Mercer Island council votes to extend restrictions on camping to all public property
The Mercer Island City Council passed an ordinance to prohibit camping on all public property and direct people experiencing homelessness to shelters in other cities. It expands an existing ban on camping in public parks.
Councilmembers voted 6-1 to adopt the measure Tuesday night, following more than three hours of public testimony. Violating the ordinance will be a misdemeanor offense, subject to fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.
Brigid Stackpool was among the first of nearly 70 people – mostly residents of the island – to testify. She spoke in support of the ordinance, saying it would protect public safety.
“The truth of the matter is that there needs to be consequences for behavior, whether one is experiencing homelessness or not,” she said. “There is, unfortunately, much crime associated with unsanctioned encampments, as you know: property crime and public health/safety violations, vandalism. We could go on and on.”
There was also powerful testimony from at least two Mercer Island residents who have personal experience trying to help family members recover from addiction and get off the streets. Denise Mogil said her younger brother has been addicted to drugs for nearly 30 years.
“He was given the option of accepting help or jail, and thankfully he chose to get help and luckily it's worked so far,” she said. “Homeless camps encourage behaviors and enable people to continue the cycle of abuse due to the lack of regulation and enforcement.”
She also expressed concern about the lack of sanitation in such encampments and the fear that Mercer Island would follow the example of Seattle, Portland or San Francisco with an ordinance that permits public camping and enables nonconformist behaviors, drug abuse and neglect of the mentally ill. She called on the city to use the law to prevent it.
“If we don't pass the stricter ordinance, the homeless will come from other cities and states. Mercer Island does not have the funds or the infrastructure to handle the problems that will develop by enabling the homeless to live in our parks or on our streets,” Mogil said.
Many others echoed this fear, with some pointing out that north Mercer Island is soon to become a major regional transit hub, when Sound Transit’s East link extension comes on line. The ordinance prohibits camping on any public property, including transit stations.
But opponents asked councilmembers to delay a vote for 90 days. They say the policy will criminalize poverty and homelessness.
Patrick Allcorn criticized the overriding tone of the testimony, coming from residents of one of Seattle’s wealthiest suburbs. He pointed out that just this past June, the city council passed a proclamation on diversity, equity and inclusion, pledging that the city of Mercer Island would not inflict emotional, mental or physical harm against individuals because of their socioeconomic status. He said the camping ordinance flies in the face of that.
“The intent here is to use some of the worst behavior and the most extreme and saddest examples of what is seen in the homeless community and applying it to the group as a whole. That is blatant discrimination, and that is stereotyping,” Allcorn said.
Also among the opposition were several young residents of the island. Hannah Heydon said she’s a junior in high school. She pled with councilmembers to take 90 days to come up with more specific solutions to prevent rising homeless numbers rather than passing something that will criminalize homelessness in general.
She called the ordinance "unethical" and reminded councilmembers of the extreme privilege of living on Mercer Island. She also pointed out that there are currently only six individuals that police have identified as homeless and are tracking.
“There are people within our school district who are homeless who still go to our school. And if this ordinance passes, those children will not be able to attend our schools and get the education they are currently receiving,” she said, adding that it’s not clear if those people are outsiders or people who used to have homes on Mercer Island.
“We are a very lucky community, and we should be sharing what we have instead of being selfish,” Heydon said. “This is one of the instances that make me disappointed to live on Mercer Island, especially as I know we're better than this.”
Despite its prosperity – which includes median annual household income of $147,566 – Mercer Island does not have any shelters of its own and, under the new ordinance, will direct people camping in public spaces to shelters in other Eastside communities.
Other cities in the region prohibit camping on public property. In nearby Bellevue, for example, camping on public property is prohibited between sunset and sunrise.
In Bellingham, recent actions against homeless encampments have prompted heated protests. Several community organizations have condemned the city's clearing of a homeless encampment on the lawn of City Hall on Jan. 28.
After public testimony, the Mercer Island councilmembers were briefed a final time on the ordinance by Police Chief Ed Holmes. He assured them that, as in the past with the parks ordinance, this extension would be enforced only if there was a space in a shelter available to offer as an alternative to fines and jail.
Mayor Ed Wong led the deliberations before the final vote, saying the city appreciates all the input and discussion with the public, including hundreds of emails, over the past several weeks. He said the intent of the ordinance is to ensure that public property is used for its intended purpose.
“In my opinion, despite the rhetoric that we have heard, this ordinance is not intended to criminalize those who are experiencing homelessness,” Wong said.
He added that an amendment requiring specific reports and evaluation of the policy after six months (which was recommended by staff and subsequently passed 7-1) would ensure oversight and accountability.
He also recognized the importance of a more regional approach to the homelessness crisis, despite recent cuts the council has made in its contributions to regional partnerships and service providers such as east King County’s ARCH.
“I reject the idea that we don't have a role in this discussion. When this council has a future opportunity to discuss Mercer Island's role in working with other cities, with King County and with the state on how to address this region's homelessness problem, I hope that we all will remember the compassion that has been expressed by so many of our residents during this past few weeks and their collective desire to work towards a regional solution,” he said.
“We have a role to play in trying to address the regional problem of homelessness.”
Councilmember Craig Reynolds offered the sole "no" vote, saying it’s clear that the vast majority of Mercer Islanders want to keep their parks safe and clean and accessible for the enjoyment of all. But he said the ordinance presents a false choice between preserving those values or following the lead of other Eastside cities with a ban on camping to prevent decline into unsightly scenes in public spaces west of them.
“There’s no doubt that this is a serious problem with homelessness in Seattle. No one wants our fate to be their fate," he said. "But Mercer Island’s issues are much less serious. And I think we have the luxury of time to evaluate the situation and possible alternatives and find the optimal solution for the island.”
He added that approving the ordinance wouldn’t look good to people outside the community.
“Our reputation as an uncaring and elitist enclave of selfish people will be cemented. I don’t want that reputation or, even more importantly, that reality,” Reynolds said.
None of the opposing testimony appears to have changed any minds on the council. The final vote was 6-1, the same as in January when the council voted to move the ordinance forward.