As cities ban them from public spaces, homeless people in WA search for refuge

An ordinance passed by Clarkston’s Mayor and city councilmembers in February designated Foster Park as the only place people who are homeless can sleep at night. The park is closed for maintenance from 8 a.m. to noon each day, so Parke and the other dozen or so regulars who camp there must move all of their belongings every morning before the sprinklers go off, or risk being ticketed by police. (Photos by Whitney Bryen/InvestigateWest)

This story was first published by InvestigateWest.

John Parke, known as “Cowboy,” is always ready to pack up and move. He stacks his black and blue tent, foam sleeping pad, and flannel-lined sleeping bag on top of a wagon that he hauls away every day at 7 a.m. before police arrive and order him and the other unhoused people of “camp town” to leave.

Moving has become part of Parke’s morning routine. He had to move when officials in Clarkston, a small town in southeastern Washington on the Idaho border, closed the park where he was living in October. He moved days later when the city erected fences around another park where he was preparing his shelter for winter. And he moved again when the mayor declared 75 people at an encampment behind Walmart a “state of emergency.”

Now, the 45-year-old has to move every day so police won’t ticket him.

“They’re making it harder to get a job and improve our situation,” Parke said. “They’re acting like bullies at school, and I’m not going to let them do that, so I’m standing up for the homeless community.”

The city of about 7,000 recently restricted tents and other make-shift shelters used by unhoused people like Parke to one city park between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. and prohibited personal belongings that are “not essential to living.” Parke is part of an ongoing lawsuit against Clarkston arguing the ordinance is unconstitutional.

Smaller Washington cities like Clarkston are increasingly confronting the housing crisis more commonly associated with densely populated, urban areas.

That could be a preview of what’s to come, not just in Washington but nationwide, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected in June. Justices are considering whether to overturn lower-court rulings in Oregon and Idaho that protect homeless people from being ticketed, charged or arrested for sleeping on public property when there is no shelter available.

In the past year, at least five Washington cities and two counties responded to increased homeless populations with camping bans. In addition to Clarkston, the Northwest Justice Project, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income people in Washington, recently sued two other cities, challenging the constitutionality of homeless restrictions.

Cities contend that these laws are necessary to control encampments, which are unsafe for inhabitants, the general public and the environment. In a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in, cities said they’re paralyzed by federal court rulings in Boise, Idaho and Grants Pass, Oregon, that presume “temporary shelter beds are the solution to homelessness, channeling local resources away from longer-term solutions like permanent supportive housing, mental healthcare, drug rehabilitation, and low-income housing support.”

Civil rights attorneys said barring people from using tents or shelters on public property isn’t the answer either.

Those laws have forced unhoused people to scatter across the state. Where there are camping bans, constant movement becomes overwhelming for people without permanent shelter. Many seek refuge on public lands outside city borders and in nearby communities causing homelessness to spike there, often overnight. That’s what happened when the city of Lewiston, Idaho, banned camping in 2022, sending many of its unhoused residents across the bridge and into Clarkston. 

John Parke and Tiffany Deen are among about 20 unhoused people who regularly sleep at Foster Park, the small space in the center of Clarkston that the city designated for camping.

Howard Belodoff, the Idaho Legal Aid attorney who won the case against Boise, said a reversal would unleash cities to pass and enforce homeless bans.

“If they reverse it, every podunk town is going to take these ordinances criminalizing the homeless and adopt them,” said Belodoff. “These smaller cities have been trying to fly under the radar, but a reversal, well, they’re going to feel empowered to do it out in the open.”

Martin vs. Boise Fallout

Since confining camping to a small park in the center of town in February, Clarkston’s “camp town” dwindled from 75 to about 20 people. One group set up a new camp in a wooded area about 20 miles northwest of town. Some walked back across the bridge to Lewiston. Others haven’t been seen in months.

A similar pattern has been playing out across the Northwest since the 2018 Martin vs. Boise ruling sided with homeless people who were cited by police in Idaho’s capital city when there were no shelter beds available. It was deemed cruel and unusual punishment.

