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Homeless Residents Sue WA City Over Camping Ban

The Seattle/King County, Wa., Coalition on Homelessness and three homeless Burien. Wa., residents, represented by the Northwest Justice Project, filed a lawsuit against the city of Burien on Wednesday over the city’s “camping” ban, which makes it a misdemeanor to sleep, prepare food, use items like sleeping bags or backpacks, or otherwise “live” in public spaces in the city. The ordinance does say police can’t enforce the law if there is no shelter “available,” but doesn’t explain what “available” means, or how broad a geographic area that term encompasses. Currently, there are no year-round nighttime shelter beds in Burien, so the city has been referring people to shelter out of town, essentially deporting its own homeless population. “By criminalizing the very act of being homeless in the City of Burien, the City of Burien is attempting to banish homeless individuals from the City of Burien,” the lawsuit says, PubliCola reports. According to the lawsuit, Burien’s law violates several provisions of the Washington State constitution, including the prohibition on cruel punishment, the right to due process, the right of homeless people to be “free from disturbance in their private affairs,” and the privileges and immunities clause, which prohibits discrimination.

The ordinance, which bans people from “camping, dwelling, lodging, residing, or living on nonresidential public property” at all hours of the day (with an exception for unspecified “permits”), amounts to “an intent to banish homeless people” from the city, because it deprives them of the ability to protect themselves from the elements or do things necessary to live, like sleep, Northwest Justice Project attorney Scott Crain said. If taken literally, it could prohibit people from having picnics in city parks, because it bans all “cooking equipment use or storage” in public spaces.The ordinance does include a vaguely worded exception for “permitted” encampments in public spaces, but these appear to be theoretical; in months of debate about whether to allow a single 35-unit pallet shelter anywhere in the city, Burien officials have not publicly discussed permitting an encampment on public property. As the lawsuit notes, Burien’s homeless residents remain at constant risk (and must live in fear) of being displaced and losing their personal belongings in sweeps.


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