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Mercer Island council votes to ban homeless camps in public places

A homeless camp in Ballard. (Photo: Rob Harwood)

Camping is now prohibited on all public property on Mercer Island after a 6-1 vote by the city council on Tuesday. The ordinance bans the city’s homeless individuals from camping in public places.

Councilmember Craig Reynolds was the lone “no” vote.

“Arresting someone does not address homelessness. It does not solve addiction. It does not cure mental health issues,” Reynolds said.

Opponents of the law say it criminalizes homelessness. But Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes testified Tuesday that they’ve had a ban on camping in city parks for 30 years and no one’s ever been arrested. He said the law helps officers connect homeless individuals with resources and services.

“It prompts them to no longer stay on the sidewalks or in the park,” Holmes said.

Rise in homeless camps ‘a matter of fixing the shelter system’

The city will instead direct homeless campers to services in neighboring cities, like Kirkland and Bellevue (the latter of which has its own ban on camping in public). It would also potentially subject violators to a misdemeanor offense, which comes with fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

Supporters of the bill have pointed to Mercer Island’s inability to provide assistance to its unhoused population, as a city that doesn’t currently have any established homeless shelters. On the other side of the debate sits the ACLU of Washington, which claimed that if the measure is passed, it would “make it a crime to be unsheltered and homeless in the city of Mercer Island.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of community organizations had been calling on the council to delay its vote on the ban for 90 days, in hopes of inspiring a more expansive debate about how to best serve Mercer Island’s homeless population.

Ahead of Tuesday’s 5 p.m. session and expected vote, the ordinance appeared to have broad support among Mercer Island councilmembers, indicated by a 6-1 vote in January that moved it forward to a full vote. Councilmember Reynolds was the lone “no” vote at that time as well, instead supporting calls for the 90-day delay.

Amid this debate, there are added concerns about whether the ban would pass legal muster if it’s challenged in court. A September 2019 ruling in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that cities can’t enforce bans on camping in public if they don’t have available shelter space to offer, and it’s unclear whether Mercer Island’s plan to refer campers to shelter space in neighboring cities would fulfill the requirements of that ruling.

Opinion: Seattle homeless camp sweeps are built to fail

Homeless encampments have been at the heart of an escalating debate across Western Washington. A December sweep of a camp in Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park saw 24 people arrested for a range of charges, from misdemeanor trespass to property destruction. Over a month later in Bellingham, four people were arrested during a homeless camp sweep outside of Bellingham City Hall.

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