The Auburn City Council passed Ordinance 6817 April 19 to make it a criminal trespass to camp on public property, which under Washington law is punishable with jail time and a fine. The ordinance is written to apply only if there is available shelter.
On May 13, the city of Auburn streamed a discussion with seven panelists, in part about the controversial ordinance, allowing community members to ask questions and comment through Facebook Live. The moderator, Grantley Martelly, who is a transportation director and church leader, opened by saying the forum was to discuss actions the city is taking to assist its unhoused population.
The panelists took turns speaking in their capacities as Auburn officials — including Mayor Nancy Backus, Auburn Outreach Program Administrator Kent Hay and Judge Matthew York — or direct service providers, including Auburn Food Bank Executive Director Debbie Christian, to say the ordinance is a good move.
According to the city’s estimates, roughly 350 people are living on Auburn property any given night.
Christian said there are 39 shelter beds in the city’s only overnight shelter and about 16 parking spots for people to live in vehicles. Backus said there is a lack of affordable housing in King County to accommodate housing needs.
Christian oversees many of the city’s shelter programs and helps coordinate sleeping arrangements when the Auburn shelter is full. Christian said hotels are used in domestic violence cases or when a person is released from the hospital and needs extra care.
Backus said she’s hopeful that Auburn will receive funds garnered from a new county sales tax of 0.001% to purchase hotels to be shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. As a “City of Auburn” Facebook account answered some of the public’s questions, it said King County officials will determine the hotel plans.
Backus said the ordinance is supposed to give people an incentive to seek help and services over punitive action. “Many people are taking that out of context and assuming that once it was passed, that our Auburn police officers were going to go out into the encampments and start arresting people,” she said. “That’s simply not what we are going to do ever.”
Hay said the ordinance is a tool he can use to start a conversation about moving people inside. “The difficult part of this is that we left people out here so long that there is a fear of going back into housing,” Hay said. “I’m not trying to ask people to meet me halfway; I’m trying to ask people to just participate whether I’m giving 90% and they’re giving 10.”
York said individuals who violate the ordinance will go to community court. “Not everybody who’s unhoused is involved in criminal activity. In fact, most of them are not,” York said. He believes that changing the court processes so services are connected to the specific needs of unsheltered people is what will help.
Read more of the May 19-25, 2021 issue.