Homelessness Response

Across the Puget Sound region, people are struggling to keep up with the rapidly rising cost of housing and living expenses and many of our fellow community members are ending up homeless. Our current systems of care do not keep up with the need, and without enough affordable housing, many seniors, families, and individuals end up sleeping on the street and in vehicles.

Since the causes of homelessness are complex and individual—from losing a job or experiencing a sudden financial challenge such as a medical emergency, to mental health or substance use disorders—our approach to addressing the impacts of homelessness should be as well. 

Participation in Regional Efforts to Address Homelessness

Burien participates in several regional efforts to address homelessness.

South King Housing and Homelessness Partnership (SKHHP) Agreement

Burien participates in an interlocal agreement between the jurisdictions of Auburn, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Maple Valley, Normandy Park, Renton, Tukwila, and King County to form the South King Housing and Homelessness Partnership (SKHHP). The agreement directs the south King County jurisdictions to work together to address affordable housing and homelessness. This collaborative model is based on similar approaches used in Snohomish County, east King County, and other areas of the country.

Participating cities contribute funds that support both SKHHP’s operations and Housing Capital Fund, which supports the creation and preservation affordable homes in South King County. The amount contributed to operations is calculated based on city population, whereas the funds that are allocated to the Capital Fund are each city’s SHB 1406 Funds. In 2022, the first round of Capital Fund awards was made, supporting two projects in Burien.

King County Regional Homelessness Authority

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) is built on the idea that everyone deserves a safe and stable place to live. Their mission is to significantly decrease homelessness throughout King County, using equity and social justice principles. Burien is part of the South King County Sub-Region of KCRHA. The City’s Human Services staff meet regularly with a KCRHA liaison to discuss the needs of the area and the implementation of KCRHA’s five-year and sub-regional plans.

Citywide Efforts to Address Homelessness

The City supports several organizations that serve the needs of homeless community members through the Human Services Fund. The Human Services Commission provides funding recommendations to Council, who approves the final list of fund recipients.

Additionally, through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, Human Services has managed the City’s Enhanced Public Safety Initiative. Approved in 2021 and launched in early 2022, the Enhanced Public Safety Initiative is a three-pronged effort to address gaps identified in the spectrum of services available in Burien. Comprised of a Neighborhood Outreach Care Coordinator, EMS Mental Health Co-Response team, and a Storefront Resource Officer, this initiative connects residents and businesses to services in the community. Creation of this effort was driven by community engagement efforts around public safety.

The City’s Human Services Manager works with local organizations, government agencies, and funders to coordinate partnerships and attract services to Burien. The Human Services Manager works with the Burien Police Department and community organizations to help coordinate responses to homelessness.

Leading with Services and Role of Law Enforcement

Homelessness is a serious regional and national issue that cannot be solved by arresting people. Laws that unintentionally criminalize homelessness are not long-term solutions, and in some cases are not supported by the Federal Court of Appeals. The Burien Police Department works in collaboration with the City’s Human Services staff to address homelessness at its root and to reduce the harm done to the unhoused community.

In 2018, the Burien Police Chief repurposed three detectives and one sergeant to create the Crime Reduction Unit. This unit’s work is centered around crime reduction through modern approaches to policing. They still do traditional emphasis work and high visibility patrols, but they also coordinate resources and collaborate across disciplines to achieve long-term solutions to community conditions. The work of this unit has been widely celebrated because of how the detectives have broken down traditional barriers across disciplines through their willingness to focus on centering people in need.

Recognizing that a large number of police calls involve unmet mental health needs or people in crisis, the Burien Police Department launched a new co-response unit, adding to the resources already available in our Burien Community Response Team (CRT) model. This program, which launched in 2022, pairs a detective and a mental health professional (MHP) in our community full-time. Together, they respond to calls for service where their specialty skills and training are needed. They also do follow-up work, connecting clients to resources and taking the time necessary to build trust. This co-responder position is funded through a partnership with King County.

The Burien Police Department will continue to address criminal behavior when it occurs. Programs like Burien’s Co-Response and Crime Reduction teams help us address some of the underlying issues that can lead to criminal behavior.

Community Collaboration on Addressing Homelessness

Coordination of community and resources is critical to addressing homelessness—no one party can solve the crisis alone. The success of organizations working in Burien stems from their efforts to cooperate with each other.

Burien has attracted partnerships with organizations that can provide case management and outreach services to those experiencing homelessness. Burien’s unhoused community are regularly connected with trained outreach workers from Evergreen Treatment Services REACH programSound PATH (Project for the Assistance of Transition from Homelessness), Salvation Army Street Level Program, and Catholic Community Services’ CReW (Counseling, Recovery and Wellness) program.

