Burien, Washington, a working-class city of 50,000 near Seattle, has adopted a new approach to homelessness. Like all cities in the Puget Sound region, Burien has struggled with chronic homelessness, addiction, and public camping in recent years. But this spring, after increasing public outcry over encampments and their trash and discarded needles, the city’s leadership embarked on an ambitious new program to enforce the law against such public sites.
The initiative began by chance. Last winter, local business owner Martin Barrett, brainstorming ways to improve the city’s business climate, hired an organizer to walk door-to-door asking small-business owners their concerns. The organizer spoke with more than 100 owners, representing all of Burien’s racial and ethnic backgrounds—the city is 50 percent nonwhite — and their response was resounding: the homelessness crisis was dramatically affecting their businesses and sense of safety.
Barrett invited the owners to his warehouse in nearby SeaTac, where they expressed their frustration. “People unloaded,” he says. “Business owners [were] saying things like ‘my business has fallen by 30 percent because people won’t come to my store anymore because it’s a disaster in front.’” Sensing a common purpose, the group agreed to form a new organization — the Burien Collective — to devise a plan for addressing the homelessness crisis.
Burien’s city manager, Brian Wilson, learned about the group and attended their next meeting. According to Barrett, Wilson was attentive to the business leaders and surprised by the intensity of their frustration. Three weeks later, Wilson invited Barrett and a small group of owners to a meeting, during which he unveiled a plan to address public camping and street disorder in Burien’s downtown.
Wilson’s plan, outlined in a letter to the city council, was to maintain a list of open shelter beds, conduct outreach, offer services to the unsheltered homeless population, and then strictly enforce the law against camping in parks and public spaces. Individuals who continued to camp in parks would be given 72 hours to vacate and then risk arrest by Burien’s police. This policy was “designed to balance the rights of people living unsheltered with the City’s responsibility to maintain public health and safety,” and, crucially, to stay in compliance with the federal court decision, Martin v. Boise, which requires cities to have open shelter beds before enforcing the law against sleeping outdoors.
Burien’s city council unanimously approved a four-month pilot program. Though the council is politically progressive, its members have taken a far more pragmatic approach than have their counterparts in cities like Seattle, where activists have seized control of social policy. Barrett calls the city’s adoption of the pilot program “heroic leadership” in the face of activist pressure. “The mayor has gotten huge heat from the left,” says Barrett. “It’s taken courage for the mayor and city manager to lead.”
Following council approval, the city contacted homeless individuals, offered shelter and services, and helped them prepare for policy changes. The approach, according to Burien human services manager Colleen Brandt-Schluter, was focused on “building relationships with people that are really vulnerable,” and establishing enough trust until “there’s a willingness to consider an alternative” to living on the streets. As part of the program, the city also established a coalition of nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and shelter providers that could accommodate anyone willing to engage services.
“We spent a month going out and talking to people,” says Burien police chief Ted Boe, who estimates that 50 to 100 homeless individuals were in the city before the program. After extensive outreach, six people accepted services and, according to Boe, “the vast majority of people vacated the parks knowing this was coming.” By the time the city gave the final 72-hour notice, only 27 people remained in the parks. When the city made an additional offer of shelter, services, and transportation, 26 people voluntarily moved on; after repeatedly refusing to comply, one man was arrested.
For the community, the initial results have been encouraging. “There’s 100 percent visible difference,” says Chief Boe. “There are no tents in our parks right now.” Public sentiment at city council meetings has shifted dramatically. In early May, before implementing the pilot program, more than 40 residents expressed their anger to the council about the lack of progress on homelessness. Following implementation, many residents have testified to a significant improvement in their neighborhoods. “We’re hearing positive comments at council meetings,” says Brandt-Schluter. “When we hear complaints, that’s where we target our outreach.”
Barrett, the business owner, is even more enthusiastic about the city’s progress. “In four days, the problem was solved,” he says. “The best thing is that people who had been living on the streets — cold at night, wet, with no hope — were moved to places with a possibility for healing. The second-best thing is that we’ve all got our city back. You now see moms bringing their kids to the library again. You see families in the parks again.”
Burien’s simple lesson is that enforcement works. While consultants tell cities like Seattle that they must spend billions on subsidized housing to address the crisis, Burien shows that compassionate, low-cost enforcement can change the incentive structure and immediately deliver results. Burien didn’t build new housing units or add new social programs; it simply coordinated the existing resources of law enforcement, social services, and the nonprofit sector toward the goal of immediately reducing street homelessness and its associated disorder.
Activists have argued that “sweeps” of homeless encampments “criminalize homelessness” and result in a revolving door of arrests. But in Burien, most homeless individuals responded voluntarily to the new ordinance. A more compelling objection is that Burien’s policies simply export the homeless to nearby cities and thus don’t solve the problem. And it’s true that most of Burien’s homeless simply moved on, undoubtedly to more permissive cities like Seattle.
But cities operate in a competitive policy environment on taxes, regulations, land use, and — despite what activists would like, and what officials would like to admit — the prevalence of street homelessness. Burien’s city manager has a responsibility to voters in Burien, not Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver. Cities with more permissive policies have demonstrated a “magnet effect,” drawing more homeless people, while cities that enforce the law have demonstrated a deterrent effect that delivers results to residents. Why accept the permissive policies of major cities like Seattle as the standard for the entire region? In fact, if all regional cities adopted a policy of compassionate enforcement, it’s possible that many service-resistant individuals would consider entering shelters and services — delivering positive outcomes that have thus far eluded permissive cities.
The question that Burien now faces is whether it can expand its enforcement program to cover the entire city and encourage the most service-resistant individuals to accept help. Though scaling its approach to much larger cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles would pose significant challenges, Burien’s initial results show that compassionate enforcement must be part of any solution. Cities that ignore this lesson will continue to spend billions of dollars with no measurable results, leaving tens of thousands of broken people languishing in the streets and undermining public order.
Originally published in City Journal on August 23rd, 2019.