Poulsbo's unauthorized camping


On October 19, 2016, Poulsbo City Council passed the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance, amending Title 9 of the Poulsbo Municipal Code. This effectively makes living homeless within the city limits a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail. Specifically, one cannot camp or store one's possessions on any public property (including parks, streets, sidewalks, or parking lots). As written, this includes living in one's RV (or presumably, one's car) at any public parking. [9.90.010.A] As detailed verbally at the city counsel meeting, the ordinance specifically does not apply to non-homeless uses of the property, such as taking a nap in the park or family bringing an RV for a week.

The Council employs the rhetoric of enforcing this law "compassionately." To do so, the police officers responding to a homeless violator will be accompanied by a mental health professional. The city intends to build up an social services infrastructure to provide resources for the homeless. When the police approach someone to enforce the ordinance, they will offer them assistance from these to-be social services. The penalty for the crime will not be enforced if they accept the social services. However, if the homeless person refuses the services, the police officer would enforce the penalties. The first time that someone is cited for this offense, they will receive a warning, a copy of the ordinance, and community resources.

As noted in the North Kitsap Herald, referring to comments made in designing the ordinance, "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.'" The chairwoman for the council described it as "tough love"—asking people to take resources, and then if they don't, giving them more incentive to take them.



While it is clear that the designers of this ordinance are not Machievellian, mustache-twirling villains, it seems that the ordinance, as it is written, has significant structural issues which directly impact our homeless neighbors.

In her presentation of the ordnance, the city prosecutor repeatedly said that this ordinance does not criminalize homelessness. She was responding to a court case in Boise which was overturned because it criminalized an entire class of people. This language is even included in the document that disavows that they are discriminating against a class of individuals. However, when an ordinance explicitly criminalizes behaviors performed solely by the target group (and in the meetings, it was clear that it explicitly targeted this group), it stretches the imagination to claim that this is not criminalizing the inevitable behaviors of a specific group of people.

Functionally, the ordinance establishes that the camping itself is a misdemeanor. However (as the "love" part of "tough love"), the penalty associated with the misdemeanor would be waived by the city for the first offense, unless the homeless person denies the services offered to them. This is demonstrated through the process that the city prosecutor outlined at the council meeting: after being cited by a police officer, the homeless person would be required to come see the prosecutor, where the access to resources would be distributed. (Note that this description of how the ordnance is implemented is not in the written ordnance itself, but discussed in the council meeting.)

One of the frequent complaints cited to merit this law is that there is a rise in petty crime because the increase of homeless people. However, it is also telling to note that ¶5 explicitly identifies tourism revenue (and the associated "aesthetics") as a major factor. Two points here:

  1. It always goes back to the money. Poulsbo is a notable destination on the trek between Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula. And on their day off, visitors prefer escapism rather than the grittiness of real life. So, having more visible poor folks breaks the illusion of our quaint downtown.
  2. The unaesthetic sight here is human beings living without the basic necessities. After all, that's why we live somewhere like Poulsbo, rather than Seattle or Bremerton. That's why we pay more to not live in urban poverty—we then don't have to see the reality of the poor in our society. While this purpose for the ordnance is explicitly stated in the ordnance itself, it is notably absent from the rhetoric surrounding this legislation.

The verbally stated objective of this ordinance is to respond to incidents of homeless people behaving inappropriately toward other community members. The mayor, for example, cites an incident of a homeless man running up to a child and blowing smoke in their face. This, of course, is clearly inappropriate behavior. However, if this is truly the behavior that is at issue,  the ordinance should address this issue.

While homelessness is a complicated problem, this program has significant problems. While it does move in helpful directions in resourcing homeless people and connecting them with mental health professionals, there are also major red flags. Despite the city prosecutor's objections, it does criminalize homeless people—if not as an explicitly named class, then in inevitable behaviors unique to them. Moreover, it seems to deal solely in the short-term. Potentially, community partners such as Fishline could offer these types of support, but there is no guarantee that the resources provided will last any longer than the night that the hotel coupon is good for. Presuming that they will not provide enough vouchers for a long-term stay, that does nothing for ultimately helping them to get into housing.

Finally, this initiative cannot be separated from asking the question, What is causing the homelessness in the first place? Too often, the presumed answer is that it's individual: they got into drugs, they are bad at finances, they lost their job. They are ultimately things that can be avoided with some good luck and self-restraint. However, this ordinance does not show any awareness that this issue is also connected to the spike in the housing market. It is curious that the ordinance could fine homeless people up to $1,000. That is an obscene amount of money to demand for someone who doesn't have the money to afford a place to live. When people are displaced from their homes because they cannot afford steep increases in housing costs without just as steep pay raises, providing social services to get someone back into a home that they then cannot pay for does nothing to ultimately improve the situation. Ultimately, the long-term effects of this plan could simply ship the homeless out of Poulsbo, either because they can't afford the housing here, thus displacing them; or because they get arrested, and are released down in Port Orchard (where the jail is) without transportation back here.


Note: some of these details get garbled in the public records. In the council sessions, different people gave different interpretations of what the ordinance is or is not intended to do, often without explicit basis in the text of the ordinance itself. For example, in the council meeting, a representative explicitly said that this would not simply kick the homeless persons down the road, whereas the N. Kitsap Herald has someone quoted as saying word-for-word the exact opposite.


Additional sources (for your own research)