by Cara Gardner

You've probably seen it on the news: a growing number of homeless men and women have set up a makeshift village on the grassy street medians along Riverside Avenue, across from the Spokane Club, the offices of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane and The Inlander. They're protesting the no-camping ordinance recently passed by the Spokane City Council. The ordinance makes transient shelters, including any cardboard coverings, tarps and tents, illegal on public property.

"If we don't have shelter from October through March, think about what happens," says Dave Bilsland, protest organizer and director of a People 4 People, which advocates the rights of homeless people. "Hypothermia sets in. And if you're camping alone or with one other person, you're not going to notice when it sets in and you know what that means: death. The City Council is trying to kill us by extrapolation. If they can't get us out of the city, they'll kill us."

Bilsland says he's been homeless for about two years, and he is encouraging other homeless campers to get signatures for a petition to rescind the no-camping ordinance because it criminalizes being homeless.

Spokane's no-camping ordinance isn't a move to kick homeless people out of town, advocates of the ban say. No-camping ordinances exist in municipalities across the country, they say, because erecting temporary shelters on public property isn't fair to the majority of people who use it for other purposes; in addition, they can become health hazards, littered with trash, human waste and unsafe campfires.

"The biggest health threat is homelessness itself," says Dr. Kim Marie Thorburn of the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD).

Still, supporters of no-camping bans insist that the city has enough services to provide homeless people with places to sleep, and that no one should be left to sleep on public property.

Some campers disagree: "The only room I heard about was at the Hope House," says Steve Brown, a homeless man camping with the protesters. "But that's females only. I can't go there."

Some argue that shelters in the area won't let couples sleep together, and often preach to people who come in for a night's rest. But Allen Odenthal, deputy chief for the Spokane Police Department, says many of the people who are making shelters on public property just don't want to follow the rules that shelters have.

"There are shelter spaces available right now," Odenthal says. "The Union Gospel Mission, Ogden Hall, the Salvation Army," he ticks off the names of places with beds and meals. "We do have services for them, but oftentimes it's that they don't like the stipulations that go with shelters, like no alcohol and that couples can't sleep together."

The attitude seems to be that when you're homeless, you shouldn't get picky. Shelters spaces are often hard to come by, but even when there are openings, Bilsland, like many of the other homeless men and women at the protest, say they should have the right to camp. And until the no-camping ordinance goes into effect, the protesters, like any citizen, do have that right. In fact, Odenthal points out that without a no-camping ordinance, someone could pitch a tent -- or a cardboard box -- on that grassy plot in front of your house along your sidewalk. Odenthal adds, however, that the police aren't out to arrest anyone with cardboard over their head in a rainstorm.

"Our focus is not to take people to jail under this [no-camping ban]," he says. "Public property is for everyone to equally enjoy, and if someone has camps set up with trash and waste, or if people take up a whole area of public space to camp, well, that's not fair now is it?"

Fair or not, police have been courteous with the protesters on Riverside so far; they drive by a few times a day, but leave the campers alone. So far, the city has been hands-off.

"We're planning on being very patient," Odenthal says. "They want a space... in front of the public and they've done that."

"They have been very friendly," Bilsland says. "The Chief [of Police] was here the other day, just talking to us about some things. And the mayor's guy [Cody George, senior advisor to Mayor Jim West] came over. He was feeling us out. A really nice fellow, he sure is. He stayed for about 45 minutes and even had his tie loosened. I accused him of trying to fit in."

Other cities have dealt with similar protests after passing camping bans; Spokane, perhaps, is simply taking its turn. But the increasing number of people camped out in the middle of downtown Spokane has made one thing clear: homelessness is a fact of life for many people.

Public Patience -- Bilsland and the growing number of campers claim they plan to stay put through the summer, even after the ordinance goes into effect, which will be 30 days after the mayor signs it. Mayor West, meanwhile, has been in Canada the past week. The ordinance is waiting on his desk, campers are getting comfortable on the median and the police are watching -- for now. The public is patiently, if cautiously, waiting to see what happens.

"As soon as we can't have shelters, we'll take these tarps down and sleep on top of them," Bilsland says. The campers have no intention of moving. They've named the median "Camp Serene Freedom."

During the first week or so, do-gooders and supporters came out of the woodwork, offering the campers provisions including bottled water, food, tobacco and fresh coffee. Now, at the end of the second week, numbers have doubled and tents are extending on to another median down the block; growing amounts of trash are hard not to notice. A random bicycle wheel with broken spokes lies on the ground by one of the tarps. Food wrappers sit in piles outside tents. A Confederate flag waves near the American flag. "It's 'cause we're rebels," Bilsland says about the Confederate flag. "We're not racists, we're rebels. I feel sorry for anyone who can't understand that."

