Mercer Island bans camping on public property but may not be able to enforce it

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Mercer Island is a suburb located directly east of Seattle. This week the Island’s City Council voted to make camping on public property a misdemeanor in an attempt to prevent their region from becoming overrun with homeless tent camps the way that downtown Seattle has in the past few years.

The ordinance, which was approved by a 6-1 vote, is aimed at connecting those experiencing homelessness with shelters and other resources, city officials said at Tuesday’s meeting. Critics, however, said they’re concerned the ordinance will lead to homeless people being jailed or hit with hefty fines, preventing them from receiving help they need. Councilmember Craig Reynolds was the sole “no” vote…

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, about 70 people — nearly all Mercer Island residents — spoke during the three-hour comment period that, as one resident said, reflected a “divided community.” Several supporters cited Seattle’s homelessness crisis, and what they perceived as a need to protect Mercer Island from becoming like Seattle, or from “off-island” influences. Councilmember Lisa Anderl said she didn’t think the council should be “bowing to off-island pressures,” though she didn’t specify what those pressures were.

By all accounts, the homeless problem on Mercer Island is fairly small at the moment. Police say they interact with the same dozen or so people on a regular basis:

Police officers interact with about four people on a specific, consistent basis who are staying in parks or other public spaces, Mercer Island Police Sgt. Mike Seifert said at a January meeting. Another six or seven who stay in vehicles on the island are consistently coming into contact with officers, he added.

The goal isn’t to start throwing people in jail but to do something to prevent the situation from getting worse. Camping in parks was already illegal on Mercer Island but no one has been arrested over it. But even if police wanted to arrest someone for camping, they might not be able to do so. A Court of Appeals ruling known as the Boise decision found that prohibiting camping was unconstitutional unless there were available shelter beds:

If there’s no shelter space available, Mercer Island says it can’t enforce the ordinance because of a federal ruling. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2018 that an anti-camping ordinance by Boise, Idaho, was unconstitutional because sometimes homeless residents have no other available options.

Local shelter officials say there already isn’t enough room. Shelters have lost hundreds of beds because of COVID-19 space adjustments, according to Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, who spoke at the meeting.

So at least for the time being, while Shelters have limited space because of the pandemic, there’s probably nothing police can do. Eventually as more space becomes available that could change. And once it does that might help officials get people off the street. As the leader of Seattle’s Human Resources Department said recently, sometimes people won’t make good choices for themselves unless they have no choice:

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Sometimes, even when your own health and safety are at risk, you will not make a decision for yourself, even a healthful decision for yourself, until you absolutely have to. And so there were a lot of instances where, you know, the week of or sometimes even the day of [the removal], that’s when people finally said “OK, yes, I’ll go inside.”

Kings County has recently set up a county-wide effort to deal with homelessness. This comes after the city of Seattle has doubled its spending on homelessness over the past 4-5 years with little to show for it in terms of visible improvement.

Yesterday a site called Westside Seattle reported on a pub owner whose business is facing the new challenge of a tent camp set up across the street: “The arrival of our new neighbors across the street has cast a pall on our prospects for a comeback. Our customers are reticent to pass by the homeless encampment with the associated trash and constant coming and going of people into and out of the tents that have taken over the west sidewalk along Delridge directly across from the Pub,” the owner said. Here was the response from the police department:

Seattle Police Precinct Commander Captain Kevin Grossman said, “The city council has made it very clear that homelessness and related issues, like substance abuse and mental illness, are best addressed through strategies other than law enforcement and by entities other than police. I agree. The police are not designed, trained, no equipped to deal with such huge societal issues. I eagerly await the development of better ways to solve these intractable problems and of ameliorating so much human suffering, but until those new programs are implemented, Seattle’s Human Service Department and its contacted providers are doing everything they can—a job that is complicated by the pandemic.”

In short, take it to the City Council because they’ve made it clear they don’t want us involved in this. This is going to be a disaster for Seattle. No wonder Mercer Island is trying to avoid following in the city’s footsteps.

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