Seattle suburb OKs camping ban it may not be able to enforce

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FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2020 file photo a sign that reads "This is what community looks like," sits on top of a pile of debris and belongings at an encampment that was occupied by people lacking housing at Cal Anderson Park in Seattle. An affluent Seattle-area community has approved an ordinance prohibiting camping on public property. The city of Mercer Island says the measure will connect homeless people to shelters, but it might prove hard to enforce because of a federal court ruling. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,File)

SEATTLE – An affluent Seattle-area community has approved an ordinance prohibiting camping on public property, a measure the city says will connect homeless people to shelters but that might prove hard to enforce because of a federal court ruling.

The Mercer Island City Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to prevent people from staying outside or in their cars overnight, The Seattle Times reported. Violations will be a misdemeanor offense, subject to fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

Mercer Island is an island community directly east of Seattle with a population of about 25,000. It's popular with well-off professionals because it's connected to the Pacific Northwest's largest city by Interstate 90 and provides easy access to downtown Seattle. The late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had an estate there.

There are no homeless shelters on Mercer Island, so officers will direct people to facilities elsewhere. The ordinance comes amid a coronavirus pandemic that's led to job losses and less shelter space because of social distancing requirements, compounding the Seattle area's problems with rising housing prices and inequality.

But if there’s no shelter space available, Mercer Island says it can’t enforce the ordinance because of a federal ruling. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2018 that an anti-camping ordinance by Boise, Idaho, was unconstitutional because sometimes homeless residents have no other available options.

Local shelter officials say there already isn’t enough room. Shelters have lost hundreds of beds because of COVID-19 space adjustments, according to Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, who spoke at the meeting.

Some have argued that the ordinance would prevent people from receiving the help they need.

The Mercer Island Police Department has said officers encounter about a dozen people each night staying in their vehicles or camping in parks and other public spaces. There is no record of previous arrests for unlawful camping, authorities said.

“Experiencing homelessness is not a crime, and I am on the record right now saying that,” Police Chief Ed Holmes said. “We truly do try to connect people and meet them in their hour of need and get them the help they need.”

Some supporters of the ordinance said they wanted to protect the island from becoming like Seattle, where homeless encampments are common place in the city's parks and open spaces.

“I don’t want Mercer Island to become an overflow for Seattle’s problems,” resident Tom Jacobs said.