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Spokane Boulders Into Homelessness Problem

A homeless encampment in Seattle, which has the third-highest number of homeless people in the U.S. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Good design — beautiful, well-lit housing, for example — can be a powerful tool in helping a city’s homeless residents. But design strategies can also be used to criminalize homelessness — think park benches with vertical slats or dividers to make sleeping uncomfortable. A move by the city of Spokane is being billed as the former, but resembles the latter.

The city is dumping basalt boulders beneath I-90 to discourage homeless people from camping there, The Seattle Times reports. The rocks were dropped at a cost of $150,000, and “city leaders say it’s just one of many steps Spokane is taking to get people off the streets and into shelter systems,” according to the paper.

City leaders say the boulders are meant to guide people into shelters, which they’ve been aggressively funding. In May, City Council approved spending $510,000 to keep one shelter open 24/7. The city has reportedly also committed $1.1 million to keep the shelter system operating in 2018. Beginning next week, officials will begin “a multipronged strategy spreading the word to the homeless community about what services are available to them, including signs below the freeway informing people how to get food, shelter and health care,” according to the Times.

“We’re purposely funding 24/7 shelters to give people a place,” City Council President Ben Stuckart told the paper. “We want to point people to the resources, but at the same time we don’t want them disrupting private business.”

The city has a definite history of criminalizing homelessness. In 2013, officials banned sitting or lying down on sidewalks as a way to “clean up” downtown. The law was supposedly not aimed at homeless residents, but the majority of people cited under it were homeless.

Jeremy Hinricks, who is homeless, told The Seattle Times that the rocks looked “nicer than a bunch of dirt and scraggly trees.” But he added: “It won’t stop us. We’ll just find somewhere else to camp.”

As Next City contributor Jen Kinney reported in 2016, one challenge of the shelter system can be the lack of permanence, and the fact that many people have to haul their possessions out each morning. On the other side of Washington, Seattle’s tent cities have been touted by residents as a place of more stability.