The Mercer Island City Council voted Tuesday to approve an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property in the city, a measure that’s aimed at restricting people who are experiencing homelessness from staying outside or in their cars overnight on the island.
The ordinance, which was approved by a 6-1 vote, is aimed at connecting those experiencing homelessness with shelters and other resources, city officials said at Tuesday’s meeting. Critics, however, said they’re concerned the ordinance will lead to homeless people being jailed or hit with hefty fines, preventing them from receiving help they need. Councilmember Craig Reynolds was the sole “no” vote.
Violations will be a misdemeanor offense, subject to fines up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.
Rules like Mercer Island’s new ordinance are controversial in King County, where some cities have recently taken steps to limit the homeless services in their community just as a Regional Homelessness Authority takes shape.
Police officials previously said that officers interact with about a dozen people camping in parks and other public spaces, or staying in their vehicles. There is no homeless shelter on Mercer Island, so officers will direct people to shelters on the Eastside.
The city currently prohibits camping in parks but not other sites. The Police Department said there’s no record of any previous arrests for unlawful camping. Department officials will report back to the City Council in six months with an update on its experience with the ordinance, such as its reasons for contacting the person and whether they voluntarily complied with the officer.
“Experiencing homelessness is not a crime, and I am on the record right now saying that,” Mercer Island Police Department Chief Ed Holmes said at Tuesday’s meeting. ” …(The ordinance) prompts them to no longer stay on the sidewalk or in the park, it prompts them to get connected to resources. We truly do try to connect people and meet them in their hour of need and get them the help they need.”
But if there are no shelter beds available, the city says it can’t enforce the ban, under Martin v. Boise, a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that says such an enforcement violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Shelter officials say there isn’t enough room. Because of COVID-19 space adjustments, shelters have lost hundreds of beds, according to Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, who spoke at the meeting.
A men’s emergency shelter, about five miles from Mercer Island in Bellevue, is full every night, with 100 men sleeping there. On average, five people are turned away each evening from the Congregations for the Homeless shelter, executive director David Bowling told The Seattle Times.
“I am not sure how a community can criminalize homelessness when we have such a massive shortage of safe places to offer people in light of the Boise ruling,” Bowling said Monday in an email.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, about 70 people — nearly all Mercer Island residents — spoke during the three-hour comment period that, as one resident said, reflected a “divided community.” Several supporters cited Seattle’s homelessness crisis, and what they perceived as a need to protect Mercer Island from becoming like Seattle, or from “off-island” influences. Councilmember Lisa Anderl said she didn’t think the council should be “bowing to off-island pressures,” though she didn’t specify what those pressures were.
It is unclear whether the people who are living homeless on the island were residents before they became homeless, but data from Seattle, Portland and other cities indicate that most homeless people were housed in the community they then live outside in.
“I don’t want Mercer Island to become an overflow for Seattle’s problems,” resident Tom Jacobs said during the meeting.