(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
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.
Although Bailon declined to provide any details about the lease proposal last night, 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 3 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 has ever materialized. The current owner, Dan O’Neill of the O’Neill Design Company, did not respond to a call on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the KCLS 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 (KCRHA) 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 the $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.
Meanwhile, the outdoor sleeping ban will take effect, assuming it passes, on Oct. 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 — 4 of 7 Councilmembers 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%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.
Councilmembers 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.
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
📸 Featured Image: This privately owned lot could eventually be the site of a temporary pallet shelter in Burien, but a ban on sleeping will likely take effect long before any agreement to lease the property. (Photo sourced from a letter to KCRHA from the Burien City Manager, courtesy of PubliCola.)
Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!