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Seattle suburb dealing with big-city issues as homelessness increases

Burien, Washington, a suburb just south of Seattle with a population of 50,000, is in the middle of a homelessness crisis.
Seattle suburb dealing with big-city issues as homelessness increases
Posted at 1:55 PM, Feb 14, 2024

Robyn Desimone is getting Valentine's Day arrangements ready for the big day coming up at her Burien, Washington, flower shop on Main Street, but she says her city's homelessness crisis is keeping customers away.

"People don't walk along the street and just come shopping anymore. Right now, this place should be busy. It's two days before Valentine's Day. There should be a line," she said. 

Burien is a suburb just south of Seattle, with a population of 50,000. It's right now in the middle of a homelessness crisis that many places like it across the country are finding themselves in, where solutions that make everyone happy are hard to come by.

The florist says she has invested in garbage locks, security cameras and defense training for employees. And while she snips and arranges flowers, she carries a gun to ensure the safety of herself, her staff and her customers. 

"I don't work at a pot shop. I don't work at a bar. I work at a flower shop on Main Street in a small little town. And when our city government isn't doing enough to help make us feel safe in our place of business, and when the news is telling citizens they're not safe if they come to Burien, it puts us in a real tough spot," said Desimone. 

It's clear that Burien has been dealing with an increase in its homeless population. What you don't see, however, are encampments. The city recently enacted an ordinance banning "camping" during the day. City officials believe it's been doing the city good, while advocates for unhoused people call it cruel. Desimone believes it doesn't go far enough. 

"This camping ban was a band-aid on something that needs surgery," she said. 

Zooming out, more bans targeting homeless encampments have been enacted in cities and towns across the country with a range of punitive outcomes — including in California,  New Hampshire, Oregon, Tennessee and other jurisdictions in Washington.

In a few months, The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if cities can legally ban homeless people from camping on public land.

A 2018 federal court decision — Martin v. Boise — is the law of the land right now. It states that cities cannot ban camping if they don't provide sufficient shelter to house homeless people.

SEE MORE: Homelessness reached a record in 2023, and it could get worse

Politicians, like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, are urging the Supreme Court to make it easier to clear homeless encampments as they believe Martin v. Boise ties their hands. 

"It kind of leaves them in this gray area where they're not really sure where they can be in order to survive on public land without violating the ordinance," said Fadi Assaf, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project. He represents three unhoused residents in Burien who are suing the city over its camping ordinance. He says the lack of sufficient city shelters puts his clients in an even more difficult situation because every morning they're forced to pack up with nowhere to go. As more cities debate enacting such legislation, and with the Supreme Court decision possibly going to shape how cities approach homelessness in the future, he says such ordinances only kick the can down the road, leaving vulnerable people behind. 

"It doesn't fix the very root cause of the problem, which is that we need to figure out how to utilize the public funds that are available to us in order to provide shelter to individuals and support in the areas in which they need support," he said. 

We have service providers that go out when folks are seen putting up a tent. We have police and service providers that go out and talk to them and then during the day, public spaces are accessible and safe for everybody to use," said Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling about the city's camping ordinance, which was put in place before he took office. 

While the city won't comment on litigation, Schilling says the city is doing what it can with the resources it has to help as many people as possible. He says the city is focusing on measures like housing density, permitting and building affordable housing and working to raise the minimum wage, all things that help people stay housed. However, he believes municipalities like his can only do so much when it comes to an issue as nuanced as homelessness. 

"We are resource-strapped, which is why I've been advocating for the bigger governments to really step in, because they have more money, they have more resources," he said. 

While local governments like Burien are trying to cope with the rise of homelessness, Desimone believes this situation has had an unintended and unfair consequence — pitting unhoused folks against businesses in the public eye. 

"Putting two groups of people that are trying to survive up against each other, there is not going to be a good outcome. There never is," she said. 

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