them that they deserved the privilege.
It is, of course, on public lands that our civil liberties are protected, so, yes, we have come to expect public protests of all manner. The right to peaceably assembly distinguishes the commons from, say, a shopping mall. However, ever since the Founders penned the First Amendment to the Constitution, courts and our legislative bodies have struggled with where the line should be drawn between, on the one hand, peaceable assembly and freedom of expression and, on the other, public safety and welfare. Wherever you choose to draw that line, it seems clear that no one has a right to play the squatter. It's one thing to march and speak out, but it's quite another thing to set up domestic residence on public lands. I certainly can't pitch a tent and move into Manito Park, and neither can protestors.
Mayor West might have been instructed by James Q. Wilson's famous "broken window" thesis. I've cited this famous article before; it bears another pass. Wilson argued that the health of cities is dependent on street life. Street life is dependent on the middle class feeling safe. Anything that signals abandonment sends the middle class running. Broken windows that aren't repaired immediately signal abandonment. Now substitute squatting on park property in high summer for the broken window. And the homeless might also take heed. To the extent that demonstrators drive the middle class away from the downtown, they have a dampening effect on commerce downtown, which means a reduction in revenues, which means less money available to address the problem that sparked the demonstration in the first place. Or am I being too rational?
What did happen during this 10-day campout was that the homeless managed to become more visible. To their credit, they broke up peaceably, perhaps realizing that whatever sympathy they had earned might have been lost if a forced eviction played out on the evening news. So there remains a residue of good will. That said, good will cannot be transformed easily into public policy. For certain, the squatters leave behind many unanswered questions that must be addressed before public policy can be formulated. For example, why are seemingly able-bodied young men (as many were) homeless? What form of help is both justified and effective? How many people are we talking about? What would constitute effective help? Other cities in our region continue to deal with these issues, so perhaps some guidance can be gleaned from their experiences.
They also left behind a list of "demands," some of which shouldn't be ignored out of hand. Vocabulary, actually, may pose a problem. We may be talking past each other. They say they want a tent city -- a solution that Police Chief Roger Bragdon wisely rejects. But I'd bet they really seek space wherein they can engage in even some minor sinning without fear of reprisal. The middle class, which doesn't admit to sinning -- either in public or private -- has many such venues, from bars to social clubs to even golf courses. So even without benefit of a home, they want to live an American life, free from hassle. In short, they want a place to call home.
Some would say that beggars can't be choosers, but unless we figure out a way to address this and other unconventional demands, solutions to this very real problem will remain out of reach. As I say, sentiment doesn't easily translate into public policy, and that's why the mayor's poverty task force has its work cut out for it.
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Publication date: 07/15/04