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A Seattle suburb known for affordability becomes example of U.S. debate on homelessness

Anna Patrick, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

It started with just a handful of tents outside Burien City Hall.

In less than a year, the city of Burien went from fretting about how to get people indoors to enacting a strict camping law that makes it nearly impossible to live unsheltered there. The push and pull between long-term solutions to homelessness and short-term actions to relieve frustration and fear has long been the background of homelessness debates.

Indeed, Burien's story is America's story on homelessness today.

Cities across King County have introduced or tightened laws around public camping — especially after pandemic-era eviction moratoriums and other rental protections went away — hoping to prevent a visible homelessness presence in their downtowns or to reduce it.

In the midst of new regulations that restrict sleeping in public, cities and states are becoming more punitive in other ways as well.

In Kentucky, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would allow people to use force against homeless people who are camping on private property. In Shawnee, Oklahoma, lawmakers passed an ordinance last year to penalize the feeding of homeless people in its downtown.

 

While President Joe Biden has directed large amounts of money toward homelessness aid, Democratic leaders along the West Coast, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, are calling for camping in public. And presidential candidate Donald Trump is saying he wants to take such measures to even greater extremes, proposing to "ban urban camping" and arrest people.

"The nature of the people that we have elected, the time frame of somebody's tenure in politics, necessarily means that it makes no sense for them to invest in long-term solutions," said Sara Rankin, law professor at Seattle University.

The region is paying extra attention to this South King County city: Homeless residents are suing Burien over the path it chose, setting up a historic case that, if successful, could add protections for unhoused residents and even stop Washington cities from applying camping enforcement all together.

'Where do they go next?'

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