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The Camping Ban, One Year After 

by Leah Sottile & r & It was the kind of protest you couldn't help but pay attention to. The grassy medians of West Riverside Avenue became less and less visible under tents, tarps, flags and signs. Nine protestors inflated to 20; then that number ballooned to nearly 50.


It was the sort of protest that put the Transient Shelter Ordinance -- an issue that was easy for most of the city to ignore -- in the faces of everyone who drove on the picturesque downtown avenue.


But before their ranks could multiply any more, the city shut down the makeshift tent city, dubbed "Camp Serene Freedom." The campers dispersed. Some continued their protest in front of City Hall while others ventured outside the city limits in order to set up camp.


And that was the last anyone really heard from the protestors, from People 4 People and Camp Serene Freedom. Did all of those protestors find roofs to sleep under? Did the Transient Shelter Ordinance point them all toward homes and jobs and white picket fences, or did it just push them out of our lines of sight?


None of the above.


In fact, since we last reported on the plight of homeless campers last fall, little has happened on either side of the homeless camping cause. People are still camping, alternative assistance plans have been muttered about and pie-in-the-sky notions of ending Spokane's homeless problem altogether within the next 10 years have raised hopes.


But after Riverside Avenue was cleared of protesters, where did they go? What happened to their cause? Here's a guide to developments.





June 28, 2004


After deferring two other camping bans, the Spokane City Council passed the Transient Shelter Ordinance with a 4-3 vote, with Council members Mary Verner, Bob Apple and Brad Stark in opposition. The ordinance landed on Mayor Jim West's desk, giving him 10 days to decide whether camping on public property was worth a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.


Apple noted that he could not sign the ordinance, saying that he couldn't criminalize someone for being homeless.


"That's against everything I believe in," he said.


Later that evening, Dave Bilsland and the members of People 4 People set up camp on the 1000 block of West Riverside, across from the Spokane Club, the Catholic Diocese of Spokane and the offices of The Inlander. Bilsland noted that they were camping in order to show the city what a well-maintained tent city would look like, if allowed.





July 2, 2004


Camp Serene Freedom expanded down Riverside Avenue, to the medians in front of the Masonic Temple. A Confederate flag whipped in the wind, and coffee cans covered the sprinklers that were coming on more and more frequently. City officials expressed concern for the grass, saying the 3 am baths that the campers were receiving were simply to make sure the lawns were hydrated. Bilsland and Co. thanked the city for the extra showers, adding that most of them needed baths anyway.





July 7, 2004


Mayor West takes a stab at the protest during a meeting about the sewage treatment plant. When two county commissioners showed up in Hawaiian shirts, West pointed to his suit and tie, saying, "I've got to distinguish myself from the homeless." He then said he hoped to send the campers to Commissioner John Roskelley's house.





July 8, 2004


Camp Serene Freedom is peacefully shut down at 8 am, with the last protesters packing up their tents and sleeping bags by 9:15 am. Though it was shut down, Bilsland considers the protest a success.


"I just wanted to shake up the City Council a bit," he says now, noting that the amount of national attention his protest received was more than he ever expected.





July 9, 2004


Mayor West signs the Transient Shelter Ordinance, noting that the act would protect the people of Spokane and the property that they own. West appoints an Emergency Transition Task Force, comprised of city leaders, business people and homeless advocates, to research ways to quell homeless camping. The task force isn't heard from again until late November.





July 17, 2004


A handful of the Camp Serene Freedom campers are camping outside of City Hall in Riverfront Park. Talk of seeing the ordinance repealed on the November ballot is on the campers' minds as they begin gathering signatures for a referendum.





Aug. 7, 2004


People 4 People has collected more 1,700 signatures -- but still needs nearly 3,500 by Aug. 20 to get their referendum on the next ballot.





Aug. 11, 2004


The Transient Shelter Ordinance officially goes into effect.


"People are still camping. They are still in the elements. They are still in various situations downtown and throughout the city of Spokane," says Bob Peeler, Senior Lead for Homeless at Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP). "If you look you'll find; if you don't, you won't."





Aug. 20, 2004


People 4 People falls short in getting enough signatures for their cause.


"I just wish they had listened to me and gone with an initiative," Councilman Bob Apple says now. "They could have actually gotten it on the ballot. They heard a lot of different people tell them what to do, and unfortunately, they went with a referendum. With an initiative, you only need 5 percent [of the votes in the last general election] instead of 10."





September 2004


The Spokane Valley Police Department cringes as it watches Mayor West sign the Transient Shelter Ordinance and begins making preparations for campers who intend to head eastward.


"We actually tried to get a little bit ahead of it and went in on some preventative steps prior to that ban taking place," Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker recalls. "I grabbed one of my patrol corporals and matched him up with the Spokane Homeless Coalition."


Walker says the Spokane Valley hashed out problems with campers late last summer around the Mirabeau Park Hotel, but hasn't had any problems since. Spokane Valley cops are aware of campers in the Valley -- particularly in the Dishman Hills area -- but have hardly tried to oust them.


