By Erica C. Barnett
Last week, after failing to come up with an alternative location for a longstanding encampment on the west side of the building that houses both Burien City Hall and the local branch of the King County Library, the city of Burien formally evicted the 30 or so people who had been living there for months.
But they didn’t go far. As Scott Schaefer at the B-Town blog reported, most of the people forced out of the encampment moved to a city-owned site just one block west of City Hall, infuriating some residents and prompting demands for harsh anti-camping policies as well as sanctions against Burien Planning Commission Chair Charles Schaefer, who said he directed encampment residents to the new site.
This was the setting for Monday night’s Burien City Council meeting, where council members proposed several potential approaches to addressing encampments, including a total encampment ban in certain, unspecified “zones”; strict enforcement of drug laws; reinstating Burien’s overturned trespassing ordinance; and reallocating city funds to stand up a temporary encampment by the King County Courthouse a few blocks away. Burien already bans encampments in parks, but nowhere else, which is why the encampment next to City Hall was able to linger for so long.
During the meeting, Council member Jimmy Matta pushed back on an encampment ban proposed by Councilmember Stephanie Mora, noting that the Ninth Circuit US District Court, ruling in the Martin v. Boise case, barred cities from sweeping encampments unless shelter beds are available—and Burien has no year-round adult shelters or sanctioned encampments.
“I see the same things as you see,” Matta said. “I don’t like my children to see [those things]. I don’t like to see people using drugs. But at the same time, I know we don’t have the resources for [shelter], and on top of that, the Ninth Circuit court says that we have to have placements for them.” Cities like Seattle get around the requirement by sweeping encampments when shelter beds become available, Matta continued, but a similar approach in Burien would require the city to come up with funding and a location for a shelter—which, in turn, would likely face opposition from the same people who just want Burien’s homeless population gone. [Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed this quote and the sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph to City Manager Adolfo Bailon; we regret the error.]
This contingent was out in force at Monday’s council meeting, where public commenters who supported shelter, housing, and supportive services for encampment residents were greatly outnumbered by those demanding that the council eliminate the “campers” by any legal means. For an observer from Seattle, the tone of many comments were reminiscent of the debate about homeless encampments before and especially during the pandemic, when people frequently used dehumanizing terms and the language of eradication to talk about homeless Seattle residents.
“I wasn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared. It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”—Burien LEAD program manager Aaron Burkhalter
One commenter, for example, referred to homeless people living in Burien as “this unpleasantness” and expressed his “shame, embarrassment, and utter disgust” that encampment residents were allowed to move one block, where they are now “in my front yard.” Another told council members they should “take [encampment residents] home with you” instead of allowing them to sleep on public property. An eighth-grade student at a local private school said she was “tired of seeing men’s privates everywhere I go,” adding that she was no longer able to run or walk in Burien because “the unhoused people have found a loophole in your system.” Several commenters referred conspiratorially to a “coordinated” effort to increase the number of homeless people in the city.
“I wasn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared,” said Aaron Burkhalter, the LEAD project manager for Burien, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting. “It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”
At the end of the meeting, which , the council put off proposals to bring back the trespassing law and expand the city’s camping ban. During a special meeting next week, the council will hear more about a proposal to use the county-owned parking lot as a short-term managed encampment; receive information on how the State v. Blake decision, which overturned the state’s main drug possession law, impacts the city’s authority to crack down on drug use; and get an overview of camping bans in other cities, including Marysville and Lakewood.
The council will also consider sanctions against Planning Commissioner Schaefer for informing people they had the right to set up tents on city-owned property a block from City Hall; during the meeting, some commenters suggested he should be forced from his position for providing this information.
Burkhalter said he expects the city will remove the relocated encampment soon, scattering the people living there to “a number of different sites around the city.” While some, including City Manager Bailon, have expressed the hopeful thought that many of the encampment residents are from other cities and will move out of town, Burkhalter considers that wishful thinking.
Still, he said, he’s optimistic that the city will come up with a longer-term solution, such as temporary housing in a nearby hotel or in an existing residential building in Burien. “All the pieces are in place to get people into those spaces, and after that, it’s just a matter of how do we prioritize who gets placed in such a way that we are addressing criminal behavior and the public camping that people are so concerned about, in a way that people can get significant services,” Burkhalter said.