The Auburn City Council’s vote last week to make camping on public property a misdemeanor offense has generated heated backlash from people concerned that the city is criminalizing homelessness.
But the ordinance is not a stand-alone measure; rather, it is one component of a unique and personalized approach to connect unsheltered people with resources and ongoing support to achieve long-term housing stability. As the Regional Homelessness Authority CEO begins work on Monday, Marc Dones must make room for such innovative community-driven approaches while holding all cities to high standards. Stakeholders must learn to listen to different perspectives before going on the attack.
The Auburn ordinance applies to people camping on city-owned property who refuse help coming indoors and refuse to leave the property. It is timed to coincide with the May 27 launch of the Auburn resource center and Community Court at 2802 Auburn Way N.
People charged with the offense will be invited to participate in this problem-solving court. They will have help setting goals and addressing the underlying challenges that have kept them out of stable housing, with weekly check-ins for more support and accountability. Rather than immediately meting out penalties and fines, the court will directly connect participants to an on-site resource center, which is available to any city resident, for help signing up for social benefit programs, getting state ID cards, mental-health treatment, housing vouchers, finding employment, getting a GED, or whatever else is standing in the way of housing stability. An overnight shelter and food bank will also be on site.
If participants meet their goals, the judge dismisses the criminal charge.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who has long been a regional leader in the fight to end homelessness, said the ordinance is the enforcement piece of an outreach process that starts with building relationships and extends long after the person is sheltered. The intent is to offer more than shelter and services, but also compassion, accountability and community. It’s modeled on a similar program that’s been operating in Redmond since 2019. The misdemeanor charge is intended as a last resort.
“We want people to get help. We want people to get housed,” Backus said. “We believe that the people out here deserve better.”
Backus, who is a member of the Regional Homelessness Authority Governing Committee, said the city is working with the authority’s lived-experience coalition to develop meaningful performance metrics and will provide quarterly progress reports to the public.
Is this approach right for every community? Perhaps not. But this is the path that Auburn has chosen. And it’s inaccurate to say this effort ignores the complexities of homelessness or passes the buck. The opposite is true.
The RHA must make room for such new approaches while holding communities to high standards of compassion and performance. Dones has already begun laying some important groundwork.
Without naming specific cities, in an April 15 discussion with the RHA Governing Committee, Dones acknowledged several new city ordinances and looks forward to learning more about what communities are trying to accomplish.
“I believe that we can end homelessness in the region,” Dones said. “We will do that inside whatever system voters want, because that’s democracy. Whatever the context is, we will find a way to end homelessness inside of it because that’s the job.”
Such inclusivity will be critical as the RHA tries to bring stakeholders into alignment. The county can’t afford to throw out new ideas simply because they don’t fit old patterns.
This is an important moment in the long struggle to end homelessness in King County. As Backus said: “What works in Auburn isn’t going to work in Seattle and what works in Seattle isn’t going to work in Bellevue.” But that doesn’t mean the cities can’t work together to finally get this done.