Call for higher enforcement contributes to delay in homeless camping vote

Months of inaction on the issue of homelessness in Bremerton will continue as the City Council delayed its vote set for Sept. 6 on amending its encampment law.

The next time a vote would be considered is the council meeting Sept. 20.

Council chambers hosted a packed crowd, many arriving early, planning to give their final thoughts on an amendment that would ban camping in certain public places. Those include: parks, city-owned parcels and public rights-of-way such as sidewalks and streets when shelter is otherwise available.

When shelter is unavailable, the city would designate certain undeveloped city properties where camping would be permitted. That new addition would allow enforcement while keeping the resolution up to constitutional standards, city attorney Kylie Finnell explained.

“What’s not permissible is prohibiting camping everywhere all the time,” she said, referring to previous court decisions. “The City Council, as a majority, began to favor that approach—that rather than have people relocate every day basically, that certain city properties would be set aside.”

Such an ordinance would clear the way for sanctioned encampments while Mayor Greg Wheeler continues his mission to establish a location for temporary housing and shelter, something he has promised will happen on or by Nov. 1. “I will continue to research properties in the city of Bremerton and/or partners outside of the city to locate another shelter or place of transitional housing or something that we call an outdoor shelter, which could look like a campground, only more structured with more facilities.”

Councilmember Eric Younger said he is holding the mayor to that when deciding which way to vote. He said the land where enforcement would be suspended when there is no shelter is to not become the next moving place for homeless but temporarily in dire circumstances.

“I want the administration to provide,” Younger said, “either through the city or working with the county, with a camping space as the outlet valve if the traditional shelters, private shelters and transitional housing aren’t available.”

A main contributor to the latest delay on the vote is a push from Wheeler calling for whatever new resolution is passed to upgrade the punishment of such a crime from a civil infraction on a person’s first two violations to an immediate misdemeanor.

In a letter dated Sept. 1 sent to the council, Wheeler says that with each case, law enforcement would have to wait for months before any single person racked up three violations.

An educational period would still exist, giving both parties time to communicate before the new law would take effect.

“I am trusting that the council trusts the expertise and discretion of our police department to enforce this ordinance fairly,” he wrote. “Let good policing take the place of the months-long multiple infractions and give our police officers the tools they need to effectively enforce the ordinance…”

The letter was read at the meeting, receiving a fair amount of applause from those who are tired of waiting for enforcement. “I’m not even in purgatory. I’m in living hell,” Connie Smith of Bremerton said about living conditions as a property owner in the city. “You have to do something about this.”

Pastor Floyd Ussin of the Immanuel Apostolic Church said it and the nearby Marvin Williams Recreation Center have suffered greatly since the homeless encampment off Martin Luther King Way formed.

Given the loss of revenue and tenants added to a constant fear for the safety of visiting children, the pastor called on council president Jeff Coughlin to make the church feel like a priority again. “They all need someplace to go. I agree with that, but those of us who are property owners also have a right to make a living and provide a service to our community.”

Advocates for the homeless continued to voice their concerns about available shelter and close proximity to resources like bathrooms and food. Kelsey Stedman with Rock the Block said, “If you took a moment to rock the block with us, you’d see the faces behind the statistics and understand the profound impacts of your choices as well as the barriers people encounter when trying to access services.”

Jackie Baird, who is newly homeless on MLK Way, took her plea for help directly to the council.

“None of us asked to be homeless. It’s something that happened that shouldn’t have happened. I agree there are people that have mental disabilities, some more than others, but we’re human,” she said.