BI police take hands-off approach to homeless

“Our goal is to get everybody houses,” Bainbridge Island police chief Joe Clark told the City Council at its April 9 meeting.

To which Councilmember Ashley Mathews replied, “Unless we have housing already, which we don’t right now,” she appreciates the compassionate way police are dealing with homeless.

Clark said unless property owners ask police to remove homeless, or they are doing something criminal, police are leaving them alone. They are only arrested after many contacts.

Council supports that stance.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” Mayor Joe Deets said, adding if no laws are being broken and the homeowner doesn’t mind, “I don’t know why we should be taking action on this.”

Clark admitted it’s not much of a problem. There have been a few complaints about carts being left around.

“We are talking around the issue,” Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said. Basically, there has been one neighbor complaining about homeless building a fire on nearby property with the absent owner being the state.

“I find it a weak complaint,” Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said. “The neighbor’s a ways away.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider said she knows the homeowner is annoyed, but asked if it’s any worse than a barbecue.

From the state’s standpoint, it doesn’t mind if homeless stay on the land unless there is a shelter to take them to. “We don’t have it,” Clark said. “We look for a balance.”

In introducing the topic, Clark said in a presentation that homelessness in this context means unabled housing, such as concern for eviction or in need of rental assistance; transitional housing, such as with shelters, couch surfing, supportive housing, or clean and sober living houses; and unsheltered, living in the elements. The Point-in-Time count on BI this year included nine adults, 21 youth and four unsheltered.

The presentation says working with unsheltered people requires building rapport, continually checking in and offering resources. Networking with families, Helpline House and other social service agencies is key. It also requires working with property owners when homeless are on their land. The presentation shows that the police Community Health navigator’s workload has increased from 208 contacts in 2021, to 269 in 2022 and 322 in 2023. The public has raised concerns about homeless regarding general safety, nuisance, quality of life and the burning of wood.

Also, the council talked about Planning and Building Development Fees. The fees go to affordable housing projects done by nonprofits. A request was made for the fees to also go to not-for-profit organizations for non-housing projects that benefit the public as well. The subsidy for Building Permit and Utility Fees is capped at $30,000 per project. There is no cap for Land Use Permit fees.

The motion, which passed 6-1, directed the city manager to expedite permit applications from not-for-profit, governmental organizations, and affordable housing projects by reviewing their applications before other commercial or private applications. City manager Blair King said he can think of some projects that could be interested in the funding. He mentioned the Senior/Community Center, Suymatsu Farms, Helpline House and the Rowing Center.

Hytopoulos was the only vote against it. “It’s fundamentally unfair to do this,” she said. “This is a very big deal for us to decide to subsidize fees.” She added as a public agency they have a lot of projects and “not deep coffers to subsidize.” She said this could set the city up for having to do other programs. She also said it could force the planning department to have to move permits through at a faster rate. Overall, it’s just “dangerous for us because we have a critical need for affordable housing,” and now the process is being messed with.

Deets said he’s not crazy about some projects being “pushed to the back of the line,” but he does appreciate what nonprofits are doing. Schneider said the city should keep track of the projects and check back with the council every few months. King said it would.

The city also looked at a contract for solid waste management with Bainbridge Disposal. Goals include increasing recycling and composting, minimizing future rate impacts, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and looking to control the waste stream with an anaerobic digester. King said other goals include improving collection in hard-to-serve areas, special items like styrofoam and bulky waste, along with fewer garbage cans in visible areas. Also to be discussed are mandatory service for all on BI and mandatory recycling for multi-family units.

The council also looked at three long-term lease agreements that allow community organizations to use city property for free, improve the property, then use the site for various beneficial services. The city’s recommended motion was to charge a standard 5% of gross rental proceeds from third-party users, and to allow the city to use the facilities for free with reasonable notice. That motion passed. “It’s not a huge financial impact,” Moriwaki said, then thanked King for finding the inconsistencies in the agreements and “making it fair.”