By Erica C. Barnett
During a tense marathon meeting Monday night, the Burien City Council declined to take action to directly address an encampment on a lot in downtown Burien, which sprung up immediately after the city forced homeless residents to vacate the area outside the building that houses both City Hall and the Burien branch of the King County Library System late last month. Instead, they’ll put the new site up for lease; or, if that doesn’t work, turn it into a park, which will force the people living there to move to another site in the city.
Burien does not allow people to “camp” in parks, but unsheltered people are not banned from sleeping in most other public spaces. In March, the condo association that controls the City Hall building, which includes representatives from Burien and the library system, voted to kick the encampment residents off the property; as a result, they moved to a nearby city-owned lot where at least one city official, Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer, told them they had a right to be. The council is also debating whether to punish Schaefer for helping the encampment residents, potentially by removing him from his volunteer position.
After hours of public testimony that mostly favored finding solutions to help encampment residents—in contrast to the previous week, when most commenters argued for punitive measures like a camping ban—the council voted down proposals to provide a portable toilet on the site, reallocate human services funding toward a new shelter in the city, or move the encampment to Annex Park, half a mile north of City Hall. Instead, the council voted to direct city manager Adolfo Bailon to advertise plans to lease out the property where people are currently living or to turn it into a park, which would make it subject to Burien’s park encampment ban.
This morning, the B-Town Blog reported that Bailon decided to install a Port-a-Potty at the encampment site even though the council voted down a proposal by Councilmember Cydney Moore to provide one.
Council member Jimmy Matta, who sponsored the motion to put the site up for lease or turn it into a park, acknowledged it wouldn’t solve the problem of homelessness in Burien. Matta, voice raised, addressed the audience. “I would ask the residents of the city of Burien, as boisterous as you come here, with energy—and regardless of where you’re at [on the issue]—let’s get some pressure on the county county elected officials, that state representative state senators, congressmen!”
The council, still deeply divided on how to deal with the 30 or so people living on city property a block from their chambers, will meet again next Monday night to discuss, among other things, potential sites for a temporary encampment; both Nickelsville and at least one Burien church have expressed an interest in hosting a sanctioned encampment. A potential, short-term encampment site in the parking lot next to the Burien courthouse fell through, Bailon said, after the county made “a very compelling argument” that an encampment would impede the county’s ability to “make sure that justice is available to everyone.”
Also on next week’s tentative agenda: Whether, and how, to censure Planning Commissioner Schaefer, whose supporters turned out in large numbers to argue that he should be praised rather than punished for helping encampment residents.