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Auburn the latest Puget Sound city to tighten rules for homeless camping

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

The start of 2021 has seen many cities across the Puget Sound region take action to reduce the presence of homeless encampments. Auburn is now the latest to join that effort, with its city council passing a new ordinance Monday that makes it a criminal offense to camp in public parks or on other city properties.

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In September 2020, the Auburn City Council had voted to reduce the penalty for camping in public from a criminal offense to a civil infraction, with a fine of up to $250. The ordinance that passed reverses that measure, raising the penalty to a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

It also carves out exceptions, making it so the criminal penalties only apply to situations where overnight shelter space is already available, and if transportation to any shelters outside of Auburn is provided free of cost.

The council cites a handful of reasons for the proposal, after identifying 43 different homeless encampments on Auburn city-owned property over the last six months. Of those, 29 either have been or currently still are “located within wetlands or within riparian habitat areas adjacent to the Green River, White River or Mill Creek, all of which provide important habitat to salmon.”

The larger concern surrounds the presence of waste products, like hypodermic needles, plastic, batteries, shopping carts, and more in these wetland and river areas.

The city also estimates that cleanup efforts stemming from these encampments has ranged between $10,000 and $50,000 per site, totaling as much $2.25 million, and making for a price tag the city worries could become a yearly expense.

“The City does not have the budget to cover these costs on an annual basis, and believes that its historic approach of investing public money in shelter services rather than environmental cleanup is a better and more effective use of public funds,” the ordinance reads.

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

Other cities in the region have applied similar restrictions in recent months as well. In March, Everett City Council approved a “no-sit, no-lie” camping ban spanning a 10-block radius, targeting a part of the city where tents and tarps had frequently amassed.

Mercer Island City Council acted more broadly, voting in February to ban camping on all public property within city limits.

Critics of measures like these have argued that they essentially criminalize homelessness, without offering suitable alternative options.

Auburn City Council voted on its own ordinance during its 7 p.m. Monday council session. In Tacoma on Tuesday, a similar proposal will go to a vote.

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