A Kent City Council committee unanimously approved an ordinance to strengthen a camping ban on public property in an effort to clean up homeless encampments.
The council’s Operations and Public Safety Committee voted 6-0 on Tuesday, Oct. 4 for the revised ordinance presented by city staff. The measure now goes Oct. 18 to the regular council meeting for final approval.
“It’s about public safety,” Council President Bill Boyce said during his report at the Oct. 4 regular council meeting. “We want to make sure our citizens are safe, the people camping are safe and the business community is safe. We also want to make sure we are very compassionate about it, for the people who are out there to help them.”
Boyce said the ordinance will be on the Oct. 18 agenda under other business.
“We will have a little more discussion and then move forward with that,” Boyce said.
City staff proposed the ordinance to try to deal with homeless encampments along the Green River, in city parks and near businesses.
“We need to establish this tool again and make it more effective,” city Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Pat Fitzpatrick told the council.
Fitzpatrick, the former city attorney, said the number of homeless camping complaints to the city has increased since he began serving as interim CAO in the spring prior to his promotion to CAO by Mayor Dana Ralph.
“I can tell you since moving into the mayor’s office it’s the most common complaint,” Fitzpatrick said. “We get phone calls almost daily to adopt a camping ban in areas designated for another public purpose and our inability to provide them for that use.”
Rather than giving at least 48 hours notice under the current city code, the change will allow police to remove the encampment immediately if it’s in specific public areas.
Christina Schuck, deputy city attorney, told the council those areas include portions of parks developed for particular purposes such as trails and picnic shelters; environmental sensitive areas such as wetlands, steep slopes, fish habitat, riverbanks and watershed properties; and city-owned buildings were employees must report and where public business is conducted.
Schuck said the other key change that makes encampments unlawful is destruction of trees, an accumulation of litter and the discharge of pollutants such as human waste into waterways.
Fitzpatrick said shelter will be offered to anyone removed from a encampment. A team of two Kent Police officers, who deal regularly with homeless encampments, work with community organizations to help provide whatever help an individual might need.
“This isn’t the city trying to stamp out a problem, it’s trying to address the problem,” Fitzpatrick said.
He said the proposed ordinance gives the city a tool to develop leverage to get people the help they need whether it’s for a mental health issue or a drug problem or some other need.
“This is a tough parent approach to the problem,” Fitzpatrick said.
Although officers will have the authority to fine or jail a person who refuses to leave an area, Fitzpatrick said that’s not the goal of the program and officers will have discretion about what steps to take.
Several residents spoke about the proposed camping ban on public property ordinance during the council’s public comment period at its regular meeting, after the council voted at the committee meeting to move the measure forward.
“The city council should firmly reject the homeless camping ban,” said Cliff Cawthon, of Kent. “It’s not compassionate or productive, it’s about putting what we don’t like out of sight and out of mind.”
Cawthon said city leaders need to do more to provide housing for people in need.
“Let’s be clear, you cannot reject accessible homeless shelters, tiny villages and ban affordable housing from being made in many parts of our city and then ban homeless camping and ban people from public spaces, you cannot have it both ways,” Cawthon said.
The council voted 7-0 in May to direct city staff to review transitional housing as part of the comprehensive plan with a potential update for the council to consider in 2024. That decision shut down plans by Seattle-based nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute to open a tiny home village this past summer.
“If we want a solution to the homelessness in Kent, then allow a 24-hour shelter to exist in Kent,” Cawthon said. “And in the long term, pursue policies that allow for more affordable housing and opportunities to be able manifest here in Kent because shelter and housing is compassionate and necessary and that’s the solution to homelessness not some kind of cruel, small-minded camping ban to make only some people feel better while hurting others.”
Bev Williams, of Kent, told the council she supported the camping ban on public property. She said she’s tired of seeing all the trash around encampments.
“We want a solution,” Williams said. “Thank you for a taking a big step. You’re in a tough spot because no matter what you do, you take grief.”
Tye Whitfield, of Kent, told the council it needs to work to provide more shelters. She said the city has just three shelters, one for domestic violence victims; one for women and children; and one for single women. She said the three shelters usually don’t have any beds available.
“We cannot say we don’t want to see this and then not do anything to support something to help out our homeless population in Kent,” Whitfield said.