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People experiencing homelessness in Burien sue city over camping ban

caption: Tents are set up outside of the Oasis Home Church on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Burien, Washington.
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Tents are set up outside of the Oasis Home Church on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Burien, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Three people experiencing homelessness in the city of Burien are suing the city for its ordinance that prohibits public camping. The complaint alleges Burien is criminalizing homelessness and infringing on peoples’ right to due process.

In September, the Burien City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting people from sleeping or resting on public property overnight. Anyone caught can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Now the Northwest Justice Project says the ban is unconstitutional and criminalizes homelessness.

In a complaint filed this week, the law firm alleges Burien is infringing on due process rights by granting police open discretion to arrest homeless people without clear guidelines or a permitting process.

“We're not filing the lawsuit because Burien is a bad city, we're doing the lawsuit because this is a bad law,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director at Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, in an interview with KUOW.

She said the ordinance, which narrowly passed the council by a 4-3 vote, is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“We don't want the city to spend its resources enforcing an unjust and cruel law and frankly we don't want cities to have to spend resources to fight against lawsuits,” Eisinger said.

Burien currently has very few shelter options available for homeless people. Late last year the City Council approved a last-minute plan to pilot a tiny hut village with funding from King County, but it’s unclear when the space will open.

The village is expected to have room for about 70 people, which isn’t enough space for every person experiencing homelessness in Burien, Eisinger said.

Even if the village was going to be big enough for everyone, she said the city should still not pass overnight sleeping bans.

“We don't really advocate living in a world where people are told, ‘You either go to shelter or you go to jail,’” she said.

Supporters of the camping ban in Burien say the law was necessary to stop a tent encampment that had grown near downtown last year. Some council members cited safety concerns from business owners who complained about tents in front of their doorways.

In November, a Burien church opened up its parking lot for people to set up their tents temporarily. That tent site is where the three plaintiffs are currently living, Eisinger said.

“I spoke with them and saw them last night. It's pretty cold outside; it's wet,” she said. “They’re among many people who have had the experience of being displaced, forced to move as best they can with whatever they're able to carry.”

Burien’s city attorney has not yet replied to KUOW’s requests for comment.

Scott Crain from Northwest Justice Project also said he has not yet heard from the city.

Burien has about 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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