Bremerton OKs homeless law, now waits on mayor

It took well past the four-hour mark at another drawn-out meeting of the Bremerton City Council Sept. 20, but the city has finally passed its new camping ordinance by a vote of 6-1, banning camping in certain public spaces when and if shelter is available.

The law bans camping in parks, city-owned properties and public right-of-way. Councilman Quinn Dennehy was the sole vote against, though he could have just as easily been joined by Councilwoman Jennifer Chamberlin, who showed extreme hesitancy in giving her vote of approval.

Now it’s Mayor Greg Wheeler’s turn to act. “He’s briefed that he’s working on it; this is a tough thing, but to be clear, it is on the mayor,” council president Jeff Coughlin said. “It’s been more than six months, and we knew even before the Salvation Army closed down, (lack of shelter) was an issue coming.”

Councilman Eric Younger added his disappointment with an apparent lack of communication, saying: “Mayor, we’re going to pass this ordinance hopefully tonight, and it’s on you, as the administrator, to put in this overnight camping shelter. It needs to be a decent place, with better living conditions than what people living on the streets have now.”

It’s not clear when the law goes into effect, but under current conditions, such an ordinance would begin with enforcement suspended. Wheeler reiterated his promise of additional shelter space by Nov. 1, but he was also one of a few public officials calling for a vote to not take place that night.

“I have received hundreds of emails since last Wednesday,” he said in a Sept. 19 letter to the council. “Our community does not have a clear understanding about what the council will be voting on tomorrow.”

A vote on postponement of action failed 4-3.

Unlike the law provided before the public two weeks ago, the one the council OK’d does not include a map of city-owned undeveloped properties where the law could not be enforced if there was no available shelter.

“When that map came out and people saw that list of sporadic properties, they freaked out and reasonably so,” Coughlin said. “We tried, but the rest of the city obviously did not want that, which is why we changed and went back to a simpler ordinance that is more in line with all the other cities around us.”

Now the law relies solely on its caveat of needing available shelter space for the homeless in order for enforcement to take place. Such options could be both inside and outside Bremerton-provided-available transportation.

The votes were conducted before a crowd inside the Norm Dicks Government Center that was just as dense, if not more so, than the crowd that filled seats and then some two weeks prior when the council delayed its expected vote. With the law vote listed as the last item on the night’s agenda, residents would be in for another long wait of over two hours before any public discussion.

Still the majority waited, a testament to the long wait of nine months already endured by the public since the council announced its intent to prioritize the growing homelessness crisis and three months since the council’s first documented discussion of an updated law in late June.

During that same time, the issue of homelessness in Bremerton snowballed, with the causes ranging from a lack of affordable housing and emergency shelter to a heightened drug epidemic.

“This is the worst it’s been here,” Mike Simpson said. “Again, the room is filled with people because of this particular issue, and most of the homeowners just want the encampments gone. Do that.”