Spokane Valley, county haven't issued any citations for public camping since passing laws last year

Spokane Valley, county haven't issued any citations for public camping since passing laws last year
City of Spokane Valley
Spokane Valley's camping ordinance banned camping at City Hall, pictured here
Just over a year ago, in a controversial move that some thought would criminalize homelessness, Spokane Valley City Council approved a ban on public camping. It came months after Spokane County passed its own law public camping ban.

In the city of Spokane, similar laws have led to police handing homeless people hundreds of citations per year — and as we detailed last week, Spokane Police sometimes enforce camping bans when there is no shelter space available, despite the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that cities shouldn't do so.
Neither Spokane Valley nor Spokane County, however, have enforced their bans on public camping at all, officials say.

"We are not aware of any citations being issued for illegal camping," says Morgan Koudelka, senior administrative analyst for Spokane Valley. "For us, that's a last resort. We don't think it's productive. It's not the desired outcome."

That's consistent with the rest of the county, outside of Spokane city limits. Earlier this month, when the Inlander asked Spokane County District Court for citations under the county's unlawful camping code, it turned up zero results. (Spokane Valley's Police Department operates under the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.)

In the city of Spokane, citations for sitting or lying on public sidewalks or for unlawful camping don't immediately send people to jail. Rather, the citations refer people to Community Court, which has shown some success in connecting people experiencing homelessness to the services they need, like behavioral health treatment or housing services.

But Spokane Valley doesn't have a Community Court. So both Spokane Valley officers and sheriff's deputies are taking a more informal approach while trying to achieve the same results or directing homeless people to services.

"We're trying to do that without the compulsion factor and get them to work [with us] willingly rather than force them into it," says deputy city attorney Erik Lamb.

The alternative, he adds, may not solve the problem. Violators of the camping ban in the valley could face up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

"It's a relatively low-level offense, but they may spend time in jail and then come back out with another mark on their record," Lamb says. "What we're really looking to do is get them into appropriate programs."

Sherrif's deputies have the same mindset, says Cpl. Mark Gregory, public information officer for the Sheriff's Office. Gregory says camping on private property is often more of an issue than camping on public county property. But the approach remains the same, Gregory says.

"Our main focus is to turn around and get them connected with the services they need, and we also try to work with outreach groups," Gregory says. "Sometimes they tell us they don't want help. And then we explain to them that hey, you can't just be camping here."

That doesn't mean other laws aren't being enforced, however. Lamb says that in the Valley, deputies will enforce laws for disturbing the peace or defecating or urinating in public areas.

"That sort of behavior — that is out in the open — that really isn't appropriate anywhere," Lamb says.

Koudelka says he personally goes out and meets homeless campers when deputies encounter them. Some weeks he gets those calls on a daily basis, and some weeks it's less. Spokane Valley, he adds, typically doesn't have as many illegal campers as the city of Spokane, where services for people experiencing homelessness are concentrated.

Spokane Valley also doesn't have its own homeless shelter. It counts shelter space, necessary to enforce the camping law, when there are open beds in city of Spokane. But the Valley doesn't have access to the shelter capacity report maintained by the city, so Koudelka will often call individual shelters himself when he wants to direct someone there. He and the deputies may encourage illegal campers to go there or go somewhere else, under the threat of a citation.

So far, he says, they've had relatively few issues.

"Most of the folks are very cooperative," Koudelka says. "They want help. And the ones that don't move on usually without a problem. So we haven't had to write citations or enforce things." 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.