Since then, cities have sought new ways to regulate homelessness, restricting when and where people could camp, sleep, lie or sit. Homeless advocates argue the restrictions make it more difficult for unhoused people to survive. Grants Pass, a city of fewer than 40,000, fined homeless residents for having blankets and pillows in public parks despite a shortage of shelter beds. A group of unhoused residents sued the city and, in 2022, an appellate court expanded protections for homeless people to include civil penalties.

Last year, Seattle and Spokane joined more than 20 cities, counties and organizations asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule those verdicts and give municipalities more authority to decide how to respond to homelessness. The Supreme Court heard arguments last week and is expected to make a ruling this summer.

Some cities have ignored the rulings, citing and arresting people even when there was no available shelter. Others, instead, ticketed homeless people for disorderly conduct or urinating in public. Some identified loopholes like environmental protections to support prohibitions.

With a Supreme Court decision still pending, Washington cities have continued to pass restrictions. Yakima County in south-central Washington has been removing abandoned encampments along the Yakima and Naches rivers for years. In July, commissioners adopted a policy against the advice of the county prosecutor allowing for the removal of inhabited camps, too.

Last summer, councilmembers in Everett, 30 miles north of Seattle, banned resting or placing items such as a blanket within two blocks of behavioral health, addiction or emergency housing services.

In November, the Vancouver City Council closed an additional 48 acres of public property to camping. The following day, the Clark County Council banned camping near bodies of water, in parks and natural areas, prohibited daytime camping, and restricted storage of personal property.

As these homeless bans spread into the suburbs or smaller cities in Washington like Clarkston, civil rights attorneys said some are violations of the Martin vs. Boise ruling.

Many of those smaller cities don’t have overnight shelters. And those that do can’t keep up with the need. In Washington, people in temporary or emergency housing or without shelter have increased 52% in a decade, according to state estimates. In 2023, on a single night, that number exceeded 28,000, which is generally considered an undercount.

(MNNN editor’s note: The cities of Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace have bans on public camping but it would only be only enforced if shelter beds are available within a reasonable distance. The City of Lynnwood also has a camping ban but the police department offers shelter resources or diversion services for those in violation.)

Rents are rising in every corner of the state, not just in the Puget Sound region, pricing low-income residents out, said Tedd Kelleher, housing policy director for the Washington State Department of Commerce.

“For people in the margins, the math that worked for them five years ago doesn’t work for them anymore,” Kelleher said. “It’s making it harder and harder for them to stay inside.”

Unhoused residents of Burien are challenging an ordinance passed in March by City Council members banning daytime camping in the Seattle suburb. The ban on daytime shelters also is part of Parke’s claim against Clarkston.

One of Clarkston’s City Council members refused requests from InvestigateWest for an interview. The others did not respond. In its ordinance, city officials justified the restrictions by citing “unsafe and unsanitary conditions” at encampments that pose a threat to the community.

Jennifer Graham, who grew up in Clarkston in a small, white house kitty-corner from Foster Park, said her daughter’s family, who now live there, can no longer enjoy the playground across the street at Foster Park. That’s the half-acre park where residents of “camp town” were forced to move in February after City Council members made it illegal to camp anywhere else.

“None of the kids in the neighborhood can play in the park because we’re not sure if there are needles lying in the grass,” Graham said. “And the kids that have gone over to try to play, they get hollered at by the homeless people.”

Graham started a Facebook group in March where she posts calls to Clarkston police about Foster Park, arrest reports, pictures and videos meant to persuade city leaders to bar camping from all parks. Rather than a shelter, she supports a community court system that would offer beds at mental health and addiction treatment centers for those who need it. And jail for those who refuse to comply.

John Wolff, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project who represents Parke and three other unhoused people, said Clarkston has as much of an obligation to his clients as it does to other residents. Attorneys on both sides are gathering evidence before arguing their case.

