City of Spokane law cracks down on camps in the city, but does it criminalize homelessness?

click to enlarge The new law is an improvement over the previous transient shelter ordinance (noted on the sign), according to Councilman Breean Beggs. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
The new law is an improvement over the previous transient shelter ordinance (noted on the sign), according to Councilman Breean Beggs.

Is there a way to crack down on homeless camping without criminalizing HOMELESSNESS?

That's what Spokane Councilwoman Lori Kinnear is hoping she achieved with a new city ordinance, intending to replace the city's controversial transient shelter ordinance. It sets forth a variety of new rules on parks, public shorelines and other city properties.

Defacing trees, starting fires, littering or camping on public property is explicitly prohibited, with camping punishable by a misdemeanor.

But two crucial pieces were put into place to address concerns that the ordinance was criminalizing homelessness: First, the prohibition on camping would not be enforced if the shelters were full. And second, it would direct misdemeanor offenders toward the city's Community Court, where they could get the services they need to deal with their homelessness.

"This new ordinance is an example of positive criminal justice reform," Kinnear said on Monday. "This is not a punitive ordinance, but rather, directing people to services."

Councilman Breean Beggs, who's long been a champion of "smart justice" policies, also endorsed the ordinance. He says it's an improvement over the previous transient shelter ordinance, which was too hard to enforce and too punitive. Those violating the old ordinance could be arrested and sent to jail.

But while the ordinance passed, it wasn't unanimous. The city's newest council member, Kate Burke, voted against it.

"There's a section of our community who can't access community court," said Burke, noting that those with sex offenses were ineligible for the program. She also noted that some members of the gay, bisexual and transgender communities don't feel comfortable staying at shelters even with available space.

"I think this is premature," Burke said. "I think this has spawned a really good conversation, but we can do better here in Spokane."

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...