By Erica C. Barnett
On Monday night, the Burien City Council decided not to immediately approve a bill that would ban sleeping outdoors in the city “at any time between sunset and sunrise,” opting to request more information from city staff about the implications of the ban before passing it.
During the same meeting, City Manager Adolfo Bailon said the city had been contacted by a private landowner who is interested in renting out their property to the city for use as a temporary shelter site for up to 24 months. According to a spokesperson for the city of Burien, Bailon learned about the site when Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling introduced him to the property owner.
Although Bailon declined to provide any details about the lease proposal, PubliCola has confirmed that the property is a commercially zoned lot sandwiched between a King County Housing Authority building and the Boulevard Park branch of the King County Library System (KCLS), about three miles east of the traffic circle where most of the encampment residents are currently living. Nearby businesses include a Dollar Tree, a laundromat, and a liquor store.
Over the years, the owners of the property have filed permits to develop the overgrown, unfenced lot into a mixed-use apartment building, a parking lot for the library, and a mixed-use townhouse development, but none of these plans have ever materialized. One of the current owners,Dan O’Neill of the O’Neill Design Company, did not respond to a call on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the King County Library System was unable to comment Tuesday about plans for the site. When the city first evicted encampment residents from outside City Hall in downtown Burien, some supporters justified the move by saying the encampment endangered patrons at Burien’s main KCLS branch, which is located in the same building.
King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokeswoman Anne Martens said the KCRHA hasn’t received much information yet about the potential shelter site. “We will be pulling together a meeting with all relevant parties to discuss,” Martens said. “This is still being scheduled, but we hope to do it soon.”
Earlier this year, King County offered the city $1 million, along with 35 Pallet shelters, and proposed a land swap that would have allowed a shelter to open on city-owned land, but the council narrowly rejected that proposal. Any action to turn the privately owned lot into a shelter will likely take several months, and will almost certainly require funding beyond $1 million King County has offered, depending on how much it costs to rent the land and hire a homeless service provider to run the shelter. The council may also need to rezone the lot.
“We have lots of tents throughout the city. These people are breaking into our houses, they’re breaking into our cars. Yes, I get that they’re trying to feed a [drug] habit, but that’s not acceptable to me.”—Burien City Councilmember Stephanie Mora
Meanwhile, the outdoor sleeping ban will take effect, assuming it passes, on October 1—meaning that even in a best-case scenario, there will be a period when homeless people are effectively banned from Burien after dark.
Although the legislation, modeled on a nearly identical law in Bellevue, is a bit of a fait accompli—four of seven council members support it—a strong council majority was still interested in getting more information about its impacts.
The exception was Councilmember Stephanie Mora, who proposed an unsuccessful motion that would have actually accelerated the legislation, allowing the council to pass it without additional review, last night, and putting the ban into effect immediately. “We are not criminalizing being homeless,” Mora said. “We are criminalizing criminal activity. We have lots of tents throughout the city. These people are breaking into our houses, they’re breaking into our cars. Yes, I get that they’re trying to feed a [drug] habit, but that’s not acceptable to me.”
Neither Mora nor several public commenters who claimed the encampment was a haven for child sex trafficking produced specific evidence to back up their claims. According to a state crime report, which Burien Police Chief Ted Bo presented earlier in the evening, crime dropped 8.5 percent in Burien last year, with significant reductions in burglary and robbery reports. There were no human trafficking reports in Burien in either 2021 or 2022.
Because a Ninth Circuit ruling called Martin v. Boise bars most encampment sweeps unless people have somewhere to go, the city will only be able to enforce the ban if shelter is “available.” However, the bill the council is considering defines “available” shelter broadly, as “any public or private shelter with available overnight space, open to individuals experiencing homelessness at no charge.” As written, the bill could strip away people’s right to decline shelter that requires attendance at religious services, discriminates against LGBTQ+ people, forces people to abandon partners and pets, or does not accommodate people’s physical and behavioral health care needs.
The bill explicitly defines drug and alcohol use as a “voluntary” choice among people who turn down spots in shelters that require strict sobriety, effectively criminalizing physical dependence on alcohol and other drugs.
Council members asked Bailon to come back with more information about how the King County Sheriff’s Office would enforce the sleeping ban, what kind of legal liability Burien will be taking on by passing the ordinance, and how far away shelters can be located to count as “available,” among other unanswered questions. Burien has no year-round beds for single men, who make up the majority of those living unsheltered in the city; the nearest year-round men’s shelters are in Seattle and Bellevue.
“I am not in favor of this ban, but I do think it’s important for us to know exactly what we are banning and what we are defining [as shelter] when we do it,” Councilmember Sarah Moore said.
Councilmember Cydney Moore, who also opposes the ban, requested information about how much enforcing the new law will cost the city—a question that could be critical, given that the city could face cuts or layoffs next year, according to a budget Bailon delivered earlier in the meeting. A spokesman for King County, which provides Burien’s police force through the King County Sheriff’s Office, said the county has not done an analysis of what would be involved in enforcing a potential sleeping ban.