"It's just like a lot of other issues. Squeeze the tube and it doesn't go away. It's more like, where does it go?" Walker says. "I think that's why when we heard initially that the city was contemplating the ban, we were all over it. We were like, 'Are we going to follow that ban with another ban?' Are you going to be hardnosed before you have to be, or are you going to have some alternatives?"


Walker immediately started researching how other cities deal with homeless campers. He found that taking a socially progressive approach, instead of flat-out banning them from the city, seemed to be the most effective method.


"You're not going to eliminate [homeless camping], and I don't believe the city of Spokane has eliminated it -- they've just made it a little less feasible," Walker says.





November 2004


The Emergency Transition Task Force offers its suggestions to Mayor West. After extensive research, the task force concludes that the number of housing options and day services for homeless people should be increased, that the House of Charity should stay open year-round and that existing services (like Crosswalk, Women's Hearth and House of Charity) should be expanded.


The planners add that each suggestion would cost the city more than $100,000. Considering cuts that have just slashed City Hall departments, including Human Services, the plan's execution doesn't seem likely.


"They were good ideas and much needed," says June Shapiro, the city's director of human services. "It was left on hold. They are still looking for money to try to have those services extended."





December 2004


The Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic, Street and Emergency Shelter Homelessness is introduced by the City's Human Services Department. The plan, which targets single adults without children who are living outdoors or in shelters, is adopted after the federal government requires cities to develop 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness.


The preliminary rounds of the lofty plan aren't set for completion until June 2005.


"It's a good start," Bilsland says. "You've gotta start somewhere, and most of the solutions to this problem are out-of-the-box ones."


Bilsland notes that while planning to eliminate homelessness in the future is an honorable goal, the city needs to start looking toward solving more immediate problems.





March 2005


Dave Bilsland is still busy trying to rally community support. He recently proposed to the Spokane Transit Authority Board that the Washington State Quest cards be accepted as bus passes, and has drawn up numerous proposals for a local tent city.





May 15, 2005


During the International Tent Cities and Housing Alternatives Day, Bilsland observes the holiday by holding a peaceful celebration on the southeast Corner of College Avenue and Cedar Street.





May 18, 2005


Seven homeless campers, including Dave Bilsland, who had been camping in the East Central Neighborhood are given a 24-hour warning to vacate the public property. Most comply, but Bilsland finds himself with a second-degree trespassing ticket (which would be later amended to a Transient Shelter Ordinance violation) after he refuses to leave the property.


"The problem hasn't gone away because of the tickets and the potential fines and jail time -- people have gotten more creative," says Peeler of SNAP, noting that Bilsland was trying to make a point by getting the ticket.


Peeler is opposed to the Transient Shelter Ordinance, but he is satisfied with how the police have dealt with campers violating the rule.


"The police are doing what they said," Peeler says. "They said they would call an outreach member. That member can come out and make sure [that campers] are aware of the services, and try to get them to the appropriate services. I don't agree with the law, and we've had those arguments, but I respect them keeping their word."





Late May 2005


Bilsland sends a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, saying he believes the Transient Shelter Ordinance to be a violation of civil, constitutional and moral rights.


For months, Bilsland has been corresponding with other city officials and business leaders as a member of the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness. As the only homeless member of the task force, he is still frustrated with Mayor West's lack of action.


"In politics, you have a mouth and ears," Bilsland says. "I have my mouth, the politicians have ears -- and they don't listen."





July 2005


Instead of fighting the year-old camping ban or having high hopes for a tent city, members of the Spokane Homeless Coalition are already planning for colder temperatures.


Due to strict capacity regulations, many shelters are forced to shut their doors, even in the coldest conditions. And when their doors are shut, many of Spokane's homeless are stuck on the streets, bearing sub-zero temperatures with only blankets and secondhand coats. The coalition is partnering up to find ways that they can make sure no one freezes.


"We've been meeting all summer long from with guidance from the Spokane Human Services Department and the Homeless Coalition to come up with a clear plan that if it hits a certain [temperature], certain services will kick in," Bob Peeler says.


The plan will allow shelters to open their doors during daytime hours to serve as "warming centers." People can temporarily escape the cold, sit down and have free access to housing information, job and health services.


"We'll have a code that if it sets this certain degree [of temperature], these steps of action will be taken," Peeler says. "Once it's a city code, we have to enforce it."


Coordination for the 10-year plan is well underway, but Human Services Director June Shapiro says the plan -- originally set to be completed by the end of June -- won't be done until September.


"We're working with this huge citizens' group, and sometimes it takes a little longer than you planned, especially during the summer in Spokane, when everyone takes off to the lake," Shapiro laughs.


Though the name of the plan sounds ambitious, Shapiro is confident that Spokane can stamp out homelessness.


"All the research shows that even the most difficult person with multiple disabilities can be housed permanently," she says. "I think it's the community's will to house them. It can be done."





July 18, 2005


Bilsland appears in court at a pre-trial hearing for his ticket and is given a continuance.


"It's been stated by the court that this is a test case," Bilsland says. "My reaction to that is good. I test very well!"





Information on the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness can be found at spokanecity.org, and Dave Bilsland can be contacted at [email protected]
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