Progressive elected officials and advocates in Burien are fighting to support an encampment of people experiencing homelessness who have faced escalating abuse from their housed neighbors after a March 31 sweep.
Like other cities in King County, Burien has experienced an escalating housing and homelessness crisis with limited capacity to deal with the solution. In 2014, the City Council passed the controversial ordinance 606, banning people from sheltering on public land. The ordinance prohibited disruptive behavior such as “[b]odily hygiene or scent that is unreasonably offensive to others.” The odorous nature of the law made national headlines, and it was repealed the following year. However, the reactionary anti-homeless current that underpinned the legislation has not disappeared from municipal politics.
In recent years, Burien voters have trended toward the left. Voters elected a progressive council majority that created new initiatives such as the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program (AHDP) in late 2019. The city was also a leader in implementing the Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD) program, which diverts people who use drugs or commit other low level offenses away from the criminal legal system and toward services.
However, these changes have not come without controversy. One of the AHDP-approved projects is a permanent supportive housing apartment building for formerly homeless residents by the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center. While the project did get approved, it sparked an uproar among some residents who feared the prospect of new low income residents moving into downtown Burien, leading to the election of a conservative majority on the council in 2021.
In the fall of 2022, visible homelessness once again made a resurgence in the Burien civic consciousness after an unhoused person took shelter outside the city’s municipal building, which also contains the King County Library System’s (KCLS) Burien branch. More unhoused residents moved into what became a makeshift encampment outside the public building. LEAD project manager Aaron Burkhalter, formerly the editor of Real Change, said that, at the camp’s peak, about 30 people were taking shelter outside City Hall.
The hypervisibility of the camp’s location — coupled with its close proximity to public services and mid-rise condominiums — caused some Burien residents to call for its dispersal. In February, amid a spell of freezing weather, one of the camp residents was badly burned and hospitalized by a makeshift fire. This tragic incident accelerated the concerns of city officials that the camp posed significant safety risks. They set a five-week deadline for residents to find other shelter options before the camp would be swept on March 31.
In the weeks leading up to the sweep, it became clear to supportive government workers, housing advocates and service providers that there was a lack of available shelter. Despite this, Burkhalter said that nine shelter residents were able to secure a suitable form of shelter in coordination with outreach workers.
“It’s clear there’s no shelter options for this particular population in Burien,” said business owner and activist Nancy Kick. “We need a shelter and a day center. We need all of those things right now.”
Former city councilmember and current council candidate Krystal Marx added that there were very limited shelter options within Burien, including no drop-in or 24/7 shelter and no options for single men.
Together with the city manager, local business owners and nonprofit organizations, LEAD sent a letter to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority asking for more resources to support residents of the encampment on March 10. However, no solutions were found in time for the sweep.
In the 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision Martin v. Boise, judges ruled that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have available shelter for residents. Because there was a lack of shelter for people living in the camp, the city may not have had the legal authority to conduct the sweep.
To work around the limitations, the city instead opted to threaten trespass charges through its condominium association with the KCLS and nearby condo residents — essentially the legal mechanism that enables the two government agencies to manage the building and surrounding town square. Instead of deploying law enforcement, the condo association hired private security guards to escort people away from the building.
“Because of escalated issues at City Hall/the library, with city employees and library employees feeling more and more concerned, reports from community members and small businesses in downtown Burien that they are feeling unsafe and harassed,” Marx said. “And then a fire that happened in one of the tents during our last cold snap: It was decided by the condo association ... to basically issue a trespass warning for that site, effective March 31.”
In the week before the sweep was set to take place, several community advocates — including Councilmember Cydney Moore and Planning Commission chair Charles Schaefer — visited the camp and talked to residents about the impending sweep. Moore said that most of them had no idea what they were planning to do. The advocates informed the residents about the Martin v. Boise precedent and their rights to shelter on public land if no other suitable shelter is available.
Moore said that she and Schaefer advised the residents that the city did not condone camping on public lands but that it could not wholesale ban people from sheltering there.
“Sweeps do not solve the issue of homelessness; they displace people who are already struggling to find any semblance of safety and security,” Moore said.
The advocates also informed residents that there was another city-owned parcel of land about a block to the west, on the corner of Southwest 152nd Street and Sixth Avenue Southwest. This grassy lot was undeveloped and had become something of a de facto dog park for nearby condo residents.
Moore said that she and Schaefer had been acting in their personal capacities when they did outreach to the camp residents.
When the day of the sweep rolled around, most of the residents relocated a block over to the empty site.
Moore said that many of the camp residents were aware of the negative animus from their downtown neighbors yet decided to stay downtown because of the lack of shelter options.
“They expressed that they felt unwelcome and sadness that basically people act like they hate them,” she said. “And we told them that the level of hostility would likely increase if they stayed in the downtown core where people were so — I guess — excited to think they were being forced to leave, and they understood that. And they decided that, with no other option on the table, with very few places that are identified as public space ... they decided that the lot on 152nd and Sixth Avenue was their best and only viable option, so they chose to relocate to that space.”
The City Hall sweep resulted in an almost immediate uproar on social media among condo dwellers and others who were upset that, after waiting weeks for camp to be dispersed, it simply reappeared one street to the west. Worse yet, the camp residents did not have easy access to sanitation facilities at the new site, and dog owners could no longer use the lot for themselves.
On the following Monday at a packed April 3 City Council meeting, constituents expressed anger and frustration at the perceived failures of city officials in handling the encampment. Some, including Councilmember Stephanie Mora, discussed removing Schaefer from the planning commission. Mora also proposed a discussion around reviving the infamous ordinance 606. In an email to Real Change, she wrote, “I thought 606 was a good starting point to get the conversations started and [see] what parts the rest of the council liked or didn’t like if any.”
The episode mobilized the same strand of politics that motivated the original ordinance and backlash to the DESC development. Progressive women such as Moore and Marx were seen as prime scapegoats for enabling the encampment.
At a special meeting on April 10, the Burien City Council voted to designate the empty lot a park, potentially making it easier for city officials to disperse the camp. The council also voted down repeated motions by Moore to install a portable toilet on the site.
“Even just attending Monday’s council meeting and listening to the dehumanization [by] that many people in our community, the way people speak about the human beings who live here, it breaks my heart,” Kick said.
Marx said that incidents of hate have increased since the sweep.
“There’s a lot of people riling up; there’s people posting videos in ‘Take Back Burien,’ which is a Facebook group about Burien’s general issues,” Marx said. “People are posting videos and driving through the camp — there’s a driveway on one side of it — and videoing it and swearing at people. It’s starting to escalate a little bit where people aren’t feeling safe being there, but there’s nowhere for us to suggest that they go.”
Moore hopes that other councilmembers will join her in creating constructive solutions to address the homelessness crisis, which she said the city has a responsibility to address.
“These campers, many of them have lived here for years,” Moore said. “They are static Burien residents, and it is our duty to maintain the safety for all of our residents, housed and unhoused.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the April 12-18, 2023 issue.