By Erica C. Barnett
The Burien City Council moved forward Monday night on legislation that will ban sleeping outdoors at night throughout the city, putting the bill on the “consent agenda,” which does not require public debate, for next week. The bill, supported by four of the council’s seven members, targets a few dozen people living unsheltered in the city of 60,000.
For months, the city has swept this group of people from location after location, forcing them from their original spot outside the building that houses Burien City Hall and the downtown Burien library to other pieces of public property such as planting strips. (Current city law, which will be overturned by the sleeping ban, prohibits sleeping in public parks but allows homeless people to rest on other public property.) The encampment is currently perched in what amounts to a traffic circle in the middle of two busy intersections
During public comment, supporters of the ban blamed the same small group of homeless people for everything from child sex trafficking to the presence of drugs in Burien to “gangs,” describing them variously as rapists, “junkies,” “tweakers,” and people who “don’t want help.”
A resident of the encampment, who said he became homeless after losing his job, told the council that if he didn’t have the encampment, he would have to go back to sleeping in alleys, yards, garages, and on public transit. “I think it’s better for us to be in a park where you can see us,” he said. “Why not keep the camp? Why take it away? I also sleep on the train, and when I sleep on the train, I don’t get good sleep, and I make bad decisions the next day.”
As for what would happen once the ordinance passed, Councilmember Stephanie Mora said she hoped Burien’s unsheltered population would see that it was “inconvenient” to sleep outdoors in Burien and hopefully “find somewhere else to camp.”
During the debate over the legislation, the bill’s chief sponsor, Stephanie Mora, responded to a public commenter who asked council members to consider what they would do if they became homeless. “Well, I can tell you what I did do when I was newly pregnant,” Mora said. “I was a teen mom, I became homeless, and unfortunately, I was kicked out of my house. And I went to a local church, and I told the church members what had happened and those church members helped me out. It wasn’t the government that helped me out, it was people.”
As for what would happen once the ordinance passed, Mora said she hoped Burien’s unsheltered population would see that it was “inconvenient” to sleep outdoors in Burien and hopefully “find somewhere else to camp.”
A US 9th District Court ruling called Martin v. Boise bars cities and other jurisdictions from sweeping encampments unless there is “available” shelter, a loophole cities like Seattle have pushed to the limit. But there is no year-round overnight shelter for single men, who make up most of the encampment residents, in Burien, and the council has not come up with any viable proposal to locate a new shelter in the city. The latest proposal—a vacant lot in the low-income neighborhood of Boulevard Park—would be directly next to a library, like the original encampment.
Councilmember Hugo Garcia said it “reeks of white supremacy” to move the encampment from a library in a wealthier white neighborhood to a low-income Black and brown one, prompting Mora to immediately demand a vote to censure Garcia for his “very racist remark.” After some heated back and forth between opponents and proponents of the proposal, the council passed the sleeping ban on a predictable 4-3 vote, with Councilmembers Cydney Moore, Sarah Moore, and Garcia voting no.
Mora, notably, has proposed turning Burien’s outreach contracts over to a new group whose leader, Kristine Moreland, is a longtime volunteer with Union Gospel Mission with no experience providing direct services for governments. Until recently, Moreland advertised “sweeps” at a cost of $515 a head; she claims to have “housed” many of the encampment residents, but opponents of the sleeping ban noted Monday night that the same people are still sleeping outdoors in Burien.
Burien’s sleeping ban is modeled on a near-identical law in Bellevue—a city that, unlike Burien, does have an overnight men’s shelter. Once it passes, likely next week, the ban will go into effect on November 1.
The Burien police department, which is run by the King County Sheriff’s Office, would be responsible for enforcing the ban. A spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said it would be premature to say whether he would instruct the sheriff’s office to enforce the law; earlier this year, the county decided not to help the city remove unsheltered people from a city-owned property that the city leased to a private company, ostensibly for a dog park, in order to evict the homeless people who moved there after the initial City Hall sweep.