Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority

Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. On Tuesday, the Mercer Island City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban all “camping” in the city, including sleeping unsheltered in public places and sheltering in a vehicle overnight. People who violate the ban—anyone who remains unsheltered in the city overnight—could be jailed for up to 90 days and fined $1,000 for each violation. Any vehicle that is used for overnight shelter, including RVs, could be impounded.

At a Mercer Island City Council meeting last month, Councilmember Jake Jacobson said the proposed ordinance “addresses public safety concerns [about] people who, but for this ordinance, would be staying in public properties for an infinite period of time and certainly are in a position to be of concern to people on the island. Fear—there is fear out there, and this is a way to deal with it.”

“And if people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,'” Jacobson continued, “then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, bars cities from passing outright bans on homelessness. Instead, it allows cities to ban sleeping outdoors unless there is no “available” shelter in the area—but the definition of “available” and in the area are very much open to interpretation.

The Mercer Island proposal gets around Boise by saying that police who encounter unsheltered people may direct them to shelter outside Mercer Island but on the Eastside, since Mercer Island does not have any homeless shelters. In practice, this means one of four shelters—one for women, one for men, one for families with children, and one for youth. In exchange for these services, Mercer Island would pay a consortium of Eastside service providers a total of $10,000 a year.

The bill defines “available” broadly, allowing police to enforce the law against people who can’t be admitted to their designated shelter because of the “voluntary actions of that person,” including :intoxication, drug use, unruly and/or assaultive behavior and like behaviors.” Under proposed ordinance, for example, if a homeless man was ineligible for the lone men’s shelter because he was exhibiting behavioral health symptoms that made him “unruly,” he could be seen as refusing shelter and jailed.

If people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,’ then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes assured the council that then police were interested in helping homeless people, not further marginalizing them. “Rest assured… we won’t take enforcement action until there’s repeated issues,” he said. But Sergeant Mike Seifer, who presented the legislation to the council, noted that it was aimed at addressing a specific group of people—”about four individuals that we deal with on a very serious or consistent basis” in public spaces, plus “about six or seven that are in vehicles that are consistently coming into contact with the officers.”

One way or another, the law would allow Mercer Island police to remove those ten or so people from the island, either by jailing them in another city, such as Issaquah, or by sending them to a shelter off the island. Councilmember Craig Reynolds, who cast the lone “no” vote against the ordinance on first reading, noted that the city’s jail contracts don’t come cheap—jailing a person costs the city about $200 a day, or up to $18,000 for the maximum 90-day sentence.

2. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci  will replace her fellow Councilmember Reagan Dunn on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, as we reported exclusively on Twitter Friday.

In January, as PubliCola reported, governing board member Zaneta Reid took Dunn to task for positions he has taken on homelessness, including his opposition to the “Health Through Housing” sales tax proposal and his efforts to fund one-way bus tickets out of King County. “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shut down the conversation before Dunn could answer.

Balducci said Dunn had asked to be removed from the board as part of the county council’s annual board assignment process in early January, before Reid confronted him on his record. “He didn’t make a big deal of the ask and there wasn’t a lot of rationale behind it, and it was definitely before there was this apparently difficult conversation,” Balducci said.

Balducci, a Democrat from Bellevue, said she would bring a different perspective to the board than Dunn, a Republican who represents a largely rural South King County district. “I just think we bring different perspectives,” Balducci said. “Of course, he has got the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,‘ personal responsibility kind of view that most Republicans have, but he also comes with a real strong commitment to behavioral health and recovery services.” Dunn, who opposed the creation of the regional homelessness authority, did not return our call.

12 thoughts on “Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority”

  1. Let’s look at the real facts of Mercer Island’s Ordinance 21C-02.

    MERCER ISLAND ORDINANCE 21C-02

    For decades Mercer Island like every other regional city has banned camping in parks. Below is a link to an agenda item comparing four eastside cities’ current ordinances with 21C-02. Every city makes camping a misdemeanor, because otherwise there is no legal authority to detain and remove a camper who refuses to leave, and to take them to a shelter. All 21C-02 does is extend the ban on camping in parks to other public property like streets.
    https://mccmeetingspublic.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/mercerwa-meet-4a819d6fd25746209ea1d4d2ceae4ac5/ITEM-Attachment-001-d5b36864a26e4adf967fc268b99b92a4.pdf

    The real irony is Seattle’s ban on camping in parks is the harshest in the region, with five times the criminal penalties as 21C-02 (gross misdemeanor with a maximum 364 days in jail and $5000 fine). In fact, as the Mercer Island police chief testified, Mercer Island has not prosecuted a single person for simply camping in the parks in 30 years, and of course Seattle regularly sweeps its parks and streets of homeless campers, but is overwhelmed by homeless campers.

    Seattle’s park ordinance begins at Subchapter 18.12.25

    https://library.municode.com/wa/seattle/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT18PARE_CH18.12PACO_SUBCHAPTER_VIIUSRE_18.12.250CA

    18.12.279 – Trespass in parks—Definition—Punishment

    2. Enters, remains in, or is otherwise present within the premises of a park during hours which the park is not open to the public, unless the person is present within the park to participate in an activity either conducted by the Department or conducted pursuant to the terms of a permit issued by the Department; shall be guilty of trespass in parks, a gross misdemeanor subject to the provisions of Chapters 12A.02 and 12A.04 of the Seattle Municipal Code.

    My suggestion to the Mercer Island council was to simply adopt Seattle’s ordinance banning camping in parks, but our liberal council felt it was too harsh.

