By Erica C. Barnett
After a heated public meeting Tuesday night, the Burien City Council declined to take any action on a longstanding encampment on city-owned property, effectively allowing a private business that has leased the property to remove several dozen people who have been living on the site since the city forced them to move from a strip of land next to City Hall in April.
As we’ve reported, the city of Burien evicted encampment residents from an area next to the building that houses both Burien City Hall and the local King County Library branch in April. After encampment residents moved (legally) to a city-owned lot nearby, the city decided to lease the property for $183 a month to a nonprofit animal shelter run by the director of Discover Burien, a local business group, which says it plans to open a dog park at the site.
Over the course of the two-hour meeting, which was frequently interrupted by loud disruptions from an unruly crowd, the council discussed and rejected several potential resolutions, including a land swap that would involve accepting $1 million from King County and relocating encampment residents into pallet shelters on a city-owned parking lot site currently leased by a Toyota dealership, which would move the vehicles it is storing there property owned by King County Metro. The Downtown Emergency Service Center will open a new 95-unit permanent housing project in Burien later this year, with 30 percent of the units reserved for people living homeless in Burien, such as the current encampment residents.
“We don’t know where people will choose to go. Certain sidewalks are available. The city does not have camping bans on sidewalks throughout the city. However, there are regulations that govern ADA accessibility … that the sheriff’s office has addressed in the past.”—Burien City Manager Adolfo Bailon
As part of that deal, the encampment would move temporarily to a local Methodist Church that has agreed to host it until the city can work out a deal with the dealership, whose owner was out of town this week and apparently unaware of the discussion about his business.
King County floated this option during conversations with county officials, including Councilmembers Jimmy Matta and Hugo Garcia, last week. Councilmember Stephanie Mora called her colleagues “very unethical and not transparent” for talking to the county without letting the rest of the council know, leading Matta to note that as an elected official, he is allowed to meet with other government leaders.
Mora is a longtime encampment opponent who has unsuccessfully proposed a total ban on “camping” in Burien. During Tuesday’s meeting meeting, she claimed that homeless people draw drug dealers into cities the way children draw ice cream trucks to parks in summer; in April, she opposed placing a portable toilet near the encampment, saying that homeless people should relieve themselves in dog waste disposal bags.
Under a 2019 federal circuit court ruling called Martin v. Boise, governments can’t force homeless people to move from public property if there is no suitable shelter available. Burien has maintained that it isn’t violating Boise by leasing out the property and forcing people to move, because people can simply move their tents onto public sidewalks or other strips of land where they are technically allowed to be. (Burien bans people from sleeping in its parks, using a similar justification).
With its vote, the council also declined to consider other potential options to relocate the encampment temporarily, including other county-owned properties, or continue working on a resolution while allowing people to stay where they are. Councilmember Sarah Moore asked City Manager Adolfo Bailon to address the distinct likelihood that—as the council’s own agenda noted explicitly—people would simply move onto local sidewalks since the city has not found anywhere for them to go.
“We don’t know where people will choose to go,” Bailon said. “To your specific question, yes, it is possible. Certain sidewalks are available. The city does not have camping bans on sidewalks throughout the city. However, there are regulations that govern ADA accessibility … that the sheriff’s office has addressed in the past.”
The King County Sheriff’s Office provides Burien’s police department. Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine’s attorney sent a letter to the city of Burien saying the sheriff’s office would not help remove the encampment, prompting the city to issue a statement saying it was King County’s responsibility, not the city’s, to address homelessness in the region. Burien officials opposed to the encampment have suggested repeatedly that homeless people are migrating from Seattle to Burien, but there is little evidence for this claim.
Earlier this week, the organization placed signs around the property ordering people to vacate by June 1; according to KIRO, most people had vacated the encampment by early this morning.