Last September, the Auburn City Council decided to remove the criminal penalty from a law banning camping on public property. 

Seven months later, the council is set to vote on reinstating it. 

Amid a surge of people living in tents and in the open in King County during the pandemic, the Auburn City Council will vote Monday on whether to make camping on public property punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail. These new teeth would replace a maximum civil fine of $250 for the same offense. 

The ordinance would apply to homeless people only if overnight shelters have space available and there is free transportation to them, in the case of shelters outside the city of Auburn.

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 dynamics in this Seattle-area suburb of 82,000 people are familiar to communities up and down the West Coast that have seen the number of people living outside explode in recent years. With not enough low-income or supportive housing available to those who need it, local officials are grappling with symptoms of the homelessness crisis that show up in their communities, including the trash pileup, visible drug use and violence that can take place in unsanctioned encampments. 

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The issues are no different in Auburn, where officials say homeless encampments are impacting environmentally sensitive wetlands that feed into the Green or White rivers upstream of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.  

But on the cusp of a fully realized Regional Homelessness Authority, on which Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus serves as a member of the governing committee, the proposal has drawn criticism from some King County advocates who say that creating a criminal penalty for camping doesn’t treat the root issue and, in fact, makes the underlying problem worse. 

“In reality, this piece of legislation is literally making criminal the condition of being too poor to have a home,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which counts more than a dozen organizations working in Auburn as members.

“Over and over again,” Eisinger said, “the question that these kinds of proposals fail to answer is: Where else can people be?”

Backus says that, despite turning a civil fine into the possibility of three months in jail, the criminal penalty is there as a tool to help the city’s outreach program connect people to services. 

“We have a compassionate continuum of care that we are providing in Auburn,” Backus said. “It’s not this horrible narrative that some are choosing to use about criminalizing homelessness. That is the last thing we want to do.” 

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The issue of people who struggle to stay in housing because of physical disabilities, mental health issues or substance use disorder, commonly called “chronic homelessness,” is particularly difficult to address, Backus said.  Chronic homelessness increased an estimated 15% nationwide between 2019 and 2020.

It isn’t just a problem in Washington’s biggest cities. In the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Washington’s rural areas had the highest estimated number of chronically homeless people out of any other state’s rural communities.

A spokesperson for Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, who sits on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing committee alongside Backus, said the mayor “thinks criminalizing poverty is wrong.”

Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González, who also sits on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing committee and is currently running for Seattle mayor, said the Auburn ordinance raised concerns about King County cities’ commitment to evidence-based homelessness solutions.

“I think the fact that we are seeing chronic, visible homelessness increase is exactly why we continue to need a regional approach to this issue,” González said. Other cities taking similar approaches to Auburn, she added, could “create the unintended consequences of funneling people experiencing homelessness into the city of Seattle.”

King County’s ongoing homelessness crisis, the third largest in the country, is a problem with which Backus is familiar. She has spearheaded efforts to launch a regional homelessness strategy alongside King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and sat on the coordinating board for All Home King County, the county’s former homelessness agency, for six years.  

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Backus also said she supports efforts to increase the county’s supply of housing combined with social services for chronically homeless people. Auburn funds a day center and a 33-bed overnight shelter, and has leased 23,000 square feet in a strip mall for a social service resource center. 

“We want people to get help,” Backus said. “And if you have been identified as chronically homeless, chances are you are not wanting to go inside as quickly as we think you should.” 

Kirk McClain, a case manager and member of the King County Regional Homelessness authority’s governing committee who has been homelessness, agreed that, yes, sometimes people do need a push.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be housed — and there are often underlying issues that cannot be easily resolved with the resources they are currently offered.

“I would say that this program could work if the resources are there to help people who are not difficult to get housed. But for those who have more challenges, I believe it could hurt more than help,” McClain said.

Under the new proposal, police officers and city officials could order people in violation of the camping ordinance out of an area or issue a written admonishment. Violators could appeal the admonishment in writing, but if they refuse to leave — or come back — they could be charged with criminal trespass.

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Auburn city officials contend that, in practice, the criminal penalty would be enforced only in a minority of cases after a person refuses to leave and refuses shelter or services from the city’s outreach program administrator Kent Hay, a former probation officer and counselor who also served as Redmond’s outreach administrator. 

In an Auburn city council meeting Monday, Hay described his efforts to work with people in a large encampment sprawled alongside Highway 167.  

“Some people, there has to be a tool, because you can compassion people all you want to, you can compassion people to death, I’ll promise you that,” Hay said. “Without accountability, you don’t have a real relationship with people.” 

The next step after someone is charged, officials say, would be to have that person’s case referred to Auburn’s community court program, which launches May 27. There, the court would work with the defendant to connect with social services based on that person’s needs. Upon successful completion of the program, which includes community service and weekly court appointments, the case would be dismissed. 

Housing is not one of the resources offered directly by the court. 

“I wish we could,” said Callista Welbaum, therapeutic courts manager for King County District Court, which is collaborating with Auburn on its new community court. “We partner with different agencies that do rapid-rehousing or do housing assessments, but like everywhere else in the county, we just don’t have the resources to do that.” 

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Redmond’s community court, a similar program for low-level nonviolent offenses, launched in April of 2018. Of 204 participants through the end of 2020, some of whom are still in the program, 128 have completed the requirements and had their cases dismissed. An additional 18 cases were revoked — meaning participants didn’t comply with program requirements and had their cases kicked back to the traditional legal system. 

Yet there is “no evidence that community court reduces homelessness,” said King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal. 

“Pushing individuals into Auburn’s new community court will only reinforce an expensive criminal legal system, an infrastructure that includes lawyers, judges, court personnel, security and more,” Khandelwal said in an emailed statement. “That money would be better spent on securing more of the community resources that address the needs of those living without housing, such as housing, medical care and mental health services.” 

Washington legal system models put the cost of arrest, jail and courts for misdemeanors at about $18,000 per person.

Yet Backus says her city expects “compassionate accountability” from community members.

“If you want evidence-based outcomes, how do you get those without trying something different?” Backus said. “If the evidence proves wrong, we’re always going to be willing to try and make changes. But I would challenge that I don’t see anything working right now in some of the communities who are not using a full continuum of care.”