The plastic bags, Thermoses and dirty blankets strewn around the area, in some ways help make the case for advocates of the ban.

"Public land is for the enjoyment and use of everyone, not the exclusive use of anyone," says Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city. Odenthal, the deputy chief of police, agrees. "I think this protest is an example for why we need this ordinance."

In addition to trash, the campers have unwittingly created traffic concerns. The section of Riverside Avenue where Camp Serene Freedom is located is already rife with problems because of a lack of well-marked crosswalks and because of a U-turn lane meeting the turn-off from Monroe Street. Cars are slamming on their brakes as they round the corners, trying to avoid the slowed traffic due to the campers and the people milling around on the curbs and crossing the streets. Coffee cans and plastic soda bottles cover the sprinkler heads, where homeless campers say the city is dousing them with extra water to drown them out. The Parks Department claims the grass on those medians is in jeopardy because of the campers. Indeed, the grass is nearly dead where the 50 or so people have been living for the past two weeks. According to Odenthal, the Parks Department actually has the authority to oust the campers with a 24-hour notice if it chooses to do so.

But if city officials think once the ordinance becomes effective, the police will be able to break up the protest, they may be wrong again, as the protestors have a Plan B.

"We're thinking of having a shopping cart parade to Playfair," Bilsland says, all smiles. Why? "Because we're moving. We want Playfair as our permanent home, and we'll get it by hook or by crook!"

Dignity Village -- When Portland, Ore., passed a no-camping ordinance in 2000, the city's homeless population protested in a manner similar to the urban campers here in Spokane.

"Five or six people started it out as a political protest against the ordinance," says Marshall Runkel, assistant to Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten, who is responsible for housing and homelessness in Portland. "They were in a crowded neighborhood," Runkel says of the homeless protest camp, which, as here in Spokane, was set up close to the heart of downtown and, also like Spokane's, kept getting bigger and bigger. The ordinance went into effect in Portland, but the protestors had legal support: a ruling by a judge who said that the ban was unconstitutional.

"Seven months into it," says Runkel, "the city [decided campers could use] a piece of property by the airport -- a leaf-composting site -- that's extremely remote."

The leaf-composting site turned into what is now Dignity Village, a designated camping ground for the homeless; it's also a registered nonprofit organization by the homeless and for the homeless.

"What happened is they morphed from a political protest into part of the solution for homelessness," says Runkel. "It's a qualified success for Portland. They've documented that they've helped hundreds get themselves stabilized, which is what the city supports. And it's virtually free for the city."

Runkel explains that with the help of volunteers and charitable organizations, law offices and experts in business, Dignity Village has all the amenities it needs to exist without cost to the city of Portland. The homeless are happy because it's another service available for them and provides people with a different kind of choice. Dignity Village is in no way intended to be a permanent housing option for the homeless. But it accomplishes several things: Homeless people are able to sleep on their terms, which means they can sleep with pets and partners.

Thorburn, with the SRHD, says a designated campsite would be a more appropriate means of dealing with any health risks.

"To try to ban [transient camping] is not going to remove these issues," she says. "Is providing a camp with facilities going to? In our mind, it probably would."

Dignity Village does something just as significant for the city of Portland: It keeps the city's no-camping ban valid.

"We've preserved our legal ability to close down illegal camps that become problems," Runkel explains. "We don't want to lose our ability to enforce the anti-camping ordinance because that would be a major problem, so we had to balance our legal risk and on the other side, to hear and be open to innovative new ways of dealing with homelessness."

Because Dignity Village is an option for the homeless, the no-camping ban is much more difficult to challenge in court. Seattle learned that the hard way. Runkel says Seattle's ban is now in a state of limbo, with enforcement being overruled in the courts.

Playfair may not be an area the city of Spokane is willing to designate to the homeless, but city leaders don't seem to be looking at the possibility of creating a Dignity Village.

"We haven't looked at that issue closely, but we have serious concerns about the tent cities in Seattle or Portland," Feist says. "It's very unlikely that we would consider that as an option for [Playfair]. We have to consider the neighborhood surrounding it."

Odenthal, with the Police Department, agrees. "We're not about to acquiesce to [the protesters' request for Playfair] without consulting the East Central neighborhood."

Bilsland's group isn't organized regarding their wish for the Playfair site. It's clear that in order to transform a homeless protest into a homeless program, as Portland has with Dignity Village, it takes an entire community of people willing to see it through.

"It may be a uniquely Portland kind of thing," Runkel says, noting that he received about 500 postcards from people regarding the no-camping ban. "We've tried to acknowledge the best intentions in people and give a chance for an entrepreneurial approach. Because simply allowing people to camp anywhere in the city doesn't make any sense, and it's not fair to all the citizens."

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Publication date: 07/08/04

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