On April 19, the Auburn City Council upgraded the penalty for illegal camping on city property, stiffening it from a civil infraction and a monetary fine into a criminal offense with possible jail time.
City staff insist the revision is not intended to stick homeless people with a criminal penalty, but to link them to services that a criminal charge opens up and a civil penalty does not, including mental health treatment or drug and alcohol programs or housing.
These are services that can help address the very problems that made them homeless in the first place and perhaps set them back on their feet again, said Jeff Tate, director of Community Development for the city of Auburn.
“It’s a prohibition on city property unless we are able to offer homeless shelter services and transportation to get to those services, and we could confirm that those services are available and a person then refuses to accept those services and refuses to leave the property,” said Tate.
Councilmembers Bob Baggett, Deputy Mayor Claude DaCorsi, Yolanda Trout-Manuel and James Jeyaraj voted yes, and Chris Stearns, Larry Brown and Robyn Mulenga voted no.
“We have a homeless epidemic,” DaCorsi said. “Its not just in Auburn, it’s nationwide. In some respects, it’s almost worldwide and in all countries. But we need to take care of Auburn.”
Stearns considered it a wrong-headed approach that will cause more harm than good.
“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, and that is definitely not going to make a homeless person’s life any better. It’s only going to worsen it,” Stearns said.
“If there are people who are chronically homeless and they have mental health issues, they need behavioral health services, they need recovery services because they have addictions,” Stearns added.
Exceptions to the prohibition against camping on city-owned public property include campgrounds where it is legal, like Game Farm Wilderness Park, and when there is an event sponsored by Auburn Parks, Arts and Recreation, for instance such as the occasional outdoor activities at Mary Olson Park on Green River Road north of the Auburn Municipal Golf Course.
“We believe it is a passionate approach, a service-first approach to assisting our homeless population,” Tate said. “I hope that it was heard loud and clear (at last week’s council study session) that service first is fundamental to our approach. It is the core of our approach.
“Penalties are not the favored approach. It is all about leading with service and compassion, and trying to help people get the assistance they need. And every individual that’s out there needs a different kind of assistance, so it’s very much a customized approach, person by person,” Tate said.
Penalty as a last resort
Here’s what the council’s revision of the illegal camping ordinance Monday will mean for Outreach Programs Administrator Kent Hay.
Every weekday morning and afternoon, regardless of the weather, Hay slogs into Auburn’s woods and wetlands to engage with homeless men and women he finds illegally camping out there.
Firmly, but kindly, he reminds these men and women — after more than a year on the job, he knows most of them by name — that while they can’t stay on the city-owned land, shelter may be available that night in Auburn’s Ray of Hope shelter or at other shelters.
If Hay finds an opening that fits the person’s needs — and it’s not an automatic, given each person’s peculiar circumstances — and he can make arrangements to get the person to that shelter and the person says yes, there is no penalty.
It’s only when those services are available, but the person declines and refuses to leave the property, that the city hits them with a penalty as a last resort.
Up to this week, the penalty for thumbing one’s nose at this prohibition had been a civil infraction that carried with it only a monetary penalty and no jail time. But because most homeless people don’t have money to pay that fine, they had little incentive to cooperate.
The ordinance first came before city council last fall for a vote, but council on that occasion rejected the criminal penalty.
Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel, who voted down the criminal penalty on that earlier occasion, had a dramatic change of heart after recent visits to five of encampments with Hay and seeing for herself the environmental degradation and hearing about the violence in the encampments.
“This has been long enough,” said Trout-Manuel, who was herself homeless for a time in her childhood. “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.”
“No disrespect to the nonprofits who’ve written me and said they’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Trout-Manuel added. “I applaud you for the good work you have been doing for so long, but it’s time for us to look and see and hold people accountable for their actions and to hold ourselves accountable as well.
“We need to all come together with local, county, state and federal legislators and come up with better solutions for the homeless and for those who have fallen into despair because they are not able to catch up with their rent during the pandemic, and to help Kent Hay with the good work he’s doing.”
A key change in this version of the ordinance is community court, a diversion court that was not in the original ordinance last year, but city officials say will be up and running in May at the city’s new Resource Center.
Here’s how community court works.
From the date an infraction is issued, the 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. Problem with the status quo, Hay said, is that it doesn’t hook up the homeless with services they may need to get out of their situations.
Under the criminal enforcement ordinance, a person comes into the court system same as always, but now the city attorney’s office can offer them a chance to be screened for eligibility for the community court program.
The city prosecutor’s office will assess the person’s 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. But if they don’t comply, they are sent back to the traditional court system.
“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.”
Brown was not persuaded. Yes, he wants to see the homeless reclaim their lives. He just disagrees with the new approach.
“I do think that the relentless effort by good providers like Kent Hay and our social service providers in the community help, and I think we need to work more closely with Kent, and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to get people to move out of the homeless situation that they are in, but that’s done through persuasion, that is done by showing that we care,” Brown said.
Stearns urged the construction of more affordable housing as a major part of any solution to the problem.
DaCorsi, who retired as a Director of Capital Construction for the King County Housing Authority in 2015 and before that was Director of Construction and Development for the Grant County Housing Authority, addressed Stearn’s comments.
“We know housing is an issue for those who are homeless and trying to find places for them to go when they want to go to places to live, but that is not an immediate, easy or simple solution, and it could take more than the rest of my lifetime for more than a dent to be placed in that segment we call affordable housing,” DaCorsi said.
Tate said the city will provide monthly or quarterly reports to let the council and community track the success of the service-first approach.
“We hope it shows that the large volume of folks we interact with are accepting of services and want the services, maybe not the day that we approach them, but the next day that we approach them, so it’s an ongoing conversation,” Tate said.
And, Hay said, there have already been successes. He recounted how earlier that day, he’d met with one young homeless woman with five children for whom he had recently arranged housing after she’d been out in the city’s parks for many years.
“She still stays outside a lot of nights, but also stays inside, so we’re working on that, trying to get her to feel comfortable staying inside again,” Hay said. “She’s been calling because she wants to help connect other people to housing, which is awesome … She wants to do the work I’m doing, and she believes in what we’re doing.”
Hay said when he first talked to the young woman about the camping ordinance, which she hadn’t heard about, she wasn’t on board with it, but as they continued to talk about his consistent communication with her, and making sure that she understood that she’s no longer invisible and that she matters, she finally accepted the services for the sake of her children.
“If people stayed out in the areas where they are invisible, if people believe they don’t matter, people act like they don’t matter. So, just because … you don’t see them doesn’t mean that they’re not there and that they’re not people,” Hay said.