    All of this began with the ninth circuit’s decision in Martin v. Boise. The court in Martin held a city (Boise) could not criminalize and prosecute someone for sleeping in public if there were no alternatives, mainly shelters, although the homeless are not obligated to use a shelter. The reasoning behind Martin is simple: cities like Boise use these ordinances to shift the homeless to more generous regions like the Puget Sound region.

    Ordinance 21C-02 includes an annual $10,000 donation to eastside shelters even though Mercer Island almost never uses them in addition to our donations to ARCH, and requires the police to confirm a shelter bed is available before removing a camper in a park, which reversed the legal burden in Martin and is unique among ordinances banning camping in this region. No other regional ordinance — including Seattle’s — does this.

    In fact, State Sen. Fortunato who represents a poor section from Auburn to Sumner that has many of the shelters has submitted a bill to the legislature that requires all counties, and any city over 50,000 residents, to have at least one overnight shelter, and makes camping in parks or on streets a state misdemeanor, because Sen. Fortunato wants to extend the reasoning in Martin to WA’s rural counties and cities that also simply shift their homeless to this region.
    https://www.thenorthernlight.com/stories/mandated-homeless-shelters-draw-criticism-in-state-legislature,15937

    Of course the progressives oppose this.

    I would also note the city of Austin’s council eliminated bans on camping on public property in 2019, and the increases in crime and public sanitation problems resulted in a citizen petition that seeks to restore the bans that will be voted on May 1, 2021.

    https://thehayride.com/2021/02/austin-residents-to-vote-may-1-on-reinstating-citys-homeless-camping-ban/

    https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-sends-letter-to-mayor-adler-regarding-homelessness-crisis-in-austin

    Progressives never ask who is really hurt by the homeless camping in parks? It is the working class who live in multi-family housing — the holy grail for Urbanists — because they don’t have large houses and yards like on Mercer Island, and can’t afford to belong to clubs along the lake or buy summer houses. They and their families are prisoners in their small apartments without parks to play in or hey and their families are prisoners in their small apartments without parks to play in or streets to safely walk on, but the working class has never provided progressives the self-virtue they crave, or funded a homeless industrial complex.

  2. The biggest problem I see with this decision is that they will only pay the 4 shelters $10,000/year. That won’t go very far. The JustCare funding for Covid housing of the homeless with wraparound services that is now running in Seattle has been found to cost $1 MILLION per person/per year. It will be unsustainable once Covid funding has ended PLUS its a travesty that we are using this much money to house less than 200 people with the funds now. We need to work on housing those who became homeless in King County and require those from other states and regions in Washington to go back to where they came from to get services. King County cannot afford to help every homeless who comes here. Seattle should not and cannot do this alone and neither can King county.

  3. I used to be a card carrying member of ACLU. No more. Rather than helping the homeless, they have turned their back on the homeless and tacitly supported the inhumane treatment of the addicted, the mentally ill, and those that are down on their luck. And, instead, they attack those who want to help because it’s easier than helping fix the problems in Seattle.

  4. District nine is largely suburban, not rural (e.g., parts of Bellevue, Newcastle, Renton, Kent, Covington). Rural areas have few residents.

  5. I am hoping the Regional Homeless Authority will be able to pull all the homeless non-profits together under one goal – and save money. And finally get rid of SHARE which has not lived up to the goal of getting people out of homelessness (note King County and United Way already refused to continue funding SHARE several years ago). It’s only the Seattle City Council who repeatedly insists on funding SHARE and forcing our Human Services Department to work with them instead of funding other non-profits who are successful. I am glad the Mercer Island proposal would send their homeless to places on the Eastside. Seattle cannot take more.

    1. Dear “talker2”,

      We (KCHRA Board) will be investigating all of the current contracts with non-profits who provide direct services to the homeless. Regarding the Mercer Island ban on public encampments, I suppose if I lived in such a beautiful, clean, high tax area, maybe I would feel the same way they do. I’ve seen what happens when the government ignores the needs of the homeless (especially in non-sanctioned encampments). However, a ban is not the solution. It basically amounts to criminalizing homelessness. Why does Mercer Island get a pass to receive special treatment? Having a lot of money can undoubtedly make one feel a sense of entitlement, but that is no excuse to not do your part to participate in solving homelessness like everyone else who is affected by it.

  6. Terrific idea. Now Seattle needs to establish the same ordinance. If people say they don’t want help or they are not going into a shelter, then they have transitioned into the criminal justice system.

    1. Old McDonald Had A Farm! No Joe they would not be transitioning into the criminal justice system! Thee action of TRANSITIONING only occurs by one making a choice(s) about something! So for one to not accept a bed somewhere from a complete stranger accompanied with men & woman with guns encouraging them to take the strangers bed offer does not convert to YOUR NOW UNDER ARREST at the moment you decline their offer! That said what is actually literally occuring is that the stranger who is getting large amount of monies from the city that is contracting the police that are accompanying them to either convince them to accept the strangers bed offer and and/or THREATEN them with VIOLENCE & ARREST & JAIL TIME if they so choose to not want to go and sleep with strangers somewhere; all 3 parties involved are CONspiring together to kidnap, abduct, threaten, restrict their God Given Inherent Rights, Unlawfully Detain Them Indefinitely, etc! Maybe those things are o.k. on your farm Joe but thee areas in question are your NOT To all you PRO SUPPORTERS OF THIS I have a few questions if you do not mind!? (NOTICE: Those of you that may be suffering from narcissism need not reply unless you wish too!)
      May I ask those of you supporting this if there is any other UNCONSTITUTIONAL ACTIONS by government officials that you are currently supportive of? Do you all so support UNLAWFUL ACTS BY leo’s in general? If you have read the provisions within Thee United States Constitution would you say that you agree with everything? FARM DUDE! E I E I O!

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