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Homeless residents in a suburb of Seattle struggle with camping ban

A suburb of Seattle, once considered affordable, is now a microcosm of the homeless crisis in America.
Posted at 8:57 PM, Mar 01, 2024

Through relentless rain, an oasis of warm food pops up on a street corner in Burien, Washington.

"What you're seeing out here tonight is a number of people from our community setting up to serve a hot meal to our homeless," said Cydney Moore, president of the Burien Community Support Coalition, the organization making food for the two dozen unhoused individuals stopping by tonight.

It's just past 7 p.m., which means camping on public land is now permitted. Not only are these volunteers handing out food, Moore is also handing out tents, which will usually need to be off the street by 6 a.m.; but tomorrow, the city requested they be off by 5 a.m. to clear the sidewalk for a Thursday farmer's market. The ordinance further states that if there are sufficient shelter opportunities, then camping is not allowed at all. 

Moore says that is not the case in town.

"Burien has no year-round emergency shelter available for people. We have a shelter for families and nine beds available for women only, and even that comes with significant barriers. So, for the majority of our unhoused population, there just are not shelter beds available anywhere around here," explained Moore.

Burien, like many towns across the country, is figuring out how to handle a housing and homelessness crisis growing faster than its resources and tax dollars can handle. 

The city's rules restricting camping on public land are new as of December, and in a previous story, Scripps News brought you the perspective of business owners and city officials coping with homeless encampments. Now we're focusing on those who are unhoused and living under the new restrictions. 

"I've lived in Burien for the past two years. I started working here first at the Speedway gas station, one thing led to another, family issues and ended up becoming homeless," said Dee R., a 25-year-old unhoused Burien resident.

Dee, who is originally from Alaska, says she is trying to find work, but that's hard to do without an ID, which she no longer has. What also makes it difficult to nail down a job, she says, is starting from square one every day.

"To lose your stuff every day, and have to start over every single day, and then to learn to not care about things anymore, and to just be on straight survival mode, you can't love anything. Like, you can't have sentimental value with anything that you love," said Dee. 

"We were evicted from our apartment and ended up out in the street here," said 46-year-old Beth Hale.

She and her husband came by for some food and to see familiar faces. They say their position is made worse by being demonized by members of the public

"We're just normal people that come upon some difficult times, and we're just like everybody else. We just had, you know, some bad circumstances happen that brought us out here," she said.

The next morning, Charles Schaefer, another volunteer, helped wake people up before they could be served with a citation or arrested by local police.

"Nobody wants to live like this, you know. At the planning commission meeting last night, I heard someone say, 'Oh, they like living out here in tents.' And I would say 95% of the folks out here that I've talked to do not actually want to live out here in a tent," said Schaefer.

Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling says the city is right now in the process of planning hundreds of units of affordable and permanent supportive housing to help with the growing needs of the community, and is working on changing zoning laws to make it easier to build housing units.

For the unhoused folks, that can't come soon enough as they struggle with the current rules on where they can and cannot be.

Seattle suburb dealing with big-city issues as homelessness increases
A Seattle police officer walks past tents used by people experiencing homelessness

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.