By Erica C. Barnett
At the end of a grueling, sometimes tearful three-and-a-half-hour meeting Monday night, the Burien city council directed its city manager, Adolfo Bailon, to draft a encampment ban modeled after Bellevue’s law, which criminalizes living in the city unsheltered.
The 4-3 vote came immediately after the council majority voted to reject a $1 million offer from King County that would include 35 pallet shelters (with a total capacity of up to 70 people) and a temporary land swap between the city and the county. Under the proposal, the shelter would go on city-owned land that is currently being used as storage by a Toyota dealer; the county would provide free space for the dealer’s cars at the nearby Burien Transit Center, which it owns.
The council rejected two other sites, including a single-family lot owned by Seattle City Light, while adding a new option that would require an agreement with a whole new government entity into the mix: A triangle of land owned by the Port of Seattle next to SeaTac Airport, part of Burien’s Northeast Redevelopment Area (NERA). Opponents of this plan pointed out that it would subject homeless people living in thin-walled shelters to average noise levels of up to 70 decibels, prompting a brief sidebar discussion about whether metal sheds could be insulated for noise protection the same way houses are. (Probably not.)
Councilmember Stephanie Mora, who previously suggested homeless people relieve themselves in dog waste bags, was not interested in whether excess noise would be harmful to people living in pallet shelters by a runway. “You know what else poses a health risk not only to the campers, but also the public? The drug use and alcohol use of the people that are sleeping out on our streets,” Mora said.
Council members who opposed considering the Port side argued that initiating a brand-new shelter siting process would drag things out even more without satisfying advocates who want to find humane shelter for Burien’s homeless population or those who simply want them out of sight.
Is the cruelty the point? That’s what Councilmember Cydney Moore seemed to think, as she tearfully begged her colleagues not to pass a motion directing Bailon to draft a camping ban for consideration at the council’s next meeting. “This is just mean, and language that tells people that we don’t like them and we wished we can make them go away,”
“Us choosing this NERA site is not helping these people,” Councilmember Hugo Garcia said. “It’s just delaying. It’s just poor policy when it comes to housing, to equity. Out of the three, I’m just shocked that we even are having a discussion on it.”
At several points throughout the meeting, council members who voted to move forward with a ban on sleeping in public said that all the people living in encampments in Burien have been offered shelter and housing. While this is impossible to verify, since there are many private groups doing outreach to unsheltered people in the city, LEAD and REACH—two outreach organizations that connect people to shelter —reported last month that they had only found shelter placements for eight people out of several dozen.
Other organizations, such as the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission, offer shelter in Seattle that is sex-segregated and comes with behavioral rules that people with addiction and many mental health conditions may not be able to meet. For example, UGM requires sobriety—people suspected of drinking must pass a breathalyzer test—and its recovery programs are explicitly Christian and not based in science.
Some church-based programs impose even stricter rules. For instance, a program Mora and others on the council majority have frequently championed moves clients from the street into a three-day detox, followed by permanent housing with strict sobriety requirements. If a person fails to stay sober and gets kicked out, they become instantly ineligible for other types of housing for one year, because they were recently housed. The program, run by a Kirkland mortgage broker, also offers “sweeps services” for $515 a person—or just over $20,000 for a “40 person sweep.”
Is the cruelty the point? That’s what Councilmember Cydney Moore seemed to think, as she tearfully begged her colleagues not to pass a motion directing Bailon to draft a camping ban for consideration at the council’s next meeting. “This is just mean, and language that tells people that we don’t like them and we wished we can make them go away,” Moore said, “but we can’t. And that’s just not helpful. It’s cruel to a population that faces hostility every single day.”
Mora, who made the motion, countered that she cared too much about homeless people to allow them to continue living outside, and said they would go into shelter and follow the rules if their only other option was jail. “Every single person that is sleeping outside has been offered beds,” Mara said. “They don’t want help. … There is nothing that is pushing them to take the beds [and] they need something else to push them to take these beds.”
The motion—which passed 4-3—directs City Manager Bailon to come back at the next council meeting (scheduled for July 24) with an ordinance modeled on Bellevue’s camping ban.
Under a Ninth Circuit US District Court decision called Martin v. Boise, jurisdictions can’t ban people from sleeping in public unless they can offer another place to go. Cities, including Seattle, have interpreted this creatively—counting every shelter “offer” as appropriate and viable even if it’s miles across town or would require a couple to split, for example—in order to continue sweeping encampments.
But Bellevue’s law goes further than many, in a couple of ways. First, it actually criminalizes “public camping”—a broadly defined term that includes cooking, rolling out a sleeping bag, and stashing personal belongings in a public space—making it a misdemeanor.
Second, it says that anyone who is unable to accept a shelter offer because of “voluntary actions such as intoxication, drug use, unruly or assaultive behavior, or violation of shelter rules”—that is, people with addiction and behavioral health disorders—the city can force them to move or arrest them for “refusing” to accept an available shelter bed.
One of the problems with mandating sobriety and appropriate behavior—and criminalizing people who fail to comply—is that addiction and mental health disorders are not responsive to punitive legislation. A person who becomes agitated by the presence of other people will not lie quietly on a shelter floor even if they know an outburst will land them in jail, any more than someone dependent on drugs will stop using in exchange for a night indoors. Every city has to learn this lesson eventually, and Burien is about to get its turn.