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'War On The Visibly Poor' In Auburn, Washington

caption: A panhandler in Auburn, Washington.
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1 of 3 A panhandler in Auburn, Washington.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Many cities around Washington state make it a crime to do things that everyone does but that homeless people have to do in public – like sitting down, sleeping, going to the bathroom or asking for help.

No city has more laws against these activities than Auburn, a southern suburb of Seattle.

While those laws might push some homeless people into friendlier locations, Auburn’s homeless population appears to be rising rapidly anyway, according to Auburn police and nonprofit groups that help the homeless.

Hanging out in Auburn's Veterans' Memorial Park after a free weekly lunch served there by church volunteers, Jamie Evans says he has been homeless in and around Auburn for a decade. Lately, he's been staying in his truck.

"It's out of the wet and out of the cold. I got plenty of blankets there and pillows and stuff," Evans says.

He keeps his truck in the town of Pacific, just west of Auburn.

"The cops really don’t mess with people out there, out in Pacific," Evans said. "They'll let you be homeless there. But out in Auburn, they don't like people camping up in parks and what not."

Auburn prohibits or restricts 13 kinds of behavior that homeless people often engage in.

Evans has a long record of arrests and citations in Auburn for petty crimes, including some that wouldn't be crimes elsewhere. In Auburn, any panhandling that "impedes or threatens to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic" is illegal.

"They call it 'aggressive begging,'" Evans says. "Then the cops chase you off. You'll go to jail."

Other cities, including Pasco, Puyallup, Spokane and University Place, have nearly as many laws restricting what homeless people can do. A study from Seattle University's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project calls it a statewide "war on the visibly poor."

"These laws are incredibly expensive and ineffective," Seattle University law professor Sara Rankin says. "What does it say about our own moral compass that this is how we approach the most vulnerable in our society?"

Trying to survive

Like many people who are chronically homeless, Evans has struggled with addiction and mental illness. According to Auburn police reports, he has been delusional and threatening at times.

The chronically homeless often struggle just to survive, let alone deal with the problems that may have helped land them on the street or in the woods.

"Their world is really survival and their resiliency to survive is what's keeping them alive out here," Auburn Food Bank director Debbie Christian says.

"You can't go to a park and just sleep out," Evans says. "You're not doing nothing wrong to nobody. You're trying to survive. You're trying to live in the woods. What the [expletive] is wrong with that?"

Rising numbers of people in Auburn, and King County as a whole, find themselves trying to survive in the woods or on the streets. According to an overnight count of the homeless in January, Auburn's homeless population shot up by a third last year. The Auburn Food Bank serves more than twice as many poor and homeless people as it did a decade ago, according to Christian.

She says she was surprised to hear that Auburn's laws were unusually tough on homelessness.

"I don't see Auburn as not being inclusive," Christian says. "We've always been a big-hearted community."

Even so, she says many people living in cars or tents are afraid of getting booted by Auburn police. So they hide, especially during the annual one-night count of the homeless. She thinks the count may miss nearly as many people as it finds.

"They are afraid that if there's any police on the count night that they are going to come back the next few days and roust him out and clean out their encampments," Christian says.

"Homelessness is not illegal," says Bill Pierson, Auburn assistant police chief. "Our approach is: Even though you may be in that situation, we still require that you follow the rules and laws of the city."

Pierson says Auburn police move the homeless along if they're blocking a sidewalk, spending the night in a park or staying on someone's property without permission.

Auburn's homeless often complain that their makeshift camps disappear while they're out for the day. While they blame the police, Pierson says police give warnings before evicting someone from their camp or car.

"What we try to do is go out and intervene and find these folks and get them where they need to go,” Pierson says. “Hopefully, they take some services and find a way to get themselves in a shelter at night."

Getting folks where they need to go often means getting them to leave town.

That's because Auburn has no homeless shelters, except on the coldest nights. When temperatures drop below freezing, the city and the food bank open an emergency shelter in a city park.

Auburn used to have a privately run homeless shelter. But the husband and wife who ran it just disappeared five years ago.

"I don't know if they ran out of money, ran out of energy, but something happened and they just were gone the next day," Christian says.

Most nights since then, there's no place to be legally homeless in Auburn, even in your own car.

"That's another Auburn regulation. You can't live in your car," says Don Gallagher, a volunteer with Auburn's Lifeway Church. He helps provide lunches and sometimes donations of clothing and camping goods to homeless people at Veterans' Memorial Park.

"There isn't much infrastructure to help people, but there seems to be a lot more energy involved in not helping them – and trying to keep them away," he says.

Gallagher says the approach is the same where he lives in Federal Way.

"There's a lot of people without roofs over heads, trying to survive. We've got to have a little bit of feeling for their needs," he says. "You can't just wish them away. Where are they going to go?"

Pierson says police do end up evicting the same people over and over.

"It does become repetitive, but we have other citizens who do express some concern about the way they feel infringed upon, by somebody who may decide to, let's say, camp in their alley and dump garbage," he says. "Those kind of things do get the attention of the normal citizens, so we're trying to balance it out."

Having any kind of criminal record can make it hard to land a job or find housing. For the homeless, it can make for a vicious cycle that's hard to break out of.

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