Burien facing lawsuit over ordinance banning homeless encampments

Jan 5, 2024, 11:08 AM | Updated: 11:15 am

burien homeless...

A homeless encampment, now removed, in Burien in 2023. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

Burien’s Ordinance 827, which regulates homeless individuals’ ability to camp overnight on public property within the city, is being challenged in court by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness as being “unconstitutional.”

According to the coalition, Ordinance 827 effectively bans homeless individuals from living on any public property at any time. Three unhoused individuals in Burien have joined the lawsuit against Ordinance 827.

“The lawsuit charges the City of Burien with violating the Washington Constitution by adopting a vague and almost incomprehensible ordinance that criminalizes the status of being homeless, inflicts cruel and unusual punishment, and deprives individuals of due process,” the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness wrote in a prepared statement.

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The ordinance has exceptions where homeless individuals can camp at designated areas between the hours of 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. As of this reporting, no such areas have been created within Burien.

“It shouldn’t be a crime to be human and homeless,” Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said. “Burien is better than this. We want to repeal this unjust law that effectively bans homeless individuals from living in Burien. This law is the opposite of helpful.”

Passed late last year on a 4-3 vote, the camping-regulating ordinance was created as a solution for Burien’s ongoing homeless problem. Now a misdemeanor to violate this law, Burien council members argued this would stave off permanent homeless encampments from being established.

One specific encampment, located near city hall on the corner of SW 152nd and 6th Ave SW last summer, has found itself at the heart of the city-wide debate. The encampment was shut down in the first week of June last year, but residents and small business owners feared those living in the recently defunct camp would simply move a few blocks up and set up a new camp. Burien requested help from its county previously but was denied, according to KIRO 7, with the county citing the lack of a plan in place to safely house the people being moved. The county stated Burien is responsible for the unhoused within city limits as there is no obligation from the county to intervene, furthering the city’s council members’ frustrations over the homelessness crisis.

The situation became so turbulent in Burien that five members of the city’s planning commission abruptly resigned in response to the Burien City Council voting to remove City Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer for overstepping when assisting with relocating unhoused people. The five departing members accused the city of using Schaefer as a “scapegoat.”

More on Planning Commission departures from Burien: 5 Burien city leaders resign in protest over homeless crisis

A few months later, on Oct. 2, the Burien City Council adopted Ordinance 827, regulating the ability of unhoused individuals to sleep overnight on public property. Additionally, the City of Burien has since worked with The More We Love, a group ran and operated by Kirkland mortgage broker Kristine Moreland, to help enforce its new ban. According to the B-Town Blog, the group offers “private sweeps” at a price of $515 for each unsheltered person removed from a site.

But working with The More We Love created near-immediate pushback, according to KIRO 7, as it was claimed to be a harmful partnership by a group of Burien residents who gathered last Saturday to speak out against the ordinance. The group demanded that the city council repeals the vote or provides more housing, and specifically stated Burien should cut its ties with The More We Love, citing the organization has “a history of lying to and harming unhoused people.”

In an investigation by Publicola, the Seattle-based news site discovered that Moreland shared a three-page spreadsheet containing private medical and personal information about more than 80 of her unsheltered “clients” with a city council member, two police officials and a real estate investor who paid Moreland’s group to remove an encampment from his property. The spreadsheets included people’s full names, birthdates, contact information, health insurance status, criminal histories and information about their apparent physical and mental health conditions, such as pregnancy, addiction and mental illness. They also include information about what services individuals have accessed and The More We Love’s assessment of their overall situation, according to Publicola.

One of the most recent sweeps Burien conducted came without the organization The More We Love. On Dec. 1 of last year, King County Sheriff’s deputies, who serve as Burien’s contracted police force, informed homeless individuals living at a site on Ambaum Boulevard SW that they could no longer be there, per the city’s new ordinance. With the threat of arrest if they stayed, all those living there dispersed, according to the lawsuit.

More on Burien’s homeless situation: After county rejects extension, Burien must act quickly to get $1M in homeless aid

Among those living in the camp off Ambaum Boulevard were Elizabeth Hale, Alex Hale and Carlo Paz, who are now the three additional plaintiffs in the lawsuit alongside the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

“I just want to be treated like everyone else,” Elizabeth Hale said in a prepared statement. “We want to be treated as people who have a right to live in this town.”

“Burien’s ordinance makes it impossible for an unhoused resident of Burien to protect themselves from the elements, prepare food, or exist outside,” Scott Crain, Statewide Advocacy Counsel at Northwest Justice Project, said. “Criminalizing the very act of being homeless without any viable refuge is cruel punishment.”

According to the lawsuit, King County needs an estimated 18,200 additional units of temporary housing and shelter to respond to the unmet housing needs.

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