The Auburn City Council voted Monday to create a criminal penalty for camping on city property — one that would only apply to people who are homeless if shelter space is also open. 

Auburn lawmakers considered the same legislation seven months ago, but instead passed a version that came with a civil infraction rather than a criminal penalty. With the new legislation, which was approved 4-3, people who are convicted of criminal trespass because of overnight camping on city property now face a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail. The previous civil penalty was $250.

The reversal comes amid a surge of visible homelessness as the pandemic has forced more people to spend all their time outside and prevented many cities from clearing encampments because of federal public-health guidance.

Auburn officials characterized the legislation as an additional tool for its outreach program to connect people with social services, the criminal penalty only being a worst-case scenario where people refused services and refused to leave the area where they were camping, they said. They said they expected it to be rarely used.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“The last resort is issuing a trespass citation and bringing people into the criminal-justice system,” Auburn Deputy Mayor Claude DaCorsi said.

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Auburn Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel, who shared in Monday’s meeting that her family had once experienced homelessness when she was a child, said that it was “time for us to look and see and hold people accountable for their actions and hold ourselves accountable as well.”

Homeless advocates, however, disagree that such an approach is necessary to help get people the resources they need. The Lived Experience Coalition, a group of current or formerly homeless advocates whose representatives hold leadership roles on King County’s Regional Homelessness Authority, opposed the ordinance. 

They met with Auburn city officials Friday.

Johnathan Hemphill, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition who sits on the governing committee alongside Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, said he doesn’t think a criminal penalty would encourage more people to accept services.  

Hemphill said that what’s interpreted as refusing services is often a reflection of a lack of trust with the person offering the resources, or that those resources aren’t appropriate given the circumstances.  

“That might be construed as them rejecting services when they don’t trust you or the services you’re providing,” Hemphill said. 

Hemphill also worried about what the consequences of the legislation would be across the county.  

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“Please heavily consider the fact that the ordinance you’re proposing may have a domino effect and may cause other cities to propose similar legislation without the lens you have,” Hemphill said he told Auburn officials.  

Mercer Island passed a camping ban aimed at homeless people in February.

Backus told The Seattle Times last week she believed that the legislation, tied to the opening of community court in Auburn, would accomplish “compassionate accountability” for the city’s homeless population. 

In a presentation given last week, Auburn officials said people charged with violating the camping ordinance could have their cases funneled through community court. Unlike a traditional misdemeanor court, community court requires people to connect with social services and often community service in exchange for dismissing the criminal case. 

Housing is not directly provided by the court. 

Some members of the Auburn City Council argued that creating the criminal penalty wouldn’t address the root causes of homelessness that have led to the sprawling tent encampments in wetlands off the highway.

“If we waved a magic wand today and the camps along the Green River and the White River disappear, they’re going to be back because homelessness is growing,” said City Councilmember Chris Stearns.

“It will not go away by threatening people with a night in jail or a weekend in jail or 90 days in jail and a fine,” Stearns said. “That is not going to stop the tents, the people living in cars, the people using our shelters from coming. They will continue to come.”