The city of Spokane has installed chain link fencing along sidewalks under the Browne Street viaduct in an effort to deter downtown camping by people who are homeless.
The fencing erected this week is situated such that it leaves enough room for pedestrians to get through, but not enough for people to set up camp.
“We need to try to keep that viaduct clean and safe, and the only way to really do that was to allow pedestrians to use it on both sides, but to prevent camping,” said Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
The city has acknowledged that there is limited shelter space for people who live beneath Interstate 90. Advocates for the homeless question where the city expects those people to go.
Woodward said her administration is in the final stages of planning a new shelter space for homeless people without restrictive sobriety requirements, but is not yet ready to announce the details.
The viaduct routinely has people camping on the sidewalks beneath it even though Woodward said are heavily used.
“It just wasn’t safe for pedestrians to use, so we needed to bring safety back to that area,” Woodward said.
A federal court’s ruling in the case of Martin v. Boise prevents cities from criminalizing behavior that is a product of homelessness, such as camping on public property, if the city can’t first offer that person a shelter bed.
Without available shelter space, the city can not legally enforce its laws against camping and sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks. But officials do believe they are on solid legal ground in restricting access to potential camping spots.
If a person refuses to move from the narrowed sidewalk, they could be cited for pedestrian interference.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he believes the city is within its right to “change the physical environment” of the sidewalk, but said the mayor’s approach remains a “policy issue.”
“It’s fair to say that for people who are trying to traverse the viaducts, they should feel safe and it should be safe for them – that’s a major transportation corridor there,” Beggs said. “But if I was in charge I would say ‘alright, we’re going to remove these camping spaces, but we’re going to replace them with other camping spaces (elsewhere).”
Beggs said he is 100% committed to clearing viaducts of encampments, but questions remain as to the best way to do it.
“It’s kind of cruel to say we’re going to make it impossible for you to camp even though you don’t have another place to go,” Beggs said.
Barry Barfield, administrator for the Spokane Homeless Coalition, described the mayor’s approach as “basically make life as hard and miserable for homeless people sleeping on our sidewalks as possible.’
It’s the latest step Woodward’s administration has taken to clear the viaduct of homeless people. Last year, the city bolstered staffing in order to regularly clean beneath the viaduct. City workers cleared the sidewalks of campers, cleaned the sidewalk, but then allowed people to return.
Woodward said that some of the people camping beneath the viaduct have been kicked out of even low-barrier shelters, such as the House of Charity, which is just down the street.
“What do we do with individuals whose behavior can’t even allow them to be in the lowest barrier shelters that we provide?” Woodward asked.
Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, which operates the House of Charity, invites people staying under the viaduct into its shelter, but many turn down the offer, according to spokesperson Sarah Yerden. Its staff patrol the area, wary of those who would victimize the shelter’s more vulnerable guests, and participate in cleaning beneath the viaduct.
“We have been communicating our deep concerns about criminal, dangerous, unsafe, and unhealthy activity in the viaduct for the past 22 years to the City, Police Department, and other governmental entities,” Yerden wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.
City officials say they will monitor the viaduct and new fencing to see if the changes are working.