KIRO NEWSRADIO OPINION

Ursula: The Burien homeless crisis highlights an even bigger problem

Mar 12, 2024, 4:00 PM | Updated: 10:45 pm

Photo: The homeless encampment outside city hall is being moved around Burien to another home at Do...

The homeless encampment outside Burien's city hall is being moved around Burien to another home at Dottie Harper Park. (Photo from KIRO 7)

(Photo from KIRO 7)

When it comes to addressing the homelessness crisis, what’s happening in Burien spotlights everything wrong with our region’s approach to the problem.  Lots of talk, frequent finger-pointing, and few real solutions.

For the past year, Burien’s been struggling with what to do with the dozens of homeless people who’ve set up tents on public property. Last week, the City Council approved a stricter ordinance that creates a 500-foot buffer zone around schools, parks, libraries and sidewalks, any hour of the day. Essentially, the ban leaves very few options for the unhoused to go. At the same time, Burien still only has two shelters: Mary’s Place for about 150 family members and a women-only shelter for nine.

As the result of a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, police in Washington cannot arrest or fine a homeless person for public camping if they have nowhere else to go.

Because of the lack of alternatives, King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall ordered her deputies not to enforce a recently passed camping ban in Burien. She and the county also asked a federal judge to weigh in on the constitutionality of the new ordinance.

The sheriff said she doesn’t want her deputies to be held liable if they arrest people, simply for being homeless. On top of that, Burien’s new ordinance also gives the city manager broad discretion to change the no-camping zones, without public comment. Because of that, the sheriff said it would become a moving target for deputies to enforce.

More background on the legislation: Burien facing lawsuit over ordinance banning homeless encampments

The Burien ordinance sounds like another lawsuit waiting to happen

I don’t blame her for asking for clarification from the courts. This sounds like another lawsuit waiting to happen.

Mayor Kevin Schilling dismissed the sheriff’s legal challenge as mere politics. He called this a violation of their contract for public safety services. He told The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that Burien’s law mirrors what’s being done in Bellevue and SeaTac. In actuality, both of those cities are more specific about where and when their public camping bans can be enforced. Cole-Tindall said Burien’s previous ordinance was enforceable. However last week, the city rushed to pass even more restrictions without giving her much notice.

Schilling said it was the CITY that was blindsided by the sheriff’s decision not to enforce the new ban. He blamed King County Executive Dow Constantine and his “appointed sheriff” for having an agenda. He is now talking about possibly cutting ties with the department and creating the city’s own police force.

Schilling said they’ll put a levy on the ballot asking voters to approve a sales tax increase to raise more money for public safety.

Lawmakers are spending more time bickering

Like many other situations involving our homelessness crisis, those in charge are spending more time bickering about what to do instead of working together toward solutions.

More from Usrula: Travis Kelce should apologize for his bad behavior in the Super Bowl

For the record, I understand the frustration of tents on sidewalks and other public property and am in favor of reasonable bans. But Burien shouldn’t have passed this more restrictive law without including the sheriff’s department that would have to enforce it.

It’s also ridiculous the city still doesn’t have a shelter for single adult men or young adults. There’s clearly a desperate need for more beds. As long as more energy is spent on political grandstanding instead of working together on solutions — I don’t see the homelessness crisis getting better any time soon.

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m.- noon on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ursula: The Burien homeless crisis highlights an even bigger problem