City council votes 6-1 to prohibit camping on public property

Camping in parks is already banned.

Following a 6-1 vote at the Feb. 16 Mercer Island City Council meeting, a new ordinance was passed to prohibit camping and storage of personal possessions on all public property.

Violation of the ordinance — which goes into effect on March 1 — results in a misdemeanor crime, according to a presentation at the meeting. The current ordinance was written about 30 years ago and already bans camping on park property. It is also a misdemeanor to camp in parks.

“Despite what you’ve heard by some, it truly does not criminalize homelessness. Experiencing homelessness is not a crime. The ordinance will not be enforced when there’s no shelter space available,” said Mercer Island Police Department Chief Ed Holmes at the meeting.

Holmes told the Reporter that there is a very small number of people experiencing homelessness on the Island.

Six months after the ordinance is implemented, Holmes will report back to council with his data, including number of campers contacted, reasons for contact, transports to area shelters and more.

The cities of Redmond, Bellevue, Lynnwood and Issaquah have enacted similar ordinances, and, according to a press release, “The city of Mercer Island is establishing these regulations to ensure that public property is used in a safe manner and remains accessible for its intended public purpose, such as transportation, recreation” and more.

A total of 69 Island residents voiced their opinions for and against passage of the ordinance at the meeting. In their passionate three-minute-or-less “appearances,” some spoke of encamped individuals becoming bold criminals and polluting public spaces with toxic waste, while others spoke of looking toward city leaders to bring the community together and devise a more comprehensive plan to address homelessness.

Councilmember Craig Reynolds cast the only “no” vote at the meeting. During the meeting, he moved to postpone consideration of the ordinance for 90 days and suggested that City Manager Jessi Bon assemble a Mercer Island resident task force with support from Youth and Family Services staff and police officers to determine the extent of the homeless situation. His motion failed.

Reynolds said he shares residents’ values of the importance of parks and keeping the Island safe. He also wants homeless people to be treated with respect and receive the appropriate assistance — not be jailed or fined. (In Washington state, the maximum punishment for a misdemeanor is 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.)

“People can recover from homelessness. Many decent people are without a home for reasons entirely not of their making, and this ordinance does nothing to represent any sort of action to address that underlying problem,” Reynolds said.

Holmes said police officers have never cited or arrested anyone for violating the current ordinance. He said that the ordinance will be applied in a fair and equitable manner, officers will assess each situation compassionately and offer support services — including contacting the King County Mobile Crisis Team — or they will attempt to transport individuals to a shelter.

The longtime member of the Mercer Island Police Department added that they’re “trying to reassure the community that this notion of treating people compassionately is not something brand new — it’s something that’s been part of the department for a long time.”

A search through the Reporter’s published police blotter over the last six months yielded three instances of officers contacting subjects sleeping in park and community restrooms. Once, they received a complaint of a subject sleeping on a couch inside of a business lobby. During one welfare check, it was reported that a homeless resident was offered resources and refused them.

“My hope is that a compassionate approach be taken by Mercer Island Police Department whenever reasonably possible in its interactions with those individuals who are experiencing homelessness,” said councilmember Salim Nice.

Mayor Benson Wong said that over the past several weeks, council has received copious heartfelt messages from individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

“I reject the idea that we don’t have a role in this discussion,” he said. “I hope that we all will remember the compassion that has been expressed by so many of our residents during these past few weeks and their collective desire to work towards a regional solution. This discussion needs to continue among councilmembers, with staff, with the community and in this region.”