Burien Police Department also works directly with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD). Their goal is to improve public safety and public order and to reduce the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program. The Burien LEAD program diverts people who have committed certain misdemeanors into community-based treatment and support services—including housing, health care, job training, treatment, and mental health support—instead of processing them through the traditional criminal justice system. Learn more about the Burien LEAD program.

On June 12, 2023, representatives from eight homelessness programs that work in Burien spoke to the Burien City Council about their strategies and approach. They spoke to the complexity of the region’s sheltering systems and noted that Burien does have jurisdictional access to certain shelters. They also described the proactive efforts that they take to reach people living in tents, cars, and other unsheltered situations and build relationships with them so they can get them connected to the most appropriate services. 

The Role of Schools

The Highline School District is required by federal law to support children and youth experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Program provides support for students experiencing homelessness.

Shelter in Burien

There is a network of local and regional organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness. Burien currently has two shelters: a family shelter (Mary’s Place) that can serve up to 219 family members and a women-only shelter (Hospitality House) that can serve up to nine single women. Since 2019, Highline United Methodist Church has opened and operated a Severe Weather Shelter during times of extreme cold and can sleep up to 50 people.

It is important to acknowledge the deficits in shelter services here in Burien. While there are some beds for individuals and families, there are no designated spaces for single men, youth, or couples to find shelter. The available beds are continually full and shelters have to turn people away because they are over capacity. The need far exceeds the available resources.

Several community organizations, including Transform Burien, provide regular meals, health care, and other essential needs to people experiencing homelessness. Healthcare for the Homeless, Seattle King County Public Health Mobile Medical programs, and HealthPoint provide health care, dental, and pregnancy support. Seattle Union Gospel Mission and local churches also provide services.

Pertinent Legal Rulings

Ordinance 827

The Burien City Council adopted Ordinance 827, which regulates the ability of individuals to sleep overnight on public property, during their October 2, 2023 regular meeting. The ordinance goes into effect on November 1, 2023.

Addressing Camping in Parks

On May 6, 2019, the City announced a new approach to addressing unauthorized use of Burien parks and facilities. In an effort to make everyone feel welcome and safe in Burien parks, City staff and Burien Police take a compassionate, collaborative, and legal approach to prevent camping and encampments, that complies with the Martin v Boise decision.

On September 16, 2019, the City Council directed staff to make this approach permanent. 

Martin v. Boise

In September 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision (Martin v. Boise) that made it unconstitutional to give someone a citation for simply being on public property, including city parks, if the person did not have another place to go, such as an open bed in a shelter. The court found that the enforcement of ordinances prohibiting camping and/or sleeping/lying in public violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment if an individual does not have a meaningful alternative (such as space in a shelter or a legal place to camp).

In April 2018, the Burien City Council repealed the City’s public property trespassing ordinance, meaning that simply being in a City park or other City-owned space, even after being asked to leave, is no longer a crime. While camping ordinances are not inherently unconstitutional, a municipality can violate the Eighth Amendment if the person cited had no meaningful alternative to sleeping outside. If the Council decided to reinstate and enforce the public property trespass ordinance, it would likely be challenged by a lawsuit based on Martin v. Boise, which would be costly to defend, further reducing funds for services.

State v. Blake

In 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case of State v. Blake, essentially stating the felony drug possession statute was unconstitutional. The state legislatures took up the issue in their next session, implementing a modified drug possession law. The new law lowered the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor and prevented police from making custodial arrests in most circumstances; police were instead directed to provide a referral to a service organization. The state legislature addressed this issue during a special 2023 session, passing a new state law regulating public controlled substance use and possession.  

State v. Long

In this case, the City of Seattle impounded a vehicle from a city lot where someone was living. The court reviewed the case by analyzing the “excessive fines” component of the 8th Amendment. The State Supreme Court took up the case and determined the act of taking away someone’s place to live by impounding the vehicle was an excessive fine under the circumstances. This case does not directly prohibit ticketing and impounding vehicles but makes clear to government that the 8th Amendment will be used to interpret the reasonableness of the city’s actions when the vehicle’s intrusion is measured.

State v. Pippin

In 2017, the Washington Court of Appeals Division II ruled that tents and shelters set up on public property and used for habitation are protected from unreasonable searches under the Washington State Constitution.  This means that government (including police) has no authority to open the door or search the contents of the tent for any purpose including the search for contraband, essentially granting the same expectations of privacy that a person has in their brick-and-mortar home or apartment. 

Burien Police can and still do enforce laws regarding other criminal behaviors on public property.

Updated October 10, 2023