Jaison Briar has been there. Thirteen years ago, he was a homeless teen living out of his car, getting help from day services, talking with other homeless folks. He’s also helped homeless people, working at youth shelters around Seattle.
So his message to Burien is backed with experience: Homeless people are not a monolith. Some, like himself, came out as LGBTQ to their families and were kicked out. Others are disabled. Many come from the foster care system.
“I’m formerly homeless. I spent over a year on the streets,” Briar, 30, said to a crowded room at Burien City Hall March 20. “If it were not for the work of social workers, I would not be a tax-paying, home-owning citizen of Burien.”
For years, Burien has grappled with a growing and increasingly visible homeless population. In 2014, the city enacted an ordinance that allowed police to bar people from public parks and other public land for behaviors such as using a bathroom to shave or even smelling bad — the latter provision was later repealed.
Now, the seven-member Burien City Council serving a population of nearly 50,000 is considering the possibility of
offering services, a departure from the previous punitive responses to homelessness.
The discussion has erupted in a debate that has pitted the issues of homelessness against concerns about public safety. At the March 20 Burien City Council meeting where Briar spoke, people packed council chambers just across the hall from the Burien branch of the King County Public Library and offered more than two hours of public comment for and against services that have not even been formally proposed yet.
Some residents and housing advocates are calling for services — shelters, day centers, meal programs.
“We know that homelessness does not just happen,” said Megan Gibbard, a recent resident of Burien who has worked on youth homelessness with King County and other organizations for years. She cited a study that showed that a $100 increase in average rents leads to a 37 percent increase in homelessness in suburban communites. “Obviously we in Burien have our work cut out for us. Unfortunately, housing is the only thing that ends homelessness.”
For a few, the problem of homelessness and the problem of public safety are one in the same. Some blame homeless people for the property crime and lack of safety they feel, particularly downtown. They described finding hypodermic needles in their front yards, homeless people sleeping in libraries and various property crimes, such as mail theft. Others say that Burien is too small and its crime problems too large to push resources into this endeavor.
“Drugs, violent crime and petty crime, random encampments, panhandling, squatting, human waste and indecency are spreading across Burien, wrecking our neighborhoods and harming our businesses and are being tolerated by city officials who lack credible solutions and who are giving away to extreme tolerance of this behavior,” said Darla Green, a Burien resident and business owner. “And it’s not acceptable.”
At the moment, the City Council has no concrete plan or formal proposal on the table, but even mentioning the idea of creating a day shelter for homeless folks has sparked a heated debate among residents — housed, homeless and formerly homeless — over how to solve a problem not even their metropolitan neighbor to the north has solved.
Before All Home of King County — the regional coordinating body on homelessness efforts — took over the annual One Night Count of unsheltered people, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness had begun tallying the number of homeless people in southwest King County, which includes Burien. In 2015, volunteers found 209 people sleeping outdoors. In 2016, they found 315.
Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz said she is still learning what the right solution for Burien will be, but would like to see some kind of services to help alleviate the homelessness and poverty in her community.
“I would like to see the city of Burien join the rest of the region in designing and implementing a compassionate and humane solution to homelessness,” Berkowitz said.
Briar supports the idea of a day center, a drop-in location where homeless people can go during the day — possibly an alternative to the public library — that operates at various hours to serve people looking for a place to stay during the day and working families who live in their cars who need a place in the evening.
Interim City Manager Tony Piasecki expects proposals for homelessness and for public safety to come forth in coming months. He hopes to have public safety and crime be focused on behaviors rather than homelessness.
“My sense is the homeless issues are going to end up being addressed in a more positive way. What are the ways we can work with the homeless population more directly,” Piasecki said. “Then we’ll deal with public safety issues.”
Piasecki conceded that the March 20 meeting became heated. Only after more than two hours of testimony did the City Council hear from All Home Director Mark Putnam on the state of homelessness in King County, the existing efforts and suggestions on ways forward. And in the end the City Council members voted to close the meeting before offering their own comments.
Timothy Hunter, who said he was living in his car just around the corner from City Hall, wanted to see more homeless people at the meeting discussing their experiences.
“I’m hearing more complaints than actual solutions,” Hunter said outside of the meeting. “We all understand that there’s a problem, but everyone is quick to point it out than come up with actual solutions.”
Briar would like to see residents think about homeless people differently, because they might be just like him.
"Maybe those people are in this room," he said. "Maybe those people are your neighbors."