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City Council suspends sit-lie law amid shelter-bed shortage

November 20, 2018

After litigation concerns and the loss of 150 shelter beds in September, the Spokane City Council voted to suspend a law that banned people from sitting, or sleeping on sidewalks downtown.

The vote came in the wake of a week-long hunger strike from a frequent voice of dissent at council meetings, Alfredo LLamedo. Along with a daily-growing group, LLamedo has slept outside of City Hall since he demanded a suspension or repeal of the law last week.

The law, commonly called sit-lie, bars people from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks downtown between the hours of 6 a.m. and midnight, but only applies when shelters have available space. If people are cited under the law, they are sent to community court, which connects people to behavioral health, housing or food assistance, as well as other services.

The council approved the law more than four years ago. Sit-lie has been under the spotlight since the House of Charity lost 150 of its 400 beds in September. The city also is negotiating contracts with shelters to create more room for people to go during the day in the aftermath of the House of Charity cutbacks.

Councilman Breean Beggs said the suspension is designed to clarify community and law enforcement confusion about when sit-lie applies. Police have not been enforcing sit-lie for the last few months due to lack of available shelter beds, he said, and concerns that the city could be opening itself to litigation.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that similar laws in Boise violated the constitutional rights of homeless people.

The court found that laws banning people from sitting or sleeping on public property when they had nowhere else to go violated the Eighth Amendment - which bars excessive fines, bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

Beggs said the available-bed count police use when enforcing the ordinance depends on the person and individual shelters. Beds at Union Gospel Mission, for example, do not count toward the available bed count because the shelter has religious requirements for those seeking services. And others, such as Hope House, only offers shelter to women.

He added that the sit-lie suspension, which is now in effect, was meant to address fears shared by people who might be cited under the law and clarify policy for police.

Mayor David Condon, who met with City Council an hour before the meeting to discuss suspending the law, called the move unnecessary. He said the suspension sends a conflicting message to law enforcement and the people who worked with the city on the original legislation.

“There is no substantive reason to have this suspension,” he said.

The suspension is in place until there is shelter space for an additional 200 people for 30 continuous days.

Beggs and Councilwoman Kate Burke have proposed ordinances to address sit-lie, which will be considered by a committee next week. Burke’s ordinance would repeal sit-lie and Begg’s ordinance would substantially amend it, making the law only apply when a person has left less than 36 inches of available sidewalk space for people in wheelchairs or walking to get by.

Several local organizations, such as the Downtown Spokane Partnership and the Center for Justice also weighed in on sit-lie. The DSP sent out a statement to members Monday afternoon calling the sit-lie law a “vital tool for downtown.” The statement urged members of the partnership to contact council members and speak out in support of sit-lie. The Center for Justice’s statement asked people to contact city council members and ask for a suspension or repeal the current law.

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