Homelessness & Panhandling

Homelessness. Public Sleeping. Panhandling.

Three simple topics are evoking a great deal of dialogue in Mill Creek and surrounding communities.

An image of a person sleeping in publichHomelessness
Like other communities, the issue of homelessness is impacting the City of Mill Creek. Several areas around the City occasionally have had small encampments that generally include one to three tents.

“These encampments are not anything like what you’ll see under an overpass in Seattle,” said Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin. “When we hear about them, we move quickly to deal with them.”

He notes that it is really important to understand that homelessness is not a crime. Rather, it is a societal challenge that is best addressed through social services.

There are a number of reasons people are homeless, but frequently it is tied to drug addiction, mental illness and financial challenges – none of which are criminal issues. The City’s response is to help link the homeless to the services that will most help them.

Public Sleeping
Related to homelessness is the issue of public sleeping. In the September 2018 case, Martin et al v. City of Boise, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional.

“We run into a really difficult time at 2 o’clock in the morning identifying where there may be shelter beds available nearby,” said Elwin. “We will check those resources and give them rides if available. However, much of the time, there are no beds available. If we can find no available resources, we will do our best to ensure the safety of the people we are working with while preserving the safety and security of the area in which they’re staying.”

He notes that the City has an ordinance about no camping in parks. If they have a tent, that’s one thing. But simply lying down to sleep in a park is not a violation of the ordinance – it doesn’t matter if it’s day or night.

An image of a person holding a sign asking for helpPanhandling
Driving through high-traffic areas in Mill Creek, it’s becoming more common to see at least on person with a sign asking for help. Mill Creek Police are regularly called to “deal with” such people. Panhandling, or begging, has been identified in court rulings as constitutionally protected expressions of free speech under the First Amendment.

“Sitting on a box on a corner holding a sign is allowed,” said Elwin. “But if that behavior escalates to the point where someone feels intimidated or harassed, or vehicular or pedestrian traffic is obstructed, we have statutes that allow us to take action.”

He cited an example where a panhandler was blocking a public sidewalk in such a manner that it created safety issues for other pedestrians who couldn’t pass without walking into the street. “In such a case, we will intervene if we see it,” he said. “However, it’s not something we can take action on after the fact. It has to occur in our presence.”

Statutes that restrict panhandling have been challenged throughout the state and the country. A 2014 U.S. Supreme Court rule changed the way in which such statutes are scrutinized. One case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert is not specifically about begging; rather, it addresses signs – a different form of speech – and its holding has been understood as applying to restrictions on speech in general. The Court in Reed held that a law is “content-based” anytime that it defines the regulated speech based on a “particular subject matter or by its function or purpose.” Such content-based restrictions are presumed to be unconstitutional and are only upheld if the government can prove that it furthers a “compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”

Elwin clarifies that panhandlers have such freedoms only on public property. If they’re on private property, that’s an entirely different matter. “If someone is sleeping in the grass on private property in front of a business, and the business owner or manager wants them removed, we will send them on their way, but again, after offering assistance or attempting to link them to services” he said.

City Response to Issues

While Mill Creek is not immune to these issues, it is one of the safest communities in the state.

The Mill Creek Police Department is prepared should any of these constitutionally protected activities cross the line into criminal behavior. It continues to work proactively with the business community and other partners to identify and address areas of concern.

On private property, the Police Department works with owners to pre-emptively obtain a trespass order that allows the Police to remove unauthorized people who are camping, sleeping or inhabiting their property.

“We also have some statues pertaining to trespassing, traffic interference, disorderly conduct, and intimidation and harassment that can help us address behaviors – on public or private property – should they escalate to a criminal situation,” said Elwin.

In response to recent court rulings, the Police Department also is working to refine statues to ensure that they are defensible in court and that their procedures are just.

“We are moving forward carefully when taking action,” said Elwin, “as we are responsible to preserve the right of all our community members, whether they’re homeless or not.”

Police tips to help keep the community safe:

  • Instead of giving funds directly to panhandlers, donate to organizations that support them.
  • Don't confront a trespasser yourself; call the Police to intervene.
  • If you're worried about trespassers on your property, work with the Police Department to implement an advanced trespass order.
  • Remember to treat everyone with respect and dignity.