Her lawsuit against Boise made cities change how they treat homeless people. A decade later, she's found a home in Spokane

Pamela Hawkes recently found an apartment in Spokane after years without a home. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Pamela Hawkes recently found an apartment in Spokane after years without a home.

When the shelters in Boise were all full, Pamela Hawkes always tried to sleep where police couldn't find her. But they found her anyway.

In 2006 and 2007, she racked up a dozen citations for staying outside, even when there was no other place for her to go. Twice, she spent a night in jail. Police on bikes would find her in a tent on a trail, she says, or they'd find her wrapped in a blanket in the park.

"They could pretty much get you for lying on a skate park bench with your backpack underneath your head," she tells the Inlander.

Hawkes, now 36, joined a lawsuit in 2009 saying the city of Boise punished her for sleeping outside when there was no other option. As cities in the West grapple with a growing homeless population, the case has reshaped the way police treat people sleeping in public spaces.

In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling saying it was unconstitutional and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment to enforce a camping ban without enough shelter beds available. Many cities, including Spokane and Spokane Valley, hoped the ruling would be reversed. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it wouldn't review it. When notified of the news by the Inlander Monday, Hawkes says she's "ecstatic" that the ruling was upheld.

"It just goes to show that we were on the right track with what we started in the first place," says Hawkes, one of six plaintiffs in the case.

But even as the impacts of the Boise case have rippled across the country, Hawkes struggled to find a place to live. After leaving Boise in 2008, Hawkes returned to Spokane, near where she grew up. She cycled in and out of the streets, and police kept adding citations for sleeping outside. It wasn't until this fall — more than a decade since she moved back — that she found what she hopes is a permanent home of her own.

Hawkes went to Boise in 2005 because she and her boyfriend were hoping to break out of the cycle of homelessness they'd fallen into in Spokane.

"We thought we might be better off by just going to Boise to see what they had to offer, and maybe get a better grip — getting a job, or getting us a place to live, stuff like that," she says.

When that didn't happen, she moved back to Spokane. She knew she had some kind of mental health disorder, and she sought counseling, but it wasn't until 2017 that she was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder.

For most of this decade, Hawkes lived with her mom when she could, but it didn't always work, so she often didn't have a roof over her head. It was hard for her to find a place to live or get a job, due in part to a felony conviction in a bank fraud case in 2013. Even if shelter space were available, she preferred to stay outside. She got lice once at a women's shelter, and she didn't feel safe around so many other people.

"I just feel safer staying out in nature," she says. "I love the outdoors and camping. Even though it's not easy on the body, it's mentally healthier for myself than staying someplace where I'm scared and not welcome."

But when too many people are camping in public spaces, cities can see it as a problem. The ruling in the Martin vs. Boise case that Hawkes was a part of made it more difficult to enforce anti-camping laws. Some cities built shelter space so that police could legally clear public spaces of homeless campers. Others passed laws funneling campers to certain public spaces.

Spokane's so-called "sit-lie" law prevents sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks, but only when there's enough shelter space available. The same goes for its law preventing camping on public property. Spokane Valley, meanwhile, passed a similar camping law, only it keeps a permanent ban in three locations no matter if shelter space is available or not. And Spokane Valley considers shelter space "available" if it's in Spokane, since the Valley lacks shelter space of its own.

That can create a bit of a gray area for municipalities — how far away should shelter beds be, in order to legally clean out a camp? And do warming centers count as shelter?

Spokane and Spokane Valley both were part of an amicus brief in support of Boise's appeal of the 2018 ruling. The appeal argued the ruling created confusion over what "adequate" or "sufficient" shelter means, and that it took away a strategy to encourage people experiencing homelessness to engage in Spokane's Community Court, where people are connected with social services.

Spokane Mayor-elect Nadine Woodward, who made reducing homelessness the central focus of her campaign, previously told the Inlander that the Boise ruling was "really hand-tying" a lot of places on the West Coast. She didn't want to invest in more shelters until the Supreme Court resolved it.

Following the Supreme Court's decision this week not to hear the case, Woodward replied to an interview request from the Inlander with a statement saying the decision provides "clarity on important legal questions," adding she plans to focus on the "root causes instead of the symptoms" of homelessness.

"The whole point of me trying to help and trying to get this taken care of was for cities to face the problem head-on."

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Jose Trejo, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, says that while the Boise ruling does change how cities approach homelessness, it's still a narrow ruling. It doesn't prevent cities from criminalizing homelessness. It just says cities need to offer them somewhere else to go.

"Before you can cite them for existing, you have to tell them where they can go to exist," he says. "As long as there's a place to go, then you can criminalize it."

Spokane, he says, has been more careful in following the Boise decision than other cities, since it's tried to add shelter space and has officers call in to make sure beds are available before issuing citations. And many of those citations tell people experiencing homelessness to go to Community Court, which connects people to services they may need.

And that's exactly what happened to Hawkes earlier this year. In February, she says she was cited for criminal trespass in the early afternoon for laying under a bridge downtown. A couple months later, she was cited under the camping ordinance as city leaders extended its delay on opening a new 24/7 shelter.

It was frustrating, she says, because it felt like the city had just found a way around its own sit-lie ordinance and the ruling in her case, like it was the same story a dozen years later.

"The whole point of me trying to help and trying to get this taken care of was for cities to face the problem head-on," she says.

But she was referred to Spokane Community Court. And that, she'd find out later, turned out to be exactly what she needed.

On the couch at her apartment on the lower South Hill, Hawkes pets her new kitten when the phone rings. It's from the laundromat she applied to days earlier. They're offering her a job.

"Oh my gosh! I'll take it! I will take it!" she says as she paces in her living room. "I am so thrilled to come on board with you guys, you have no idea."

For Hawkes, it's one more sign she's on the right track.

When she was referred to Community Court, she got connected with a mental health diversion program through Spokane County and a housing program through Goodwill. They helped her get the apartment she's living in and helped her with part of the rent. Now, with a job, she can hold up her end of the bargain.

For supporters of the city's current approach to homelessness, it's exactly how the system should work: Instead of sending homeless people to jail, direct them to a place where they can get help finding a home and other services.

Hawkes acknowledges cities may have a difficult time balancing offering services to those in need and tough-on-homeless approaches that send them to jail. In her experience, being forced to do things makes her rebel, but she says she's also gotten too comfortable being homeless in the past.

"There's a gray area. Just the right mix helps push me to achieve certain goals," she says.

Community Court is widely seen as a success from both sides of the aisle; the debate is over how to refer people to it. City Councilwoman Kate Burke says people who are homeless shouldn't be forced to go to Community Court by being issued a criminal citation.

"I just don't feel like we need to criminalize them to get them resources," she says.

She suggests other ways of going about it, like having caseworkers go to people in public spaces and refer them to Community Court.

Meanwhile, Hawkes wonders what would have happened if the conversation was more like this a decade ago. At the time, she just wanted cities to have "more structure" in their laws when it came to homeless people.

She's glad that the case is over with after all this time.

"It's a huge relief," she says. "It's nice to have some finality to it."

She'll continue to advocate for people who are homeless, she says. She wants cities to look at their growing homelessness problems honestly and individually, without adopting what other cities are doing and without assuming it's all rooted in drug addiction.

But she doesn't want another fight like she just had.

"I'm not wanting to go around and sue every city," she says. ♦


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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.