Is arresting homeless who refuse services the right move?

Oct 31, 2016, 9:49 AM

homeless, arrests...

An ordinance approved in Poulsbo allows police to arrest homeless people if they refuse services. (AP)


A small city across Puget Sound is taking an approach opposite of Seattle’s to combat homeless camping.

The Poulsbo City Council recently passed an ordinance that essentially states people can’t camp on public property. If people are found camping, asked to move, and refuse services offered by the city, those people can be arrested.

“We passed an ordinance that said people can’t camp on our streets,” Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson told Seattle’s Morning News. “We didn’t ever say that homelessness was illegal in Poulsbo.”

Erickson says the ordinance passed after an influx of homeless people reportedly began camping in the city, including at the Liberty Bay waterfront, which Erickson calls the “jewel” of Poulsbo. Erickson believes more homeless individuals began showing up after encampments around the county were cleared out.

Related: Lines drawn on Seattle homeless camping issue

“That was what precipitated an influx of people at one time,” she said. “Some were being aggressive toward citizens and children. The residents and visitors were concerned about going into their own parks.”

This should all sound familiar to people in Seattle. The city has struggled to find a permanent solution to the homeless crisis. Illegal homeless camps are being cleared, but they just pop up elsewhere.

The Seattle City Council and its committees are currently considering an ordinance proposed by advocate groups that would make it legal for people to camp in some public spaces and force the city to provide advance notice before they are cleared out. Opponents argue it could make the homeless problem even worse. Supporters believe the city should focus more on affordable housing and providing shelter than clearing out camps.

Under Poulsbo’s approach, anyone camping on public property will be offered services. That’s not unlike Seattle, where police and other city and nonprofit workers who encounter homeless people on a daily basis offer help to those in need — even when those offers are constantly rejected. The big difference is Poulsbo’s willingness to make arrests if services are rejected.

Poulsbo’s homeless problem is relatively minor compared to Seattle’s, however. Erickson said they had 25-30 people camping in their waterfront park. There are hundreds of people camping in the Seattle area on any given day.

Though arresting those who refuse services in Poulsbo may be more feasible than in Seattle, Mayor Erickson says she hopes it never comes to that.

“That’s what the ordinance says. Do we want to do that? No,” she said. “On the other hand, we can’t have people harassing other people in our parks and the residents of our community being fearful in their own public places. That doesn’t work in Poulsbo.”

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
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Is arresting homeless who refuse services the right move?