The City of Auburn has bought land over the years intending to use and keep it up for specific purposes like parks, sidewalks, water reservoirs, storm ponds, parking lots and buildings.
And not an inch of it — outside of Game Farm Wilderness Park, that is — is meant for overnight camping.
But it’s no secret that homeless people are indeed camping and sheltering overnight on public property throughout the city, which creates problems for the city from waste and garbage removal to environmental degradation, from fire safety and walkway blocking to what Jeff Tate, Auburn’s Director of Community Development, refers to as, “creative provision of electricity.”
On Monday (July 27), Tate brought to the Auburn City Council a draft ordinance and amendments to chapters throughout the administrative code that propose to deal with the illegal camping issue, and at the same time help the homeless.
The idea, Tate said, is not just to stop the illegal camping but also to help the homeless improve their situations by pointing them to shelters and mental health services, to drug and alcohol addiction services, to employment services and more that can help them better their lots in life.
“This ordinance really seeks to balance the use of public property for its intended use, and at the same time ensure the city is providing support for homeless people who may be using public property to camp on,” Tate said. “Fortunately, the city of Auburn is lucky to have many strong relationships and lots of services available that can help the homeless, because living in a tent or in an encampment is not a humane or sustainable approach to addressing homelessness.”
The draft ordinance was written in consultation with the City Attorney’s office, its Public Works Department, Risk Management and the Parks, Arts and Recreation Department to honor and carry out the directives of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin vs. city of Boise, which declared that the city of Boise, Idaho, had violated the U.S. Constitution by kicking homeless people out of public places without providing them a place to go.
“That’s a fundamental piece of the Boise case: we have to offer you shelter,” Tate said. “We can’t just say ‘leave this public property’ and have no solution. We can’t take the approach of criminalizing homelessness. We also have to make sure the shelter service doesn’t charge a fee, and that they don’t have to pay a fee to get to a shelter or mental health service or any other place of service.”
Here is a brief summary of what the ordinance proposes to do:
• Clarify that camping is not allowed in parks, with the one exception: unless it is part of an event over which the director of Auburn Parks, Arts and Recreation has authority.
• Remind people that Auburn’s parks have dawn-to-dusk hours of operation, and that anyone who is found in one outside of those hours, no matter what they are doing, may be trespassed.
• Strengthen existing prohibitions on obstructing businesses during normal business hours.
• Prohibit camping on any city-owned property.
• Clarify at risk of a ticket the existing prohibition on blocking sidewalks.
• Prohibit people from camping on city utilities like a well site or risk being trespassed and ticketed.
Police can only trespass violators by taking them, say, to a shelter, Tate said, and if a shelter isn’t available, the city will try something different.
“(The ordinance) is saying, ‘You can’t camp here, but we’ve got all these other options,’” Tate said.
City council members peppered Tate with questions.
“Do we anticipate issues related to family members, keeping families together?” asked councilmember Larry Brown.
“Whether it’s a family, whether it’s a single female, whether it’s someone who has a pet, there are different needs for different folks experiencing homelessness, so we definitely have a good network of shelters in the region that offer different types of services, and Auburn actually helps fund some of those that are outside Auburn,” Tate said. “That’s been a question in the past from council about funding services outside Auburn. We can’t have eight different types of shelters in Auburn, but we can have one or two, and Kent can have one or two, and Federal Way can have one or two, and if we’re working together, we can help people in the best way possible without forcing them to go a long way away.”
Brown also wanted to know whether there had been a pattern of instances that prompted the suggested changes.
“We feel from a staff perspective that it’s kind of an endless cycle right now, where we have interactions with folks experiencing homelessness, and we go out and talk to them and we say, ‘we understand you’ve got a problem, you haven’t got a home, but you can’t stay here.’ So, we give them a period of time to pack up and move their belongings and then we find them a week later at a different property, and we’re having the same conversation again. And we really think through these ordinance changes, we have a better ability to really say to people …look, you’ve got a couple options. We have services, and we want to help you so let’s get started helping you. But if you refuse those services, you can’t be here…you can’t establish an encampment in our sensitive areas, in our parks and things of that nature.”
Councilmember Chris Stearns questioned whether a fine of $250 was reasonable to expect a homeless person to pay and suggested the draft ordinance could use more work.
“I’m just extremely uncomfortable with anything that at the end of the day makes being homeless a crime,” Stearns said.
Mayor Nancy Backus took exception to any suggestion that the city may be trying to criminalize homelessness.
“That is not the case,” Backus said. “I have worked for the last seven years on homelessness initiatives both in the city of Auburn and regionally, and the last thing I ever would have brought forward to this council is anything that is going to criminalize homelessness. These are people. We are talking about someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle. So that is definitely not what we are trying to do here … The goal is to get services to everyone, and it is more inhumane to allow someone to stay outside in the elements than it is to say you have to have services, or you can’t stay here.”