EVERETT — The signs declaring “private property” and “no trespassing” are seemingly everywhere along Smith Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood in downtown Everett. They are just one indication of a larger clash between commerce and homelessness.
The area is industrial — home to auto shops, wholesale suppliers and specialty services, as well as Everett Station, the Everett Gospel Mission and, often, a visible population of people living on the streets.
Tents, tarps and shopping carts have gradually become part of the landscape on the sidewalks and under an I-5 overpass. Dozens of people take refuge in the corridor.
On Wednesday, the Everett City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance that would prohibit sitting or lying on the streets and sidewalks in a 10-block area perceived to have borne the brunt of Everett’s homelessness crisis.
The proposal comes in conjunction with a pilot “pallet shelter” project approved by the council last month. A $1 million state grant would fund the village of about 20 miniature homes to temporarily shelter people seeking permanent housing.
Councilman Scott Bader suggested attaching a “no-sit, no-lie” ordinance to the plan to locate the pallet shelters in the neighborhood, as an olive branch to the neighborhood businesses. After a 5-2 vote in favor, the contingency was added.
If approved, lingering along the roads in the area east of Broadway from 41st Street to Pacific Avenue would be a misdemeanor offense. The ordinance would also criminalize people providing food, goods, supplies or services in the area without a permit from the city.
Residents and activists voiced opposition at two recent City Council meetings. They argue that the no-sit, no-lie proposal would do more harm than good. Area business owners said that they deserve a reprieve, and the people living on the street want their needs met, too.
A worsening problem
The debate in this downtown Everett neighborhood is not new.
“We have been at this impasse along Smith Avenue for a long time,” said Sylvia Anderson, CEO of the Everett Gospel Mission since 2000. The mission houses about 80 men in recovery at its shelter in the 3700 block of Smith Avenue.
Of late, Anderson said, the situation has become untenable. The ongoing activity, she said, is beyond anything she’s ever seen.
Her concerns are for the safety and well-being of the people on the street, but she said the mission, like other area businesses, wants a solution.
“It is impacting all of us,” Anderson said. “I love the folks I serve — I’m tired of seeing them suffer on the street.”
Jennifer Cross owns The Dog Spot, a canine daycare, boarding and training business, a few blocks north on Smith Avenue.
In her 11 years in business, Cross’ concerns have ranged from innocuous issues with trash to moments of concern for the safety of herself and the dozen or so people she employs.
When the homeless population swells in the neighborhood, Cross said, The Dog Spot must combat a perception from clients that the area is unsafe. She worries her operation may go under if that impression becomes a reality.
Self-described as compassionate and very liberal, Cross said her feelings that homelessness is not a crime have been at war with a desire to maintain her livelihood.
“It’s not, ‘I don’t want these people here,’ it’s just, I don’t know, how to balance making sure the neighborhood looks safe and welcoming so I can run a successful business with a bunch of tents out in front of my business,” she said.
The no-sit, no-lie ordinance, in conjunction with the offer of pallet housing, is the kind of solution Cross said she’s been craving. The proposal places necessary boundaries while also offering an alternative place to go, she said.
Anderson said the Everett Gospel Mission has been in discussion with the city to operate the shelter village on land owned by Everett Transit behind the mission.
Along with basic amenities like a dumpster and portable toilets, the twenty units would be surrounded by fencing and equipped with heat, electricity and basic water service.
Anderson said she wants to see the community have the courage to try something different for the people who have found traditional shelter incompatible with their lifestyles.
She made it clear that the mission doesn’t support criminalizing homelessness, but she said at this point the organization is in favor of increased housing by any means necessary. Anderson said the mission will move meal service inside to comply with the ordinance and continue feeding people who don’t live at the shelter.
“We need to come together as a community and give this pilot program a chance to work and to not polarize,” she said. “Not all of us are going to get what we want, but I think we can move forward and we haven’t moved forward in a long time.”
Nowhere else to go
Steve Claymore stepped out from under a blue tarp he’s rigged into a makeshift home on the sidewalk of Smith Avenue to share his concern with the proposal. The law would make his current living situation illegal.
Middle-aged and a lifetime Everett resident, Claymore said he lost shelter in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. With no place to go, Claymore said he turned to the one area of the city where support is offered.
The neighborhood “is not just a place where we come to congregate, it’s where we connect with the resources that are available,” he said.
Claymore worries police will profile the homeless in downtown Everett and said he feels like the ordinance violates the rights awarded to him by the Constitution.
He may be right. Similar no-sit, no-lie ordinances have faced legal challenges.
In 2018, a federal court ruled that governments can’t enforce laws banning homeless people from sleeping or camping on public property in cities where there is no alternative housing option, like shelters or sanctioned encampments.
However, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set the precedent in the case Martin v. City of Boise that an ordinance may be legal if the rule is limited to a particular time or place.
Everett officials have said the no-sit, no-lie proposal’s small geographic scope distinguishes it from other laws that have been challenged.
The city of Boise only last month reached a $1.34 million settlement in its case after 12 years of litigation.
