Auburn studies criminal penalties for illegal camping on public property

After tramping through a dozen or so of Auburn’s homeless encampments, they begin to blend into one sprawling horror show — a blight of overturned chairs, mounds of tarps, plastic, batteries, hypodermic needles, teddy bears, rocking horses and training bicycles, bags of urine and feces.

After seeing some of the camps for herself, said Auburn City Council member Yolanda Trout-Manuel, she sat in her car and wept.

Not only do they shock the senses, city leaders say, the encampments also leach toxic muck into wetlands and creeks, creating an environmental mess the city is obligated to clean, at a cost that can climb as high as $200,000.

In a work session April 12, the Auburn City Council viewed photos and videos of encampments and listened as staff described a measure that would give police and city staff the power to trespass from pubic properties people caught camping illegally — and to criminalize the practice.

Not to be punitive, city leaders say, but because criminal penalties do what today’s mere civil infractions and monetary fines cannot: offer the homeless access to programs and services that can address the deep-rooted problems that made many of them homeless in the first place.

“This is a service-first approach, meaning that we work with those experiencing homelessness to offer services and arrange for those services,” said Jeff Tate, Director of Community Development for the city of Auburn.

That is, not to enable homelessness by handing out blankets and money, but to link homeless people to services and programs that can lift them out of their situations and help them back on their feet again.

Fines and shelters

The city first took up the issue last summer when the city council considered adding a criminal penalty to its proposed illegal-camping ordinance by allowing Outreach Coordinator Kent Hay and police to trespass people who had been caught repeatedly, stubbornly, defiantly camping on city-owned property — and hit them with a criminal penalty.

Instead, the Auburn City Council made camping on city-owned property an infraction, a civil penalty that hits scofflaws with a monetary fine, which, predictably, most of them cannot pay.

But as Tate stressed, should the council adopt the new measure, the city would only be able to exercise that trespassing authority after confirming that shelter and transportation to a shelter are available on a given night, but the individual refuses to accept the service and declines to leave the city-owned property.

“If they accept the service and want help, there’s no reason to ever talk about the trespassing authority,” Tate said. “I think that will be the scenario about 90 percent of the time. If someone wants to work with us, we’re willing to work with them.”

Tate said the first service focus is to get the homeless into a shelter where people can start working with them, and to find them the right shelter.

“Some folks have kids, some have pets, some are disabled. Not every shelter can serve every person, so we need to find the right shelter for the individual,” Tate said.

While the city has its own shelter, Tate added, it also pays into shelter services outside of Auburn.

Today, the criminal penalty matters even more because of a provision that wasn’t in the proposed ordinance last summer: it creates a non-judicial, administrative appeal process via the new community court, which opens in May in the city’s new resource center.

Senior City Staff Attorney Harry Boesche explained how the diversion court works. Boesche said the status quo imposes an infraction penalty, a civil penalty that does not result in a criminal penalty, only a monetary fine.

From the date the infraction is issued, Boesche said, an alleged offender has 15 days to respond, that is, to pay up or ask for a judicial hearing. If the hearing judge finds that the person did in fact commit the infraction as alleged, the judge will impose the fine, but if the judge finds the person did not commit the infraction, he or she will dismiss the charge.

But as most homeless people are unlikely to be able to pay the fine, it typically goes to collection. And more often than not, Hay said, the same people keep cycling through the system.

Problem with the status quo, Boesche noted, is that it doesn’t hook up the homeless with services they may need to get out of their situations, such as housing, or drug, alcohol and mental health services.

“This is a population that needs help … and they don’t need fines, and they don’t need collections for fines that they can’t pay. They need referral services to help,” Boesche said.

Under the criminal enforcement ordinance, Boesche said, a person comes into the court system same as always, but now the city attorney office will be able to offer them a chance to be screened for eligibility for the community court program.

“This puts the offender in range of the needed services. Our office will assess their need and willingness to follow the program and offer them the chance to enter an agreement that would dismiss their case if they comply with the conditions, and if they do, it’s back to the traditional court system,” Boesche said.

“I will tell you that keeping this ordinance as a civil infraction is certainly possible to do, but I would suggest it’s missing a really good opportunity to use the community court program to its fullest extent,” Boesche said.

“People will not be spending time in prison for trespass citations….ever,” Tate said. “Under the provisions we are proposing it is possible for a person to spend a short period of time in jail for a trespass citation. This will only happen when a person refuses services, and a person chooses not to leave the city property.”

Business community

Auburn Food Bank Director Debbie Christian, who runs the city’s night shelter, noted that under COVID-19 restrictions, the shelter has 38 beds available out of its potential of 60. The important first step is to get the homeless to use the existing programs and services to begin to re-establish the many habits that will enable them to move out of homelessness.

“If they don’t come in, we can’t help them,” Christian said.

Then came a warning from the business community about the cost of doing nothing.

“None of us wants to cut services to our homeless population, we just want them to use them,” said Christian Faltenberger, general manager of the Outlet Collection Seattle. “They are not being used to the fullest they can be, yet we still have a growing issue. With that said,” he added, “there’s a responsibility the city has to its businesses to provide a clean and safe environment for people to do business.”

Faltenberger noted that there are five property owners in the Outlet Collection shopping district, who, in partnership with the Auburn Police Department, have worked to ensure they all use the trespassing option in dealing with the transient population to ensure their properties are not affected as city properties have been.

All well and good, Faltenberger continued, but those who’ve been trespassed merely move over to the trail to the east and continue to panhandle at the avenues leading to the properties

“Given that this is a right-of-way that belongs to the city, we have no means to have them removed from that spot,” said Faltenberger. “The result is that we as property owners can do nothing about the experience our customers have coming to enjoy themselves. At the Outlet Collection, we have more than 9 million customers a year, many of which are your constituents. They’re the ones providing the almost daily complaints about the condition of the area near the entrances and the excessive panhandling that occurs.”

If businesses can’t get their needs met, Faltenberger said, they will choose to operate elsewhere, which, he said, the city cannot afford.

“We want to hold people accountable and get their lives back on track. We want to encourage those who think there is no hope to see that there is, and a cleaner community both figuratively and literally leads to higher community engagement, and that’s all we all want,” Faltenberger said.

Deputy Mayor Claude DaCorsi struggled for a moment to describe the visceral affect of the images he’d just seen.

“Just looking at that video alone, it gives you shivers. It’s just almost unconscionable what you see,” said DaCorsi.

Hypodermic needles collected at a homeless encampment in Auburn. Courtesy photo, City of Auburn.

Hypodermic needles collected at a homeless encampment in Auburn. Courtesy photo, City of Auburn.

Garbage covers the ground at a homeless encampment off of West Valley Highway near 15th Street Northwest. Courtesy Photo, City of Auburn.

Garbage covers the ground at a homeless encampment off of West Valley Highway near 15th Street Northwest. Courtesy Photo, City of Auburn.