“My clients are all from Clarkston. They have families from there, and they deserve to be there, too,” Wolff said. “All they’re trying to do is assert their rights to basic survival that any human has the right to.”

A shrinking map

Parke’s breath turned to fog as he tugged on the strap that secures his tent to the top of his wagon on April 19. A nearby voice yelled, “Seven a.m. Everybody better get up!”

People sleeping in Foster Park have been cited by police if their shelters aren’t taken down by 7 a.m. Clarkston police have issued 11 trespassing citations at the park since the restrictions were passed, according to police records. Police cited seven people at 7:18 a.m. on March 11 — the day after clocks rolled forward one hour for daylight savings.

Even worse for some is the 8 a.m. deadline. That’s when the sprinklers come on. The park remains closed until noon, and tents and other temporary shelters are prohibited until 9 p.m.

But the city had some suggestions about where members of the encampment could relocate outside city limits: Hard-to-read black and white maps were handed out to residents, housed and unhoused, at a Feb. 6 meeting where the city acknowledged its lack of shelters. Hand-drawn black lines and barely visible computer-generated shapes encircled areas that the city said were available for camping. Many were along the river and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which quickly closed those areas to prevent overnight camping.

“We’ve identified multiple public properties in the area that we believe also fall under the auspices of Martin vs. Boise,” City Administrator Steve Austin said at the meeting. “Those are properties in Idaho, properties in Washington that anybody that does not have a home is able to reside on without criminal prosecution.”

Parke has been cited twice for trespassing. Both times, he said he overslept. Both of Parke’s citations are misdemeanors that could carry up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, a major setback as Parke works toward financial and housing stability. He won’t know the consequence until he goes back to court next month. He worries he will end up back behind bars due to his past mistakes.

In the late ’90s, Parke began using methamphetamine to dull the symptoms of his undiagnosed mental illnesses, contributing to 20 years of criminal charges for bounced checks, driving violations, drug possession, failing to appear in court, unpaid fines and felony domestic abuse.

Parke said his mental health took a dive about two years ago, and he again turned to drugs. He lost his job and his home and ended up on the streets. He’s sober now and receiving treatment for borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and manic depression.

“I let my mental health get the best of me. Hell, I let life get the best of me,” Parke said. “I’m trying to get back up and do the right thing and make it work, and it’s just, they’re making it harder and harder to improve my situation. Sometimes it’s hard not to give up.”

Clarkston’s ban sent some searching for a place to sleep across the river in Lewiston, Idaho, which barred sleeping in public more than a year before. Clarkston’s homeless population rose “drastically” after that, the mayor stated as part of the emergency proclamation adopted at the February meeting.

Emergency shelter in the Lewis Clark valley is limited to youth and women who are victims of domestic abuse, volunteers said. Weeks after Clarkston’s restrictions went into effect, the Union Gospel Mission broke ground on a homeless shelter in Lewiston. But rules require residents to be sober and complete daily chores, and they prohibit co-ed housing, excluding many in need. Other attempts to build a shelter in Lewiston have failed due to public opposition.

On a corner overlooking Foster Park is First Christian Church, home of the Red Door Kitchen, which serves seven free meals a week. Its pastor, David Carringer, said he invited the mayor, City Council members and police to attend one of the meals. No one accepted the invitation.

“No one wants these people, so someone complains and they’re passed on to the next, and then they complain and they’re passed on again, and it’s a cycle,” Carringer said. “Instead of trying to come together and compromise, we’re pitted against one another, and the poorest always lose.”

Waiting for a decision

City camping bans, legal challenges, and the fate of people like Parke hinge on the decision of nine Supreme Court justices.

In April, the court heard from both sides. Asking for a reversal of the Grants Pass decision, the city’s attorney argued that the previous ruling was too vague and hampered cities that need camping laws to protect public health and safety. The opposing attorney argued that those laws punish people for being homeless and “turn the city’s homelessness problem into someone else’s problem” by forcing them into other jurisdictions.

Justices are expected to rule in late June, near the end of the session.

