By Martin Barrett
The City of Burien has hosted people living in squalid conditions for several years. Surrounding the Burien City Hall and Library, a sizable collection of 15 tents, with up to 2 or 3 occupants, situated on pallets or concrete without sanitation or water, has been established. Open fires burn in and outside their tents, fatal drugs are consumed, and defecating occurs on the sidewalks. Multiple laws are being violated, from dealing drugs to smoking within 15 feet of outside public doors and blocking egress points. At any time over the last few years, city officials could have ended the open camping and enforced the laws, but they did not act. Finally, as the outcry from the community mounted, they could dismiss it no more.
When the City publicly announced the eviction date at the March 20 City Council meeting, it gave less than two weeks’ eviction notice. The short notice made ramping up a response for needed housing very difficult. The city officials openly acknowledged that neither they nor the county had a place for these folks to go.
Into the gap stepped four local churches and four street-savvy nonprofits, ready to fill the immediate need for short-term beds. The nonprofit organizations are skilled in natural detox, using no medication or other drugs. They had licensed counselors. They reconfigured the building to serve these folks for 72 hours while they could come off the drugs and qualify for long-term help.
In a striking irony, on Wednesday, the City decided it was time to enforce the law on Wednesday afternoon, less than 48 hours before the deadline requiring the campers to leave. A city official emailed the Hope Christian Community Pastor informing him that the building and the staffing would need to adhere to building inspections and permits required for overnight events on commercial property as well as the likely requirements of licensure and credentials from the county. Since there isn’t time to orchestrate all those parameters, the church is not able to continue with its original plan and would additionally need to remove everyone from campus before midnight regardless of the event hosted.
Due to the requirements, the coalition cannot make changes fast enough. Therefore they are abandoning the effort to set up the center to help the campers get off the street. This temporary, 72-hour shelter was put together by community members in ten days using their own funding. As a result, since the City of Burien has no plan for implementation, people experiencing homelessness will be back on the street.
The leadership of this coalition said they would not be deterred. Their love and concern for people experiencing homelessness are unchanged. Plans to pivot are in the works. Due to the impending eviction, the coalition of churches and nonprofits had increased the efforts they began three months ago to know every homeless person in the core of Burien. This increase in intensity has proven fruitful. Over the last 2-3 weeks, the coalition of Churches, nonprofits, and local residents have collectively helped seven individuals off Burien’s streets and into shelters, housing, and partner programs. “Our homeless neighbors were ‘leveled up’ into the beginning stages of living more fruitful lives. It’s been a beautiful thing to see everyone coming together to help our homeless brothers and sisters in this time of need”, said Chris and Kristine from one such partner organization.
It is the intention to redouble this effort again over the weekend, using dozens of folks who had volunteered to cook, clean, and serve at the previously planned center, redirecting these volunteers onto the streets to broaden the effort beyond the core to know every homeless person in the Burien city limits.
If the teams successfully establish trust and an agreement with those on the street to go to a better place, then we are back to the dilemma. Where do the campers go? There are too few open beds in this city or area. So the collection of churches is in dialogue with Teen-Challenge, which runs detox and recovery centers nationwide. Unfortunately, they do not have open beds in this area. If the homeless are willing to go, they must be ready to go to Tacoma, Tri-Cities, or other distant locations. This will likely significantly dampen the number of homeless willing to accept the offer, resulting in more suffering. If the group had been able to take six off the streets with no local beds, what could have happened if these folks could had stayed in a caring community right here in Burien?
This episode leaves many questions requiring answers! We will let them rest for now. In the meantime, we are grateful for this group of Christians who love the homeless and are determined to find a way for them to experience wholeness.