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Auburn mayor: Clearing homeless camps ‘about getting people help with services’

Homeless in Seattle. (J. Warne)

On Monday, the Auburn City Council voted to approve an ordinance making it a criminal offense to camp in public parks or on other city properties. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus spoke to KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to explain the decision, and detail the city’s larger, overarching goals for its homeless population.

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Since September 2020, camping in public in Auburn had been a civil infraction, coming with a fine of up to $250. The ordinance approved on Monday reversed that measure, raising the penalty to a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

That said, Mayor Backus says the goal isn’t to punish people for being homeless.

“That’s not what we’re doing,” she said. “We believe in compassionate accountability and sometimes a little bit of a stick helps with that carrot.”

The measure carves out exceptions for the criminal penalty, making it so it only applies to situations where overnight shelter spaces are readily available, and transportation to any shelters outside of Auburn is provided free of cost.

Backus also said she doesn’t expect the ordinance to be always be enforced with jail time or a hefty fine.

“No judge that is ever going to impose those types of sentences on someone,” she noted. “That’s just the way the law is written for that type of a misdemeanor.”

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“It’s more about getting people help with services,” she clarified. “It is not about trying to be punitive with someone — it’s truly about we care about you, you are a member of our community, we understand you have some demons, and let us help in any way that we can.”

With that in mind, the city has leased 23,000 square feet of space in a strip mall for “community court and other nonprofit services,” and is working to identify a location in Auburn for a new non-congregate shelter space. Ultimately, the hope is to connect people living in encampments with services they need.

“We want to get people inside and we want them to be safe,” Backus said. “If we can help encourage them to get there, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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