CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, it was reported the Supreme Court’s 2019 Martin v. Boise decision prevents governments from punishing homeless people for sleeping on public property when there are no available alternatives. This is incorrect — the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal from the city of Boise, letting the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling stand. The article has been updated.
The homeless encampment near the newly-paved Battersby Trail is no more.
According to city officials, the Enumclaw Public Works Department started cleaning up the camp on Monday, March 1 after police posted notice to vacate the premises on Friday, Feb. 26. Cleanup went quickly, ending just the next day, but the city is still working on cutting down the brush in the hopes of dissuading the camp from returning.
Complaints about the homeless camp started nearly as soon as paving of the Battersby Trail was completed in October 2020, said City Administrator Chris Searcy; Mayor Jan Molinaro added that calls to the Enumclaw Police Department “averaged one call a week.”
The Courier-Herald even received a letter to the editor about the camp in December 2020.
“We walked the north paved portion of the trail recently. It was littered with homeless people and homeless trash,” wrote Susan White. “As a native resident, we did not feel comfortable and won’t return.”
City officials, including Molinaro and Searcy, walked through the camp early February, describing much of the same; there were “a lot of bike parks, a lot of frames, rims,” Searcy said. “There was a giant pile of inner tubes right off the side of the trail that would tell you which way you needed to walk.”
Enumclaw Councilman Anthony Wright, who chairs the city’s Public Works Committee and also attended the walkthrough, described the camp as a sort of “chop shop.”
However, the EPD isn’t able to confirm whether or not the various items found around the camp were stolen.
“We can’t speak to the accuracy of stolen property — nothing in there has been identified as stolen,” said Commander Tony Ryan. “However, there are concerns there have been stolen bicycles moved in and out of the area, a lot of which were unable to be identified because they were parted out.”
There was also evidence of drug activity; Molinaro said Public Works confirmed used needles were found during the cleanup.
Calls for police services included everything from welfare checks and suspicious circumstances to unwanted subjects and one unfounded report of a gunshot, but nothing for assault or continued harassment.
TACKLING THE HOMELESSNESS ISSUE
While this specific camp has been removed, homelessness still remains an issue on the Plateau.
In fact, it may have been a more visible problem this last winter than in years past due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“With COVID, the faith-based groups did not have a winter shelter program this year. So I’m sure that had some impact on where some of these individuals ended up going,” Searcy said. “We knew going into the winter that we might see more showing up in storefronts and awnings and undercover areas.”
Solutions for the ongoing problem remain elusive, and there seems to be little that can be done on a local level.
Molinaro, Searcy, Wright, and Ryan all said the city of Enumclaw is looking to participate in some form of regional effort to combat homelessness, rather than do something on a local level, since managing homelessness — let alone pushing back against the countless reasons individuals and families find themselves without a home — is a monumentally expensive task.
Wright said the council tossed around the idea of teaming up with nearby cities like Auburn and Black Diamond to purchase a building and set up a shelter, but quickly realized the idea was unfeasible.
“We looked into how much Puyallup pays Tacoma for two beds — it’s $110,000 a year,” Wright said, adding that he estimates trying to house Enumclaw’s two or three dozen homeless residents would cost millions. “We don’t have that… it’s financially unrealistic for the city to support that.”
Unfortunately, leadership from King County has been lacking; the goal of the county’s Regional Homelessness Authority was to hire a CEO by September 2020. However, Regina Cannon — who was offered the job last February — suddenly declined to lead the $132 million budget organization, leaving King County in a lurch. It remains unclear if the other publicly-named candidate for the position, Marc Dones, will be given the gig.
Meanwhile, local cops feel stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to trying to balance an individual’s right to be homeless and the general public’s safety and welfare.
“It’s a touchy issue, because there’s a lot of case law to adhere to,” Commander Ryan said. “There’s a lot of policies in place [about] inconveniencing someone experiencing homelessness even more than they need to be.”
One of those cases include the Ninth Circut Court of Appeal’s 2019 Martin v. Boise decision, which in short prevents governments from punishing homeless people for sleeping on public property when there are no available alternatives, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition of the city of Boise to review the case, letting the lower court’s ruling stand.
On a final note, Ryan stressed that the EPD made sure it gave anyone living in the Battersby camp ample time to find another place to go, and offered to help them access housing, mental health, or rehabilitation services.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to get people back on their feet,” he continued. “This is not something where we want to punish people for being homeless.”