[EDITOR’S NOTEThe following is a Letter to the Editor, written and submitted by a verified resident. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of South King Media, nor its staff.]

Dear Editor,

In response to Mayor Sofia Aragon’s September 20th statement “A Camping ban is the Unfortunate Result of Public Safety Issues in Encampments”, I feel compelled to correct the record as the Mayor is perpetuating misinformation. 

Her letter opens: 

Homelessness is the greatest inequity of our time, and the Burien City Council takes it very seriously. A camping ban is not the first strategy to address homelessness by the Burien City Council. The council approved these affordable housing projects in the last four years: an expansion of Habitat for Humanity, EcoThrive Cottages, DESC permanent supportive housing, and mixed market rate and affordable housing apartments. Monday night, we approved an expansion of Mary’s Place, a shelter for women and children.

Not to let the facts get in the way of good campaign copy, but none of those housing projects are open or available to anyone sleeping on the street tonight. Two of them, Habitat for Humanity and EcoThrive, will not even serve the 0-30% AMI population. (Lest any readers have a bad faith interpretation of what I mean, I will be explicit: all of these projects are good policy and important to Burien’s future. They are not “first” in terms of strategies to address homelessness.) The camping ban goes into effect November 1. None of these projects will be built by then. Should the unhoused develop time travel capabilities? We might reasonably disagree on the best policy answers for homelessness but surely we can all get behind the linear nature of time?

The Mayor continues: 

Over the last several weeks, there have been numerous accounts of drug trafficking and sex trafficking occurring around the Ambaum Encampment, as residents and drivers have reported the growing number of tents in the area.

These accounts have come from ideologues in public comment periods and not from law enforcement. The last time these trafficking claims were made, King County Sheriff’s Office stated they had no basis. It is cruel to actual victims of sex trafficking to use their trauma to justify destabilizing already vulnerable people. It is irresponsible of the Mayor to pass along these unsubstantiated claims, amplifying their impact, without gathering direct evidence. 

“The encampment is a result of the regional homelessness crisis. Since Seattle declared homelessness an emergency seven years ago, the situation has worsened.

I know it’s easy to score political points on the right by blaming Seattle for everything, but as experts and members of the public who work with the unhoused have testified many many times, the unhoused in Burien are largely from Burien. Again, the Mayor is using scare tactics to score points in her political race, at the expense of sharing accurate information with her current constituents.

Four years ago, affordable housing and income inequality were to blame. According to the King County Opioid Dashboard, there are three major groups impacted by this public health crisis: Seattle, South King County (which includes Burien), and the homeless. Recent reports of the fentanyl epidemic, set to exceed deaths caused by COVID, are seldom mentioned by advocates for the homeless. Ignoring the fentanyl crisis will only exacerbate the problems this drug is causing both among the unhoused and housed.

Nothing about the camping ban will address the fentanyl epidemic. If the mayor wishes to promote real solutions to this issue, she ought to be proposing additional treatment facilities and harm reduction efforts like fentanyl testing kits or even safe consumption sites. Drug use is not limited to the unhoused and none of these issues (housing, income inequality, or opioid use) is mitigated by ordinance 818. 

It’s my hope that the camping ban will be one of three strategies adopted by the Burien City Council. A second strategy is enhanced outreach, where homeless people are offered mental health, substance use treatment, or stable housing paired with data that tracks where the unhoused are placed. Success with the encampment in front of the Grocery Outlet is an example.

The current encampment on Ambaum is a direct result of the “success” with the encampment in front of the Grocery Outlet. If the Mayor knew the individuals who live at these sites, she would know that what she describes as “success” is the direct cause of the expansion of the Ambaum encampment, as the same people have simply relocated. Both encampments are themselves the direct result of the “clearing” of the downtown site by Burien CARES, which was a result of the “clearing” of the encampment by city hall. I don’t know what success the Mayor is referring to. The private org contracted by Grocery Outlet did not provide treatment, stable housing, or data that tracks where the unhoused are placed. (All of which I fully agree are essential.) Ordinance 818 does not provide any of these either. 

A third strategy is the temporary use of pallet homes and one million dollars offered by King County on a lot offered by a developer in Burien. I support a pallet home village that is drug-free so that residents have the clear mind to make the voluntary decision we require of them to move towards greater stability. Currently, the pallet shelter village is temporarily necessary unless more funding or a subsequent plan is identified. During a tour of a village in Seattle, we were informed that the cost to operate one is over a million dollars a year and that the money would only support operating the homes. The estimated costs do not include mental health, substance use, or other care that residents will surely need.

I agree that $1M will not last forever. It will, as the Mayor says, provide a temporary option for a stable home with services for some amount of time (a duration we might have the data to estimate more accurately if the Mayor or Council had arranged discussions with KCRHA & other experts to discuss the implementation of this offer!) But it WILL mean time. Imagine what that time could mean for someone who just needs the stability to start treatment, to get a caseworker, to find a job. Imagine what that time could mean for fundraising, grant applications, lobbying the county, state, or federal governments for funds to extend. Saying we cannot accept $1M now because we don’t know what will come after is like saying I won’t take this life saving cancer drug because it will only extend my life for 1 year and I want to live longer than that. 

I’m baffled by those who testified Monday night to allow the Ambaum encampment to just be and saddened by the shared stories of living through homelessness. To those who advocate for encampments—the council is open to hearing alternative solutions that provide those unhoused mental health or substance use treatment and stable housing. We need to find a solution that balances the needs of residents and businesses while meeting the needs of those struggling with homelessness.

I cannot speak for all advocates but I feel confident saying that no one speaking against the camping ban thinks the encampment at Ambaum is in a good or safe location or that it is receiving the services, support, and supervision people need. Many of us have been clear about that and it is disappointing that after so much time and so many words, the Mayor is still not listening, or else willfully misrepresenting, the position of her constituents on this issue. We all want mental health and substance use treatment and stable housing for our unhoused neighbors. Ordinance 818 does not provide any of that. Shame on Mayor Aragon for misleading her constituents to imply otherwise. 

– Kelsey Vanhee
Boulevard Park, Burien

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