by Martin Barrett
The City of Burien announced that all tents will be removed from the Burien City Hall and Library Building by March 31, 2023. The announcement was made at the Burien City Council meeting on March 20.
City Manager Adolfo Bailon reported that the situation at City Hall had been escalating over the last few months. “Tent behavior was out of control,” said Bailon. The decision to change to a policy that no longer allows open camping was finalized at a meeting of the Condominium Association governors, Burien City staff, and Burien Police in late February.
At present, there are an estimated 30 individuals living in tents. Aaron Burkhalter, Project Manager for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, LEAD, is heading up clearing the area. The clearing process will be carried out in cooperation with law enforcement officials, LEAD, and Reach of Burien. Bailon communicated that there is long and medium-term housing with King County for the people currently in the tents, but there is no immediate short-term option at this point. During the meeting, the Burien City staff voiced frustration with the county’s lack of communication and support. However, during the public comment period, 6 Reach and LEAD plus 2 Severe Weather Shelter staff voiced disappointment with the city and their expectation that Burien should take care of its own.
There was debate and questioning on whether the majority of the tent residents were from Burien. Bailon conveyed his perception that the tent village has grown with people new to Burien over the last few months. “Many of those living in the tents are new to this city. Many were not here when the Condo Association made its decision. Many will return to where they came from, the last place they felt safe,” said Bailon. Reach, LEAD, and Severe Weather Shelter staff disagreed. Most represented that the folks living here are Burien residents who have gone to high school here and have family here. They communicated a clear perspective that the moment someone comes to Burien, they are part of our city and our responsibility.
Adolfo Bailon began the announcement by laying out the historical background of the Condominium Association, which was established in 2009 when the City of Burien and the King County Library System agreed to partner in the current facility. The Condo Association was the path deemed best to manage the shared building. It was unclear why it has taken the Condo Association several years to address the camping issue. The public outcry has been long and loud! Currently, a lawsuit is being filed by residents who want their park and library restored to their intended use as a safe and enjoyable public space. At the March 20 City Council meeting, a man testified to being threatened in the park with a hammer by men living in the tents.
Bailon communicated that the city is looking for alternatives to address the housing needs of campers. The City Council recently proposed a sanctioned camping site in the city boundaries. The parking lot between Highline Christian Church and Chase Bank has been suggested. Also, the city is in conversation with the Highline School District regarding options on district land. Bailon also said that the city is looking at Tiny Home Villages. “An 80 tiny- home village would cost about $ 1 million to operate,” according to Bailon. Jenny Partch, who heads up the Severe Weather Shelter said, “There are 60-70 people who claim Burien as their home and show up at the shelter.” She communicated that there are likely many more.
Bailon and those giving public comment agreed on at least one thing: clearing out the City Hall campsite does not solve the homeless problem. It merely moves folks onto a new place, somewhere else in our city or another town. There are available beds for each person to begin the healing process. But these programs require each person to come in sober for the protection of those already on the journey in these shelters. What is needed is a detox shelter to help bring people off the drugs so they can take advantage of the opportunity.
Regardless, this decision was long in coming, given the increase in lawlessness and violence tied to the tent village.