Wealthy Mercer Island Moves To Ban Homeless Camping Across the City

A city council in Washington state has near-unanimously voted to expand a ban on homeless camping from parks to all public property.

The Mercer Island City Council members approved the ordinance 6-1 during a vote on Tuesday night, despite a number of objections and calls to at least find another solution.

Councilmember Craig Reynolds was the only one to vote "no" on the motion.

It is already illegal to camp in parks in Mercer Island—a city where the average home costs around $1.7 million—but the latest move from the council restricts people living outside or sleeping in their cars overnight.

The motion states that camping on public property is a public health and safety concern due to "interference with other intended uses, such as daily operations of the City, park recreational activities, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular traffic, and other public uses."

It adds concerns that camping without adequate sanitation services presents a public health and safety concern due to increased risk of spread of disease and potential for residents and visitors contracting illness.

City Councilman Jake Jacobson is one of those who approved the ordinance, having previously claimed that "there is fear out there" regarding the homeless issue.

However, KOMOreported that they were unable to find one homeless person on the street Tuesday. Police said that they are dealing with less than a dozen instances of the same homeless people and others living in cars in Mercer Island.

People found violating the ban could be fined up to $1,000 and face up to 90 days in jail, although it will not be enforced if all nearby homeless shelters are full. Mercer Island does not currently have a homeless shelter, but such properties are in cities like Bellevue and Kirkland.

"If someone has received a citation or arrest, you need to know that it would not be the first time or second time we have contacted the person," Mercer Island Police Department Chief Ed Holmes told KOMO. "We will only take enforcement measures if there are repeated issues."

Breanne Schuster, an attorney for the ACLU of Washington, argued that the city should not make being homeless a crime.

"You can't criminalize things that are out of their control," she said. "So, the fact someone can't afford housing, and therefore be forced to live on public property, you can't punish them or make that illegal."

A number of residents also signed a petition urging city leaders to delay Tuesday's vote and consider other options.

"I feel like there's no reason to rush into this, we can take a breath, step back, talk to community partners and figure out if there's another solution," said Robin Li, co-founder of local community group ONE MI.

Mercer Island High School senior Hannah Heydon added: "I'm against the homeless ordinance and would like it to be delayed in order to come up with a more specific solution to prevent rising homeless numbers rather than passing something that will criminalize homelessness."

Reynolds has been contacted for further comment.

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(File photo) Tents used by homeless people are seen in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2020. Mercer Island City Council meeting have approved a proposed camping ban on all public property. NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP