The Mercer Island City Council is considering an ordinance that would prohibit camping on all public property, and direct homeless people to shelters in other cities.
City officials say the ordinance is aimed at helping those who are living outdoors or in their cars, as well as addressing residents’ concerns about safety. But an organized group of Mercer Island residents and the ACLU of Washington say they’re concerned the proposal criminalizes homelessness on the largely wealthy island, without addressing homelessness’ underlying causes.
Mercer Island City Councilmembers will deliberate and potentially vote Tuesday on the ordinance, which would prohibit camping or storing personal items in all public areas. The city currently prohibits camping in its parks, but not other sites.
Under the proposed ordinance, violations would be a misdemeanor offense, subject to fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. At a January City Council meeting, councilmembers voted 6-1 to move the ordinance forward for adoption, with Councilmember Craig Reynolds the sole “no” voter.
The rate of homelessness on Mercer Island, where the median household income is $147,566 among its 26,000 residents, is less than neighboring cities, though officials and residents say they’ve seen an uptick in recent years as the rate increases across King County.
Police officers interact with about four people on a specific, consistent basis who are staying in parks or other public spaces, Mercer Island Police Sgt. Mike Seifert said at a January meeting. Another six or seven who stay in vehicles on the island are consistently coming into contact with officers, he added.
Seifert said the intent of the ordinance is to work with those experiencing homelessness, rather than penalizing them with fines or jail. There is no record of any previous arrests for unlawful camping, according to the police department.
“We understand that while enforcement will be necessary at times, ideally we seek to find long-term solutions for all Mercer Island residents and their visitors,” he said at the meeting.
The people camping on public property or staying in cars would be directed to Eastside shelters; there is no homeless shelter on Mercer Island. A shelter for women and families, for example, is in Kirkland, about 10 miles away from Mercer Island. A men’s emergency shelter in Bellevue is about five miles away.
If there are no shelter beds available, the city says it can’t enforce the ban, under the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Martin v. Boise, which says such an enforcement violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Boise ruling has inspired lots of discussion in smaller Washington cities where there is little shelter capacity. Many jurisdictions have interpreted the decision to mean that cities cannot penalize people for having nowhere to sleep, so if police offer a shelter bed that is declined, they are allowed to arrest that person. Building on that decision, a decision out of Grants Pass, Oregon, said that fining homeless people for erecting tents or storing belongings is also unconstitutional, unless cities make effort to provide reasonable accommodations.
However, Mercer Island officials’ proposed strategy of referring people to shelter out of city limits is largely untested in court as to whether it complies with those rulings. The city has contributed to a funding collaborative that goes toward Eastside shelters.
The ACLU of Washington hopes the city considers a different approach, said Breanne Schuster, staff attorney.
“It places a ban on camping, and effectively what that does is make it a crime to be unsheltered and homeless in the city of Mercer Island,” she said.
Several other cities prohibit camping on public property. In Bellevue, for example, camping on public property is prohibited “between sunset and sunrise.”
Councilmember Jake Jacobson said at the January meeting that the ordinance addresses “public safety concerns” about people who would be staying on public property for an indefinite period of time, “who certainly are in a position to be a concern to citizens on the island.”
“In the course of listening to constituents, there is fear out there, and this is one way of dissipating that, knowing there are resources out there,” he said.
A group of residents, faith-based and community organizations plan to submit a letter to the council requesting a 90-day delay in voting, according to Robin Li, a co-founder of ONE MI, an organization focused on equity in the city. The sole “no” vote on the City Council, Reynolds, said in a Facebook post that he is inclined to agree with that request.
“I believe we need time to determine if that is the optimal solution that is consistent with our values,” Reynolds wrote Feb. 12. “I am not convinced it is.”
The group hopes to come up with additional ways to address homelessness as an alternative to the ordinance.
“In the midst of a pandemic, we should bring compassion, because these may well be our neighbors,” she said.
The group created a Change.org petition, asking for the delay. Fourteen hours after the petition was created, another group in support of the ordinance created itsow n Change.org petition, asking the City Council to vote Tuesday.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.