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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

In May 2023, King County entered the conversation with a possible solution.

It offered Burien officials $1 million — more than double the amount of grant funding Burien has to pay all of its direct-service providers yearly, according to Brandt-Schluter — to create more shelter out of 35 donated shedlike living spaces as complaints kept coming.

Dr. Randy Olson, owner of Town Square Dentistry, located next to the dog-park encampment, told the City Council in mid-May that some of his patients "are fearful of walking past the campers," and if this encampment forces his office to move, "this could show that the rights of the homeless are superseding the health rights of the Burien citizens."

These complaints led to more discussions at City Hall about what legal actions a city could take to force encampments to disperse.

A landmark federal case, Martin v. Boise, restricts West Coast cities' ability to arrest or fine homeless people for living in public if they have nowhere else to go.

Major West Coast cities have become frustrated with Martin v. Boise's guardrails, so they lobbied for the Supreme Court to take up the issue. The court responded in January, agreeing to hear Johnson v. Grants Pass, a related case that explores homelessness protections.

To receive King County's $1 million offer, Burien had to select a piece of land within its city limits to site the project.

But leaders couldn't agree on where or whether they even wanted to say "yes." They wanted another jurisdiction to bear the burden, another agency to provide the land.

"It's a shame that King County isn't offering more," then-Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling said in a council meeting in September. He's now the mayor.

Others argued for swift action.

"I can't even tell you how many times I have thought about how wonderful that would be to have somebody drop a million dollars in front of you to help the homeless, and we have that right now," then-Councilmember Cydney Moore said in a July council meeting.

Some council members questioned why the King County Regional Homelessness Authority wasn't stepping up to help.

The agency was designed to oversee King County's financial and strategic response to the crisis. If acting as imagined, the authority would help determine how much shelter should be available and dispersed throughout the region.

But more than two years into its life, no South King County cities pay into the agency or contract with it. In fact, only five North King County cities have joined Seattle and King County to hand over homeless services contracts and funding, said Anne Martens, agency spokesperson. This limits the authority's ability to intervene in situations like Burien's.

"We don't have the resources if they're not given to us," said Anne Burkland, former chief of staff for the agency.

That hasn't stopped suburban officials from frustration.

"The thing that we were all expecting (the authority) to do, it's not doing," Schilling said.

By the end of May, around 40 tents populated the doggy bathroom lot, some so close together it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.

Burien's City Council agreed to lease the lot to a local nonprofit that runs an animal shelter. The organization immediately forced the encampment to clear out.

Temperatures rise

Elizabeth and Alex Hale said they lived in an apartment in Burien for about seven years. After Alex lost his job, they paid their rent with savings until the money ran out, Elizabeth said.

Historically, South King County is where people go to buy reasonably priced homes or to rent as Seattle prices rise. But "affordable" is a relative term as the entire region continues to see the cost of living skyrocket.

In early 2014, the average stabilized rent in Burien was $971 per month. By the end of 2023, it was $1,650, according to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research's Rental Housing Market data, which includes affordable and market-rate rental costs.

The region's homeless population has grown in parallel. King County's is one of the largest in the country, with more than 50,000 people estimated to have experienced homelessness at some point in 2022, according to Washington Department of Commerce data.

When the Hales first moved into a tent last year, they tried a few public places in Burien before eventually settling on a grassy median where Ambaum Boulevard Southwest splits into 12th Avenue Southwest in North Burien, yards away from speeding cars.


Anger followed them.

Living on the Ambaum median, Elizabeth Hale said she could feel it. A mortar was thrown by a passerby and exploded at her feet inside her tent, she said.

"The neighborhood, the neighbors really, really got a lot of hatred for us," Elizabeth said. "Like we were some kind of scum or something."

In the early stages of Burien's dilemma, City Councilmember Stephanie Mora proposed a homeless camping ordinance that would create more "no-camping" zones.

As the city played whack-a-mole with encampments, more and more constituents and council members started to demand Mora's approach.

"I can't help but feel angry that nothing has been done," Burien resident Todd Baldwin told council in September. He lives near the Ambaum encampment and reported several issues, including an attempted break-in on his home, hearing multiple gunshots and seeing what he believes was sex trafficking of a minor.

In September, Burien passed a camping ordinance making it a criminal misdemeanor to live or sleep on public property overnight.

The Hales are now suing the city of Burien over this new law, alongside one other homeless person and an advocacy organization, claiming the ordinance "banishes" homeless people and inflicts "cruel punishment" that violates the Washington Constitution.

On Nov. 27, with just hours to go before King County's $1 million offer ran out, Burien's City Council agreed on a piece of property. The council selected property it doesn't own, so several steps remain before a contract can be signed, according to the city of Seattle.

On Dec. 1, Burien cleared the median encampment using its new anti-camping law. The city brought in a front-end loader to smooth out the land and pick up items from the ground.

Full circle

This time, the Hales had somewhere to go to.

In November, then-Councilmember Moore helped open an encampment at the Oasis Home Church to offer people somewhere safe to go and to counter the lack of action from the council.

"Burien has shuffled people from place to place and swept them without giving them any options for shelter or a location where they could land," Moore said Monday, standing at the entrance to the gated camp.

Volunteers placed tents in orderly rows in a parking lot behind the church. They erected fencing and canopies. Volunteers added outdoor heaters and supplied Cup Noodles.

Sixty-five people lived there at its peak, after passing a background check and agreeing to no drug or alcohol use on property.

"It's like home. You can actually relax," Elizabeth said in December. "I feel safe here, really safe."

That month, 40 of the encampment's current and former residents said they last lived in Burien.

The respite was short-lived.

On Monday, the encampment's three-month lease ran out at Oasis Home Church. Volunteers sent out messages, pleading with the community to help them find another piece of property.

But nothing materialized.

So, Alex and Elizabeth Hale headed back to downtown.

They set up tents on the sidewalk opposite Burien's City Hall, yards away from where it all began.

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