Kent to look at civility laws to combat homeless behavior

Kent city leaders are looking at whether to adopt new civility laws to help reduce behavior problems by the homeless near downtown parks and the library.

"We've had issues of public urination and defecation right in the middle of the fountain in Town Square Plaza," said Parks Director Jeff Watling at a City Council workshop Jan. 15 about homeless issues.

Police Chief Ken Thomas told the council he gets a lot of complaints from residents concerned about their safety on downtown streets as well as from business owners who say their business is hurt by inappropriate actions by the homeless.

"Civility laws provide tools for officers to use and a feeling of safety for residents who use parks and the library and for businesses to not have urination and defecation in their doorways," Thomas said.

The council's Public Safety Committee, chaired by Councilman Bill Boyce, will consider at upcoming meetings whether new laws are needed to resolve an increasing problem at downtown parks. The committee's next meeting is Feb. 12.

"The problem is worse now than a year ago," Thomas said. "The problem has grown."

Thomas shared a story about 10 or so homeless people who covered the grounds of a park near the library with garbage. Officers and park maintenance staff responded to clean up the park.

Efforts continue by KentHope and other community groups to find a site and funding for a 24-hour shelter in Kent, as recommended by a city task force on the homeless that met last year. That task force also recommended the need to adopt and enforce civility laws to protect the health and safety of all residents. Civility laws apply to anyone in a public space engaging in inappropriate behaviors.

David A. Galazin, assistant city attorney, spoke at the council workshop about the possible adoption of civility laws.

"The idea is that public spaces are to be as inclusive as possible but focus on behavior that prevents the enjoyment of public spaces," Galazin said.

Galazin said the council could add to the code of conduct under city laws and make certain offenses criminal misdemeanors rather than civil infractions. Misdemeanors include higher fines than civil infractions as well as the potential of jail time.

Thomas said civility laws are on the books at the Kent Transit Center, which falls under laws adopted by King County Metro to handle behavior problems on buses and at transit stations. Galazin said the transit property conduct code includes criminal penalties for public disturbances and public urination.

Any new laws would apply to all city parks and public spaces, not just the downtown parks that have become a problem, Galazin said.

"It's a real delegate balance as to not regulate too harshly," he said.

Katherin Johnson, city housing and human services manager, said the task force recommended looking at civility laws because it's become a "quality of life issue with what is happening in Kent."

Councilman Les Thomas said during a discussion about services available to the homeless that he has concerns about the increased number of homeless coming to Kent from other states and cities.

"I see groups around the library and Rotary ball that I talk to and they are not from Kent but are from Alaska, California and Seattle," Thomas said. "I want to focus on the Kent homeless."

Johnson told the council she's unsure of the reasons homeless are coming to Kent from other areas.

"I've been here 18 years and we are seeing a change," Johnson said. "We ask in our office when people come in for help where they are from and the largest number have a Kent address but we've seen an increase in the number from California and Oregon. Some say they come here because they have friends here or they heard there is work here."

Les Thomas said jobs are available but he wonders how many of the homeless are seriously looking for work because of how much money they receive if on unemployment.

"If you are a warm body you can get a job, at least an entry-level job," Thomas said. "The problem I see is our unemployment compensation is one of the highest in the nation. There are $10 to $12 per hour jobs that businesses can't fill. The attitude I hear is why go to work?"

Elsewhere on the homeless front:

• Kent has added a new women's winter shelter for the homeless that opened Jan. 2 downtown at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church. The shelter can serve about 11 women per night and will operate seven nights a week through April. Catholic Community Services operates the shelter with funding from United Way, King County and Kent.

• The severe weather shelter at Kent Lutheran Church that opened during the recent below freezing temperatures handled 18 men on its first night, 29 the second night, 25 the third night and 27 the fourth night. One woman also stayed at the shelter each of the nights.

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