Like the U.S. constitution, Washington’s constitution protects people against cruel and unusual punishment. It also contains a provision protecting people’s right to travel. Carrie Graf, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, argued to the Washington Supreme Court in October that the town of Lacey violated that provision when it passed a law requiring vehicles being used as shelter to move every four hours. The court has not yet ruled on the case.

An ordinance passed by Clarkston’s Mayor and city councilmembers in February designated Foster Park as the only place people who are homeless can sleep at night. The park is closed for maintenance from 8 a.m. to noon each day, so Parke and the other dozen or so regulars who camp there must move all of their belongings every morning before the sprinklers go off, or risk being ticketed by police.

Graf said these and other provisions of the state constitution could insulate Washington from the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court dismantles the 9th Circuit decisions.

While he waits for a local judge to decide his fate, Parke is applying for disability income. If that’s approved, he’ll apply for housing assistance. Until then, he’ll continue sleeping at Foster Park as long as the city permits.

“None of us want to be here, to be pointed at and laughed at and yelled at by people driving by,” Parke said. “The city put us front and center on purpose to create a circus and put us on display.”

Parke pulls his wagon toward an alleyway across from the park. The plastic tires on Parke’s wagon scrape against the gravel as he pushes it against a garage in an alleyway across from the park.

He makes three more trips from the park to the alley and back, each time with an armful of someone else’s belongings. Only a couple of tents remain when Parke glances up at the sun and mutters, “I hope it warms up soon.”

Surveying the grounds one more time, he crosses the street and takes a sip of Mountain Dew from a bottle he’d been toting around since the day before. He starts walking. He doesn’t know where he’s going, just that he can’t be there.

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

— By Whitney Bryen, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

  1. Urban camping AKA homelessness, AKA unhoused has become an industry in big cities involving billions of taxpayer dollars. It has been going on now for almost two decades and each year the governments say pass this new tax and we will end homelessness in 5 or 10 years and it has become worse on an order of magnitude with no end insight. The people who work and get nice salaries and perks in the homeless industry hardly want their jobs to go away and add in the”do gooders” who feel everyone deserves to have everything regardless of the horrible choices they made with their lives. Add in the legalization of narcotics, and the constant flow of same across our southern border and you have what you see in every large city and coming to a city near you before long.

    1. Frank, Your comment rings oh so true! And we, the taxpayers, just continue to be the suckers while the “homeless” industry and government grows through our monies. Those of us who are productive pay for those that have made and continue to make bad choices.

  2. If we are going to give mentally ill and substance addicted people free housing and food then we better also plan to give them free treatment and/or the substances they crave or the problems of property crime, violence, and unsanitary living conditions will just keep getting worse as population increases. The theory is you first give people a home and they will figure out how to cope with the rest. It’s called “housing first.” Without behavioral conditions enforced this will never work. Enabling just creates more need and motivation for more enabling. Really helping people and just giving people stuff are two different things.

  3. Read the recent draft report and proposal by the State of Washington, and if you can wade through the equitable distribution of funds to 10 statewide departments all focused on overlapping responsibilities and limited to zero actual numeric data or goals, then maybe it will help us understand why $607M was spent on homelessness with limited positive results (and I will let Strom, the Chair of Housing I believe, correct me) $300m was spent on “affordable housing” projects.

    There are persons on the margin in every society. Limited numbers are by choice, greater numbers are due to health and educational issues. Washington blames systemic bias, but the spending and funds exerted on eliminating this bias seem to be increasing the number of homeless. I thought the goal was to house people.

    Washington State (or California, see the recent audit on the missing funds on their State programs) has done a great job of propping up the homelessness industry, and if you don’t think it is an industry, look at the Companies that benefit from the $1B spent last year alone

    When you let the government “help” you more, the less helpful government gets. Instead, we get 10 Commissions who print a plan that has no baseline data or targets, and a hell of a lot of language blaming equity. The draft is below.

    https://deptofcommerce.app.box.com/s/4phz1a4ussmezn92478a8yin14orxezv

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