Is It A Felony To Camp On Public Land In Washington State?
Tennessee passed a law that recently went into effect making it a felony to "camp" on public lands. Is it the same here in Washington? Can you be charged with a felony when camping on public grounds without consent in this state? Technically this question has nothing to do with what I would call traditional camping, and everything to do with the homeless problem we see everywhere. So how is our state dealing with this and what is allowed in the law? The answer is very complicated.
According to Washington State law there are designated areas where dispersed camping is allowed. So, what is dispersed camping, also refereed as boondocking?
The US Forest Service defines dispersed camping as "the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets." They go on to explain "there are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It is your responsibility to know these before you try this new experience. Camping rules and regulations apply to make your experience safe, and to keep the natural resources scenic and unspoiled for other campers."
These regulations don't seem to deal with homeless camping however they are the laws being quoted for this situation. In 2020, Tennessee passed "a bill aimed at keeping protestors off capitol grounds by making illegal camping on state property punishable by up to six years in prison and a Class E felony." That law just went into effect in an attempt to combat their homeless problem. In Washington, most laws combating this problem are local zoning laws, not state laws.
So what is Washington State doing to tackle this problem?
They started by passing Senate Bill 5662 which seeks to prioritize the removal of homeless camping on the side of roads and under bridges/overpasses. Governor Inslee said the bill "tremendous opportunity this year the legislature has to coordinate our response to homelessness, particularly in our rights-of-way — our highways, freeways, and byways." Groups against the bill state that it will allow for unnecessary sweeps of homeless camps without helping reduce the number of homeless in the city. Basically they say it is pushing the issue to another location without really solving the problem.
A better solution was made difficult by a ruling in 2017 with State vs Pippen that stated "tents and shelters set up on public property and used for habitation are protected from unreasonable searches under the Washington State Constitution." That ruling among other zoning laws protect the rights of homeless making this a tough problem to solve.
What choices do the homeless have in Washington State for help?
There are a few different services created to help homeless in Washington. There are multiple shelters in the state, Continuum of Care contacts, the Veterans homeless hotline at 1 (877) 424-3838, for the Spokane Area call SNAP homeless services at (509) 624-4282, and also the WIN 211 Washington Information Network.
I doubt it will ever be a felony to camp on public lands in Washington State, but if they don't solve the homeless situation I won't be surprised if it happens eventually.
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