Photo depicting, from left to right, Kevin Schilling, Sofia Aragon, and Jimmy Matta seated at the podium labeled "City of Burien" during a City Council meeting.

Burien Council Bans Sleeping Outside at Night, Still Has No Plan to Address Homelessness

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The Burien City Council voted Monday night to ban unsheltered people from sleeping in public spaces between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., after failing for more than six months to create any shelter or other legal place for a group of several dozen people to sleep.

The vote broke down along the same lines as every previous vote on the encampment, with a four-member majority (Stephanie Mora, Kevin Schilling, Jimmy Matta, and Sofia Aragon) voting to adopt the ban, which is modeled after a similar sleeping ban in Bellevue.

Burien police, who are King County Sheriff’s Office employees, would be in charge of enforcing the ban. A spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine told PubliCola, “The county will be reviewing the legislation with our legal team to understand any potential impact to policies or procedures, and will be discussing next steps soon.” Earlier this year, the County decided not to help the City remove unsheltered people from another City-owned property.

Unlike Bellevue, however, Burien has no year-round shelters that are open to all people, so the sleeping ban puts the city in a dubious legal position. Under a Ninth Circuit federal ruling called Martin v. Boise, cities can’t sweep encampments unless shelter is available. Other cities, including Seattle, have interpreted this ruling broadly, offering shelter that may not be appropriate or viable or proclaiming that a tent or group of tents are “obstructing” public space and removing them without notice or an offer of shelter. A King County Superior Court judge ruled recently that this broad use of Seattle’s police power is unconstitutional, and the case is under appeal.

Councilmember Cydney Moore, who voted against the ban, said prohibiting unsheltered people from sleeping at night won’t “get anybody off the streets” or solve homelessness in Burien. “It’s not compassionate to force people to disperse to even more dangerous areas where their caseworkers can’t find them. And it is so painful to witness our council considering this right as the weather turns particularly nasty, knowing that it will keep getting worse.”

The City has made no apparent progress on finding temporary places for people to live. City Manager Adolfo Bailon said an offer of $1 million and 35 pallet shelters from King County was insufficient to pay for a new shelter location, and that the City would need to find at least another $200,000 to make the offer pencil out.

The County offered the money to Burien earlier this year, along with garage space that would allow a Toyota dealer that is currently leasing a City-owned lot for his overflow inventory to store his cars so the City could use the space for temporary shelter. After the Council majority rejected this offer in July, Councilmembers and Bailon have floated a number of non-viable locations for the shelter, including a contaminated site owned by the Port of Seattle that the Port has said is uninhabitable.

Last month, Bailon raised the possibility of moving the encampment to an empty lot next to a county library, businesses, and public housing in Boulevard Park, a lower-income, largely Latino neighborhood. Last week, Councilmember Hugo Garcia pointed out that the original justification for displacing the encampment was that it was next to a library, homes, and businesses in wealthier, whiter downtown Burien. “This reeks of white supremacy,” Garcia said.

Mora immediately moved to censure Garcia, but her motion failed for lack of a second; she made the same motion last night, and it failed again. In a thread on X (formerly Twitter), Councilmember Sarah Moore, the third member of the anti-sleeping-ban minority, said Garcia was not accusing any of his Council colleagues, specifically, of being a white supremacist, as Mora suggested. “I applaud his courage for naming what he saw and I hope we can collectively engage in challenging conversations like this productively,” Moore wrote.

At last night’s meeting, Moore also proposed having a public discussion about a proposal, which Bailon said last night is moving forward, to pay a group called The More We Love to remove encampments from public spaces. The group, run by a Kirkland mortgage broker named Kristine Moreland, offers “sweeps” at $515 a person and was recently paid to remove the encampment in Burien from a spot next to the Burien Grocery Outlet. Although Moreland claimed to have “housed” a huge number of the people living in the encampment, the encampment has actually moved to another location in the middle of a busy intersection. The City currently contracts with REACH, an established outreach group.

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: Burien City Councilmembers Kevin Schilling, Sofia Aragon, and Jimmy Matta. (Photo courtesy of PubliCola.)

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