Auburn strips misdemeanor penalty from overnight camping law

City council passes ordinance with 4-3 vote.

Laying jail time and criminal records on the homeless for camping overnight in parks and public places, Chris Stearns argued at the Sept. 8 Auburn City Council meeting, would no nothing to advance the city’s laudable goal of getting them out of homelessness.

Indeed, said the councilman, in suggesting an amendment to the proposed ordinance against overnight camping in those places, it would only make life tougher for the homeless, with effects that would fall disproportionately on the poor and on military veterans.

No, said Community Development Director Jeff Tate, the case is exactly the opposite — the city doesn’t want to trespass people; it wants to work with them. But they homeless can’t continue to camp overnight on property the city purchased with other public uses in mind than camping, he said.

But when city council members passed ordinance 6781, criminal penalties were out and civil penalties remained.

Voting with Stearns were councilmembers James Jeyaraj, Yolanda-Trout Manuel and Robyn Mulenga, with councilmembers Bob Baggett, Claude DaCorsi and Larry Brown voting no.

The ordinance, as passed, noted that recent court decisions hold that cities cannot trespass people from public property if the city can’t provide them “available overnight shelter” or arrange for it within a reasonable distance, redefined “available overnight shelter” from the previous “shelter within 40 miles of Auburn,” to “services within Pierce or King counties.”

That’s because the city’s residents pay taxes to support those services in both counties, Tate said.

Here is a bit of the discussion that preceded the vote.

According to Tate, the rationale of the city’s human resources department, its administration, its city attorney’s office, and its police, public works and parks, arts, and recreation departments in drafting the ordinance, was to make it so hard on homeless people to cross the law that they’d choose the many life-changing social and treatment services the city offers them in lieu of the penalty.

A criminal trespass, Tate said, would create “a firmer enforcement backstop” than a civil infraction does, carrying consequences that capture the offender’s attention, and opening up helpful dialogue about what the homeless person really needs to break the cycle of homelessness.

It also, he said, would change the city’s approach to homelessness.

“From the enforcement perspective, we push people around,” Tate said. “We find them in one location, we tell them that they shouldn’t be in that location, we tell them the reasons they can’t be in that location … And a week later, two weeks later, a month later, we’re having the same engagement at a different piece of property with the same people. It’s hard to break that cycle.”

Tate added that the need to trespass will be rare — possible, but rare. Trespassing is an action, he said, that the city will take under specific circumstances: when shelter is unavailable; when the person is refusing the order not to camp on public property; and the person is refusing to accept services and refusing to leave.

Stearns disagreed.

“Criminal penalties, criminalization do not address the real causes of homelessness. We know that, predominantly, it’s the lack of affordable housing,” said Stearns. “We know that criminalization only makes the problem of being homeless worse. There’s nothing that putting someone who’s homeless in jail will do to make their situation better. Once you’re in jail, once you’ve been arrested, you have a criminal record. It reduces your chances of finding a job, of renting a home or going to school; it makes them so much harder.

“Criminalization disproportionately impacts racial minorities and military veterans…Criminalization punishes people for what they have to do anyway to survive, which is to sleep, rest and to protect themselves from the elements,” Stearns said.

Trout-Manuel agreed.

“I have to say that I sort of agree with Councilmember Stearns, because it will affect people of color and our veterans that are out there and can least afford to live in a home, to get into a home,” said Trout-Manuel.

Before the vote, Stearns withdrew an additional amendment that would have removed wording from the law’s preamble that required the city to offer shelter before trespassing and moved it into the body of the ordinance, after a city attorney suggested that doing so would only muddle things in court by leaving vague exactly what services the city was offering.