Under the Everett ordinance, a person would not be cited unless they continue to violate the rule after being notified by law enforcement. Violators would face misdemeanor charges that could result in up to 90 days in jail and a fine of $500.
Not far down Smith Avenue, James Carpenter ate lunch in the grass across from the mission.
Carpenter lives on the street. He said the proposal is an unfair effort to reject a whole group based on the bad behavior of a few culprits.
“Not everyone out here is here because of drugs and things like that,” he said. “We are all good people. Some of us lost our way, that’s all.”
Carpenter was skeptical space would be available in the limited number of shelters. He said he’d build his own shelter if given a place to put it.
The mission’s Anderson agreed the 20 dwellings are far from enough to house all the people living on Everett’s streets, but she is hopeful the village can be a model to duplicate across Snohomish County.
“We have to start somewhere,” Anderson said. “If we can prove we can manage 20 (pallet shelters) and it lessens the impact on our businesses and our neighbors, then we definitely have room to add others.”
Everett-based manufacturer Pallet is building the composite-and-aluminum abodes. The individual shelters offer an independent setting for people who may have struggled to be accepted into traditional shelters.
Terms of the grant funding the project stipulate that a person cannot be rejected from the housing solely because he or she abuses drugs or alcohol, resists human services or has a criminal record. There are mandated exceptions, though, for some violent crimes.
The Everett Police Department’s Community Outreach and Enforcement Team of officers and social workers will make referrals to fill the shelters, city staff have said.
Claymore said he’s on waiting lists for other housing options, but hasn’t had luck yet. If offered a pallet home he wouldn’t hesitate.
“I’d be the first one in line — jumping up and down like a pogo stick until they tell me to stop,” Claymore said.
If he isn’t one of the few dozen people chosen, Claymore said, he’d likely head for the woods, but then access to food and water becomes an issue. He hopes a solution can be found that doesn’t include a no-sit, no-lie law.
“We are your neighbors,” he said. “We are just homeless.”
‘Controlled by circumstances’
At Z Sport, an automotive performance and repair shop on the corner of Smith Avenue and 36th Street, owner Gary Watts said the no-sit, no-lie ordinance is the last hope.
Watts said his business hangs on by its teeth because customers fear doing business in the neighborhood.
“You remove the people off the street, remove the campers, the sidewalk sleepers, and Smith Avenue will clean itself up very quickly,” he said.
In 2017, Watts dubbed Everett “Tweakerville” and live-streamed video of the homeless on sidewalks outside his business. He also made a failed write-in bid for mayor during that year’s election cycle.
Watts alleges more than 120 attempted burglaries or break-ins at his business in the past three years. He said managers carry firearms for safety, and he records activity at the shop around the clock.
“It’s hard for me to go out and spend a lot of time protecting the folks that are stealing from me, protecting the folks who are threatening my customers and employees,” he said.
ML Fox Architectural Woodwork operates a custom construction shop a few blocks from Smith Avenue. Owner Lori Fox said it feels like the city tolerates more misbehavior in their neighborhood than elsewhere.
“You don’t see people with tents along Colby or Hewitt, right,” Fox said. “… I don’t think it is fair just to squeeze people onto Smith Avenue.”
A few years ago, Fox’s husband was stabbed in the arm during a carjacking at their business. After being confronted in the past by the homeless, Fox said, she avoids calling police to report illegal activity saying she fears their retribution.
Fox supports the pallet project but wishes the city would choose a different location. She said it’s time to give the area businesses a break.
“Yeah, (the homeless) probably will get pushed somewhere else, maybe they should,” she said.
After three decades on Smith Avenue, Watts said it is time for change. He believes it’s the city’s responsibility to provide citizens a safe environment to live and work.
“I’m controlled by circumstances,” he said.
If the no-sit, no-lie ordinance fails, Watts said, he and other Smith Avenue businesses are prepared to file a class-action lawsuit against the city. He said the allegations would include more than $50 million in lost revenue from neighborhood businesses, based on the condition of the area.
Enforcement is months away
The City Council may approve the no-sit, no-lie proposal at a regular meeting on Wednesday, but it wouldn’t take effect for months.
At a meeting last week, the council unanimously amended the ordinance so it would not go into effect until the pallet housing is available. Councilman Bader suggested the alteration and said it was always his intention to have the two coincide.
Before the pallet village can be prepared, the mission and the city must agree to terms on a management plan. The mission will also need land-use permits from the city.
The city set a goal to have the shelter running by June.
“We need to expedite getting the pallet shelters up,” Anderson said. The mission “is ready to go, the pallet shelter company is ready, so we just need the city to expedite whatever it takes to get that up and running.”
As many as 30 people could call the shelter village home. Still, the 2020 Point-In-Time Count estimating the county’s homeless population identified 300 people without shelter in Everett.
The pallet project is budgeted at just north of $1 million to build and operate.
For that price, homeless neighborhood resident Steve Claymore said, he could build 200 shelters.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.
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