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Auburn leaders hope criminalizing camping will put emphasis on finding resources

The Auburn City Council voted Monday to criminalize camping on public property, a change with consequences that will largely fall on people experiencing homelessness.

Those cited under the new law face a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The measure departs from an ordinance passed in September 2020 that made the offense a civil infraction that could come with a fine of $250. In a report, city staff wrote that six months of experience and the impending launch of the Auburn Community Court made this the right time to revisit the city’s approach.

There are exceptions built into the ordinance for people experiencing homelessness. They can’t be cited under the new law if there are no shelter spaces available in the city of Auburn, King County or Pierce County. If shelter is available outside of Auburn, transportation to that shelter must be provided, free of charge.

The idea is that people who accept offers of shelter can be connected to “a broader array of needed services such as mental health and addiction support, access to social security benefits, housing and employment,” according to the staff report. 

City officials believe that criminal penalties would be rare, said Jeff Tate, Auburn’s director of community development, stressing that Auburn favored a “service-first approach” over criminal charges. 

“There is no penalty if the individual chooses to leave the property. The penalty is triggered when someone chooses not to leave the property and those services are available,” Tate said. Nobody will be charged under the law in at least the first 30 days after it takes effect.

Councilmembers opposed to the ordinance said that the change to a criminal penalty will make homeless people’s lives harder, potentially funneling them into the criminal legal system without providing a real solution -- housing.

“At the end of the day, the idea of putting a criminal threat over someone’s head is not going to address the cause of homelessness. That is definitely not going to make the homeless person’s life any better. It’s only going to worsen it,” said City Councilmember Chris Stearns.

Outreach Program Administrator Kent Hay pushed back, emphasizing the need to engage with and support people who have survived outside for a long time and need more than housing. They also need help to overcome all of the barriers and jump through all of the hoops to get in and stay in new accommodations, he said.

“If you continue to leave people and think that people are going to be somehow able to figure this out -- right, like one day people are going to wake up and say, ‘I need to make all these calls, I need to start working here and do this to get out of this situation’ -- they won’t do that. They’ll stay out here,” Hay said.

The ordinance and its predecessor have been in the works in one form or another since summer 2020. They were intended to respond to a growing number of encampments that officials say are dangerous to the environment and the people living in them. In the past six months, staff encountered 43 encampments in Auburn, some impacting sensitive environmental areas because of an accumulation of trash and waste, according to the report.

Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel, who voted against the September ordinance that included the civil penalty, told her colleagues that she had been conflicted about the new proposal until she visited some of the encampments herself and heard stories from Hay about people he worked with who were living outside.

“I had to come back and search my heart to do the right thing tonight and look at the oath I took when I was elected back in 2013,” she said. “This has been long enough. It’s getting worse every year for us to keep putting a Band-Aid on the problem. Well, the Band-Aid has come off, and it’s time for us to do something.”

The city is leaning hard on the incoming Auburn Community Court, a relatively low-barrier court option built on the same model as courts in Redmond and Burien, among other places. Community courts operate out of places like libraries and community centers, free of the metal detectors and heavy security found in most courthouses. They’re meant to adjudicate low-level, quality-of-life crimes and divert people away from the traditional criminal legal system and incarceration.

They also come with a community resource center where nonprofits and agencies can set up tables so that people who come out of a court appointment can go directly to a one-stop-shop resource fair and sign up for services. But, Therapeutic Courts Manager Callista Welbaum told The Seattle Times, the court can’t provide housing.

This is the first time that a city has created a penalty with the court expressly in mind, Welbaum confirmed through a spokesperson.

The move to criminalize camping comes as the Regional Homelessness Authority, of which Auburn is a part, is still forming. The new CEO, Marc Dones, doesn’t start officially until April 26, and it will take time for the agency to hire staff and begin crafting the long-awaited “regional solution to homelessness.”

That regional approach got off to a rocky start when King County passed a sales tax to pay for distressed properties that could be converted into shelter for homeless people. Several cities opted out, passing their own taxes instead.