Screenshot of April 5 Edmonds City Council meeting. Inset (L-R): Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Kristiana Johnson, Will Chen, Neil Tibbott, Diane Buckshnis, Vivian Olson, Susan Paine and Laura Johnson. (City of Edmonds)

Screenshot of April 5 Edmonds City Council meeting. Inset (L-R): Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Kristiana Johnson, Will Chen, Neil Tibbott, Diane Buckshnis, Vivian Olson, Susan Paine and Laura Johnson. (City of Edmonds)

After long debate, Edmonds bans homeless people from living outside

The criminal law is unenforceable if no shelter is open within 35 miles. The City Council approved it over public outcry.

EDMONDS — People without homes can soon be forced to abandon their belongings and take a bus ticket to a shelter up to 35 miles away under a new Edmonds law.

If not, they may be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail. Alternatives to the fine include completing community service or serving on a work crew.

City councilmembers passed an ordinance 5-2 Tuesday, making it unlawful for anyone to occupy public property overnight if “available” shelter is refused. Shelter will be considered available if it’s within a 35-mile radius of Edmonds City Hall and the person is eligible to stay there. The law can’t be enforced if authorities can’t find an appropriate place.

Councilmembers Will Chen, Vivian Olson, Neil Tibbott, Kristiana Johnson and Diane Buckshnis voted in favor of the ordinance.

Councilmember Laura Johnson proposed adding a caveat that the ordinance could not be implemented until the city partners with Snohomish County to create a hotel respite program.

“Services should include … detox, counseling, vocational training, transportation to medical appointments, medication assistance and more,” she said.

Laura Johnson said she believes councilmembers should take the advice of the city’s Homelessness Task Force and begin with creating more shelter. Her proposal failed 5-2.

She and Councilmember Susan Paine cast the two votes against the new law.

Councilmember Will Chen’s proposal to add a sunset date, to revisit the law one year from now, also failed 6-1.

After weeks of debate, councilmembers again heard over an hour of public comment on both sides of the issue Tuesday.

As the City Council considered the ordinance, Andrew Brokaw sat on a bench outside council chambers, where he set up an orange one-person tent on the city lawn. Two cardboard signs were propped against the tent. In black Sharpie he wrote: “Why won’t Edmonds City Council work for all of Edmonds?” Below, he cited statistics about needs in the community.

“67,180 people in Snohomish County face food insecurity,” one sign said.

Another sign highlighted that only one full-time “human services staff member has been hired to provide services for the entire City of Edmonds (42,347 people).”

Brokaw, who works for the Edmonds food bank, told The Daily Herald he often fields clients’ questions about where to find rent and utility assistance.

He talked about his own experience, too. Brokaw didn’t have a home when he worked for AmeriCorps in Montana.

“The unhoused people who live in Edmonds are just as much citizens as everyone else,” he said.

Edmonds residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance cited safety concerns and other citizens’ right to use public space. Among those opposing the ordinance were State Rep. Strom Peterson, who chairs the Housing, Human Services & Veterans Committee, and former state Sen. Maralyn Chase. They said the ordinance could create more barriers for people who are already struggling.

Local and state lawmakers, service providers and people who have been homeless have railed against the proposed ordinance since its introduction in April.

Rep. Peterson told councilmembers in early May there’s not a single group working with unhoused people that thinks the ordinance is a good idea.

Jennifer Bereskin, who was once unhoused in south Snohomish County, now serves on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Work Group. Earlier this month, she told the City Council the ordinance suggests people living in poverty are not welcome in Edmonds.

Mary Anne Dillon, executive director for YWCA Snohomish County and a member of the city’s homelessness task force, told councilmembers she hoped the city would first look at expanding shelter options, affordable housing and motel space before enacting a punitive law.

Since Everett’s “no-sit, no-lie” ordinance was enacted last summer, two people have been arrested for occupying public space, according to city spokesperson Julio Cortes. The Everett ordinance went into effect in conjunction with a new Pallet shelter that can house up to 30 people. The city, however, does not track who was offered resources — like shelter — directly in relation to the ordinance.

The Edmonds ordinance requires authorities to document the offer of assistance, including food and available shelter. But, there is no shelter in Edmonds.

The Lynnwood YWCA is the only shelter in southwest Snohomish County.

More people in the city are currently being housed with motel vouchers than through the shelter, Edmonds Human Services Deputy Director Shannon Burley said. Once motel vouchers are exhausted, Edmonds would likely be looking to Everett and King County to provide shelter. As of early May, no more vouchers were available, according to Edmonds city staff. They are funded through a state program.

In early May, Everett City Councilmember Liz Vogeli warned Edmonds councilmembers the city of Everett “does not have the bandwidth or resources to care (for) the entirety of Snohomish County.”

According to Snohomish County’s latest point-in-time count, the county’s homeless population is at a 10-year high. In all, 1,184 people were counted, a 42.8% increase from the county’s low point in 2015, and an increase of 52 people since the count in 2020. Shelters saw a 30.7% increase in clients.

About 450 people were without homes in Edmonds, according to the city’s latest assessment.

Burley said the Human Services program “will be doing everything we can to increase shelter in South County.”

Conversations are ongoing with the county to develop a hotel respite program.

This year, state lawmakers earmarked hundreds of million dollars to help communities rapidly expand housing and shelter options for those who are homeless.

One chunk, about $50 million, targets removal of unsanctioned encampments in state rights of way. Those dollars will be used to move residents into shelter and supportive services.

In the coming months, the state also expects to hand out $207 million in grants to cities and counties to build tiny home villages, add shelter beds, or buy buildings to house unsheltered people.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said those who won’t leave encampments could face penalties.

“They will simply have to comply with the law. If you’re pitching a tent along I-5 and we provide shelter and supportive services, you will need to move. There’s just no question about that. You can’t continue to create these safety hazards on our right of ways,” he said.

When asked if he agreed with the city of Edmonds approach to fine those who similarly decline shelter options, he demurred.

“I can’t speak to every circumstance in every town and every city. But there are circumstances where one way or another, obviously, we have to have a way to prevent unsafe conditions from existing,” he said. “… But that has to be coupled with a meaningful alternative for shelter and that has been made clear by a constitutional ruling by our supreme court and our sense of compassion.”

“I don’t think the ordinance would radically change the way that police do business,” Rep. Peterson told The Daily Herald before the vote. “But it radically changes the statement that Edmonds is making about people that are suffering. And I think that’s really important.”

Herald reporters Claudia Yaw and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this reporting.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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