Aug 31, 2022 5 min read

Opening the Trent Shelter could make it easier to criminalize homelessness

A sign that says "NO CAMPING Violators Subject to Arrest: Transient Shelter Ordinance (SMC: 10.08B.060)"
(Photo by Valerie Osier)

As long as shelters in Spokane have empty beds, the city can remove encampments and issue citations to people sitting, lying and camping on public land.

With the new Trent shelter set to open soon, Spokane’s unhoused people may face even more scrutiny from city enforcement of sit-lie and camping ordinances.

On August 29, the Spokane City Council approved an operating agreement with the Guardians Foundation for the new shelter on Trent Avenue. The converted warehouse is set to open in early September. In this initial phase there will be capacity for about 150 people, or less than a quarter of the residents of Camp Hope.

While the shelter cannot accommodate all of the people living at the encampment, it could allow the city broader authority to criminalize homelessness. As long as the Trent shelter or other shelters in the city have empty beds, the city can remove encampments and issue citations to people sitting, lying and camping on public land and stay in compliance with the Martin v. Boise decision. That 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — whose jurisdiction spans nine western states including Washington — found that criminalizing resting or camping on public property is a violation of the eighth amendment when unhoused people don’t have access to adequate shelter. In late 2019, the US Supreme Court upheld that ruling by refusing to review the Ninth Circuit opinion.

In Spokane, there are two parallel laws that determine where people can legally stay on public property: A 2014 sit and lie ordinance, and a camping ordinance that the city council and mayor’s office have been deliberating updating over the last two months. While council president Breean Beggs said the sit and lie ordinance isn’t currently being considered for revision by the council, updates to the camping ordinance are.

Spokane’s 2014 sit and lie ordinance, which was crafted before the Martin v. Boise decision, already complies with that court ruling. Under the ordinance, people are prohibited from sitting or lying in public areas in the downtown core between 6 a.m. and midnight. However, an exception in the ordinance says the law does not apply to anyone “who is homeless during a time frame when shelter space is unavailable.”

At a July 6 press conference held by Mayor Nadine Woodward, flanked by council members Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart, and alongside downtown business owners and workers, Woodward announced her vision to update camping and sit-lie laws.

“We make it easy to be homeless, and I know that’s not a popular thing for some people to hear,” she said. “These ordinances and their updates are not to push people around, but it is to push them into assistance and into the services that they need to get them off the street, out of viaducts and off of fields.”

During the July press conference, the mayor proposed expanding the footprint of places where camping, sitting and lying were prohibited to encompass additional areas north of the Spokane River that weren’t covered by the 2014 sit-lie law. Following the announcement, Beggs pushed back on the breadth of the mayor’s proposal, telling KREM News that the extent of the proposed bans could violate Martin v. Boise and that the mayor’s proposal was done without adequate collaboration from the council.

After the city’s legal department had serious concerns about both the mayor’s proposal and a separate proposal from the council majority, the city is now considering a new camping ordinance.

In a public safety committee meeting on August 29, Beggs explained the changes in the camping ordinance, which was drafted in collaboration with the mayor’s office. “The main thing that city legal moved away from was these black and white areas where you can’t camp and instead moved to a situation where the police can document why [camping] is a substantial danger or an unreasonable risk to public safety or health,” Beggs said. “They felt like that was going to be way more defensible under the Boise v. Martin standard.”

With the potential of a new camping ordinance on the horizon, the attention shifts to the availability of shelter beds in the community. According to Beggs, there’s generally some shelter availability for men but rarely availability for women and families. The city does not have a public-facing  way to track shelter availability in place, which Beggs noted restricts the ability of law enforcement to enforce camping and sit-lie laws.

Beggs says council has been pushing either Spokane Police or shelter operators to report availability and make it publically available, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Right now, the only person actively tracking shelter availability publicly is a community member who posts those updates to a Camp Hope group on Facebook.

The opening of the Trent Shelter next week will add more capacity for women, men and members of the LGBTQ community. With added shelter capacity comes the potential for the city to increase enforcement of sit and lie and anti-camping measures.

That potentially sets up a perverse incentive: If the city administration decides to prioritize the enforcement of sit-lie and anti-camping measures, they’ll be able to do so, as long as there’s nominal capacity at the Trent Shelter. City communications director Brian Coddington confirmed that extra shelter capacity will allow the city to enforce these ordinances: “if the available capacity matches the demographic of the individual(s).”

While the Trent shelter could give the city more leeway to disband camps throughout the city, it isn’t likely to impact the dissolution of Camp Hope. That’s because the encampment is on Washington State Department of Transportation property and the city cannot sweep the camp regardless of available shelter space.

In response to a question about the impact the Trent shelter could have on the city’s response to Camp Hope and the disbanding of the camp, Coddington wrote in an email, “The City is continuing to communicate with WSDOT about how best to connect people camping on its property to safe, healthy, and humane spaces indoors and is awaiting a response from the state Department of Commerce on the totality of the plan to house 650 people.”

The challenges of the Trent Shelter, and a firestorm of resentment from the West Hills community to the proposed conversion of the Quality Inn into a supportive housing facility, are testing the ability of the city and Commerce Department to work together to fund permanent housing and shelters for Spokane’s unhoused community. Despite these challenges, Beggs said he’s optimistic that the city can create housing options for between 600 and 800 beds through the Commerce right-of-way initiative. In addition to that state funded program, he said the city is also making progress on creating 1,000 more permanent affordable housing units within the next two years.

For now, Beggs said, “we're just trying to get there and keep people alive and keep people engaged, and [keep] the community from not losing faith that we can be the city we want to be.”

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