As the city of Seattle wrestles with how to balance the needs of its homeless and housed residents through its encampment cleanup policies, the Poulsbo City Council took a different approach: Take the services or go to jail.
The Poulsbo City Council unanimously approved two measures at its Oct. 19 meeting that make it a crime to camp on public property or loiter with the “intent of engaging in drug related activity.” The measures were intended to address complaints to public officials that people who work near a city-owned parking lot were afraid to go to their cars at night, said Alexis Foster, prosecutor and risk manager with the city of Poulsbo.
They received these reports after camps in other parts of the county were swept. New people began camping in the parking lot, grilling food, drinking beer and making people uncomfortable, Foster said.
“There was an anecdotal uptick in folks that were not just homeless, but were also involved in criminal activity,” Foster said. “We realize that being homeless doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, and that it’s not a crime.”
However, the language in the two ordinances has the effect of making it a crime by prohibiting not just the act of camping, but “camp paraphernalia,” such as sleeping bags, and making it illegal to stand around or wander with “many stops” if you’re a known “drug user, possessor, or seller” or if you’re perceived to be acting as a lookout for a drug transaction.
The anti-camping ordinance makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine, to store personal property including camp facilities and paraphernalia in any public place to which the general public has access, including streets, parks, bridges and viaducts.
The first time the police contact a person caught in violation of the law, they are to issue that person a noncriminal notice for a court appearance. There, they get a copy of the ordinance and a resource list of community providers or housing, mental health and other services. If caught again, they can be charged with a misdemeanor.
The city of Poulsbo is not required to provide those services under the law.
The ordinance states that it cannot be enforced if no alternative accommodation is available, only if there is another place for a person to go and they refuse to accept it.
The Poulsbo city councilmembers praised the legislation as a “tough love” approach, saying that it would help connect people to services and get them into housing by putting them in contact with mental health service providers that are funded through a tax in Kitsap County.
Poulsbo contracts with Kitsap Mental Health Services to provide a court diversion program.
“This will be an attempt at wraparound services provided by the city, law enforcement and professionals to help folks get what they need,” Foster told the councilmembers.
But civil rights attorneys say that the broad language and harsh penalties could lead to selective enforcement and violate the constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness.
Storing items in a public place is defined as putting them aside for use when needed, to put for safekeeping or to place or leave in a location, according to the ordinance.
“On its face, criminal law provides notice as to what activities are against the law and what activities aren’t against the law,” said Ann LoGerfo, directing attorney with the Basic Human Needs Project at Columbia Legal Services. “And if leaving your picnic basket next to you while you push your kid on a swing (is legal), you wouldn’t know that under this ordinance.”
American Civil Liberties Union and Department of Justice weighed in on a 2015 court case between the city of Boise, Idaho, and Janet Bell, a homeless person who had been caught up in an anti-camping law.
The two organizations said that it was a violation of a person’s rights to prevent them from engaging in necessary life activities, such as sleeping in public with protection from the elements, if there wasn’t an alternative.
While the ordinance requires that there be an alternative accommodation available, it also requires that the person take it or violate the law. That’s not okay, said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“The refusal of services caveat is one that I see as being very problematic,” Bauman said. “Unless what is being offered is a service that will directly end someone’s homelessness, like permanent housing, the offer of services itself does not necessarily serve any useful role. And to refuse it may be a rational choice on the part of the homeless person.”
The city plans to work through an organization called Fishline that provides hotel vouchers to give people a place to stay while working with another service provider to get someone into housing, Foster said.
Although alternative accommodation, as defined, could be a hotel room or shelter, it wouldn’t count against a person if the shelter wasn’t appropriate for them because of gender, religious belief, disability or length-of-stay restrictions. “Voluntary actions,” such as a person’s sobriety would not fall under that category.
“We’re not going out and rounding people up,” Foster said. “That was never the plan.”
If connecting people with services is the goal, this ordinance is not the way to go about it, LoGerfo said. Providing more services would be.
Many programs are full, difficult to access or don’t meet the needs of the prospective client in question. Handing them a list of options that aren’t actually open to them won’t solve the problem.
“Right now they can call 2-1-1,” LoGerfo said, referring to the phone number for an information help line.
As has been seen in Seattle, connecting people to services or programs that can actually help them is long, difficult work. When the legislation to modify the sweeps in Seattle was drafted, it reflected that because service providers were part of the conversation.
In Poulsbo, less so.
“We were surprised to see that ordinance,” said Rochelle Doan, chief advancement officer with Kitsap Mental Health Services, the organization that Poulsbo contracts with for its court program and the only provider of behavioral mental health in the county. As far as Doan knows, her organization was not contacted when the legislation was in the works.
“My response would be that there’s insufficient shelter at best, that the shelter I’m most familiar with is located in the Bremerton area,” Doan said. “It’s not so far away if you have a car, but if you’re traveling by bus?”
And the “tough love” approach?
“Well, we’ve always found that people respond best to services when they ask for them,” Doan said.