POULSBO — James was first seen standing in a doorway on Front Street out of the driving rain. He was neatly dressed and carrying all of his worldly belongings in a large duffel bag and a backpack — well-equipped for the wet weather, from rubber boots to waterproof parka.
He took pride in his appearance and, when he smiled, he was careful to make sure his lip concealed the fact he had no upper teeth.
He shared the fact that he was homeless; had been for 10 years since the Seattle company he worked for went out of business. The company had brought him over from the Philippines to work as a fish processor. He had been in Poulsbo for about two months. Today, he said, he was going to catch the bus to Whidbey Island, one of the best places for homeless people that he had found in his travels.
Soft-spoken and polite, savoring a gifted caramel machiatto and breakfast burrito at Hot Shots Java, he shared what it was like to be on the road. He ate slowly, chewed each bit thoroughly, then tucked half of the burrito away for later.
The night before, on Oct. 19, the Poulsbo City Council had criminalized James’ activities, voting to make homelessness a misdemeanor.
But City Attorney Alexis Foster said that, unlike other cities with homeless ordinances, this one is done with compassion.
“Tough love,” she and Mayor Becky Erickson called it.
The new ordinance that amends Title 9 of the Poulsbo Municipal Code makes it illegal for James and people like him to camp or store one’s possessions anywhere on city property, including streets, sidewalks, roadways, playfields, city parking lots and city parks. This includes “parking a trailer, camper, or other vehicle for the purposes of remaining overnight for habitation or temporary living quarters,” according to section 9.90.010.
(The ordinance does not apply to friends or family coming in an RV to visit — that’s allowed under another earlier ordinance, Foster said. Nor are you going to get arrested if you decide to take a nap on your blanket in a city park on a warm, sunny day. Likewise, city officials assure that the new ordinance does not apply to parking your RV or camping trailer on the street in front of your house; that’s also covered under an earlier ordinance.)
The new ordinance is aimed directly at addressing concerns about what city officials say is an increase in the number of people who are homeless. Although the “H word” is never used in the ordinance itself, city staff and council members used the term and were explicit in who the ordinance was aimed at.
What makes the Unauthorized Camping ordinance unique, its supporters said, is that “law enforcement officers shall not enforce the unauthorized camping provisions of PMC 9.90.20 when no alternative accommodations are available.”
As Mayor Erickson and Foster explained it, the city is setting up a program that will help homeless persons get off the street and back on their feet. This may someday include hotel vouchers, as well as assistance with “housing, mental health, alcohol independence and/or drug addiction treatment services.”
The ordinance does go on to state that the city and its employees are under no obligation to provide these services.
In short, the city attorney cannot file a case unless someone like James refuses aid, or aid is not available, Foster said. First-time offenders with be issued a non-criminal notice, along with a copy of the ordinance and a resource list of community service providers. The plan is for a mental health specialist to accompany law enforcement when visiting with a person who is homeless.
Based on the discussion at the council meeting, it appears the details of this compassionate intervention plan are still being finalized.
Offering such help is the carrot in the new ordinance. However, city officials say the homeless person must accept responsibility for addressing their situation by availing themselves of the offered aid. Failure to do so brings out the stick: a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or up to 90 days in jail.
According to remarks made at an earlier Public Safety/Legal Committee meeting, the ordinance is intended to offer help to those who are homeless by circumstance, while sending those who are homeless by choice “down the road.”
When asked if he would avail himself of such assistance the next time he comes to Poulsbo, James said he thought he would.
In the meantime, he’s going to Whidbey.