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Please sit and lie

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1500px-SpokaneDTPanoramaI stroll through downtown every day on my to and from work. My walk is usually pleasant, but jarring. Car lots litter second and third avenue, reminding me of Spokane Valley’ deteriorating “auto row.” The closer I get to first, the more I begin to see historic properties in various stages of upkeep. I am a bit of history nerd, as anyone who knows me would be able to tell you. Sometimes I enjoy wandering around the old buildings, thinking about what it must have been like in a different era. Imagine: The streets bustling with people. Sidewalks near City Market on Second and Stevens packed with customers. Packed street front stores at the Bennett Block. Twenty-four hour hotspots like Nims Cafe providing all night entertainment to the late to bed crowd. Streets lavishly decorated with holiday decor. Look at many of the oldpictures of downtown Spokane and what do you see? People everywhere. People selling goods. People walking. People standing. People sitting. Today, the activity is gone. Sure, you see people at lunch or dinner heading to the nearest restaurant. You might see people smoking outside the bars at night or stumbling to their next booze-soaked destination. But it simply is not the same anymore. Downtown Spokane Partnership had to actively recruit people to walk around the streets on an early morning a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of a national retailer scoping a location on Main. In the past several decades, we decided somewhere along line that the value of public space is not what it used to be.

Last year, the City Council passed what is known as a “sit and lie” ordinance. This law essentially makes it a crime to stay in one place for too long on the sidewalk. It enjoyed the support of property owners and many businesses downtown who see the homeless, the street kids and aimless wanderers as impediments to increasing their bottom line. Homeless advocates and concerned citizens packed the chambers to testify against, and it is easy to understand why. These kind of laws sadly have a long history in our country and the burden always falls on the most marginalized of groups in our society. In the post Civil War South, black codes were passed to continue the wholesale control of “freed” slaves. Many of these codes contained what were known as vagrancy laws, which made it a crime to loiter or be unemployed and homeless. Due to the stain of white supremacy, black men were the group most likely to be targeted with fines or prison sentences for the crime of not being able to find work or a home. In many cities and states across America up until the 1960′s and ’70′s, there were also what were known as“Ugly laws.” These laws targeted people with “unsightly” disabilities, making it a crime for them to stand in a public space; and were often referred to as “unsightly beggar ordinances.” The sit and lie law fits neatly in this history and represents the latest in a long line of classist laws that aim to scrub the poor, the disabled, the homeless and people of color from the urban landscape because wealthy and middle class shoppers don’t want to be bothered by the uncomfortable reality that these people exist.

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Blaine Stum
Blaine Stum
Blaine Stum is a 30-something-year-old native of the Spokane area who was raised in Spokane Valley. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor's degree in political science. He works in the local political arena and has been involved in LGBT non-profit work for several years.

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Mark
Mark
9 years ago

I think that a “sit and lie” ordinance is unconstitutional. Portland passed the same sort of ordinance in 2007. The Multnomah County Circuit Court found the ordinance unconstitutional on the grounds that state law preempted it. I don’t know if Washington’s state law does the same thing or not.

On the one hand I can certainly agree with store owners that people should not be allowed to clutter the sidewalks in front of their stores. On the other hand homeless people need a place to exist.

The obvious solution is for the city to create places for people, homeless or not, to sit and lie for extended periods of time. There should be many such places, and the places should be near all the usual places where homeless people have been sitting and lying for years.

Then the enforcement of a no-sit-and-lie ordinance on the sidewalks would be both humane and reasonable.

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