Jason Cockburn of Second Chance Foundation talks about the possibility of getting tents set up in the parking lot at Everett United Church of Christ. The church has applied to host an encampment. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jason Cockburn of Second Chance Foundation talks about the possibility of getting tents set up in the parking lot at Everett United Church of Christ. The church has applied to host an encampment. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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Everett church wants to host tent camp; city ponders process

Everett United Church of Christ is applying to host one. It’s a 45-day process.

EVERETT — People helping those without safe, stable housing find shelter are seeking another option after a string of city and county sweeps broke up local encampments.

Late last month, City Councilmember Liz Vogeli proposed an ordinance amendment that would reduce the required time between an encampment’s application and opening from 45 days to seven.

“It is really an emergency for the health of our residents — not just citizens, but residents — to shelter in place,” Vogeli said at the council’s July 29 meeting.

City code permits homeless encampments — with a lot of requirements and restrictions — as a temporary use for areas that aren’t zoned for them. The application process takes at least 45 days before a site can start and includes a list of other requirements.

Vogeli’s request failed to get a second motion for a vote by the other council members, and the item was tabled for another meeting. The delay means an application to host an encampment by the Everett United Church of Christ, which serves free meals and hosts a food pantry, will go through the current process and timeline.

Olivia Vanni / The Herald
                                Pastor Jermell Witherspoon.

Olivia Vanni / The Herald Pastor Jermell Witherspoon.

“It is our duty, it is our mandate, it is our vision,” pastor Jermell Witherspoon said of the church’s reason for wanting to host an encampment. “It is part of our mission as being followers of Christ.”

But the council’s inaction isn’t about a specific site, Councilmember Brenda Stonecipher said, it’s about writing a policy that can cover all such endeavors and follow the proper public process.

A shared concern for a few council members was the reduced time for public involvement or notice. During discussion about a joint $4.3 million grant application with Snohomish County and other cities for state funding to expand shelter capacity, some council members said they also want more equitable distribution of homeless resources and services throughout the county, instead of them being centralized in Everett.

“There are a lot of other cities that have capacity to take on more sheltering capacity, and there are some absolutely wonderful locations for that,” Councilmember Scott Murphy said during last week’s meeting. “For example, I think of the fairgrounds that can’t be used right now for the public purposes of the fair due to the COVID virus, and yet Everett continues to step up. We’ve done more than any other city over the last several years.”

The council approved the application, with Murphy voting against it.

City staff were asked to present at a future meeting a summary of which elements of the current encampment rules are working, which aren’t, what other cities do to permit encampments, where they’re allowed in Everett, what’s required for them to be allowed, and how the city can prevent “bad actors from coming in and taking advantage of our policies,” as Stonecipher put it.

Everett has several programs that serve unsheltered people.

The Community Outreach and Enforcement Team pairs an embedded social worker with police to connect people to detox and treatment, basic needs, and the Snohomish County housing system.

Cars to Housing, in partnership with the Interfaith Family Shelter and Cascade View Presbyterian Church, designates places for people living in their vehicles to park at night.

Over the past few months, Everett gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal CARES Act funding to agencies that provide food, housing and rent assistance.

There are also several behavioral health clinics, as well as the Everett Gospel Mission, in the city.

In a statement, Mayor Cassie Franklin said the city has been working to help those experiencing homelessness and address street-level social issues for many years.

“Every resident of our city deserves the safety of a shelter or home,” she wrote. “It is important for their safety as well as the safety of our businesses and other residents in our community. Our current encampment ordinance is in compliance with state regulations regarding locations and allows for the faith community to offer solutions with some community notification. We found this very beneficial for the success of the Cars to Housing program. My office has been working closely to collaborate with Snohomish County and surrounding jurisdictions to establish both near and long-term housing solutions. I look forward to working with our city council in support of additional solutions for our unsheltered population.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends allowing encampments to remain to limit risk of contracting and spreading the new coronavirus.

That didn’t stop Snohomish County and the City of Everett from clearing camps last month, one on the county campus in downtown Everett, the other on private property along Rucker Avenue. In both cases, government officials said the gatherings were public health and safety risks. The Rucker Avenue encampment had the property owner’s approval — to the dismay of some neighbors — but lacked the proper temporary use permit from the city.

“After being shut down from the Rucker property, in five days we supported 16 cases, eight got into detox and treatment, eight families into permanent situations, including three pregnant women,” said Robert Smiley, founder of The Hand Up Project that helps people get clean and sober and into housing. “After disbursement, three families lost opportunities for long-term solutions basically because we were unable to locate them.”

Then on Wednesday, the county Sheriff’s office dispersed some 20 people from Matthew Parsons Park at Wall Street and Rockefeller Avenue. Just a block away, Smiley and other local activists gathered and called on the city to expedite the approval process for sanctioned encampments.

Lately people have resumed gathering in downtown Everett around the Carnegie Resource Center, which includes overnight beds, and the county campus.

Advocates who work to connect unsheltered people to resources and services said the centralized, stable location, even if only temporary, helped them get a footing as they waited on more permanent housing.

Jason Cockburn, who lives in Snohomish, started the Second Chance Foundation after his own experience being homeless for 25 years. He worked with people staying at the county campus and Rucker Avenue sites.

“They’ve been dispersed throughout our city with no shelter, nobody coming to help them,” he told the city council. “The problem didn’t go away just because we disbanded one camp.”

Cockburn, through his Second Chance Foundation, is organizing the application to host an eight-tent encampment at the Everett United Church of Christ parking lot on Rockefeller Avenue, just north of Everett Avenue. Witherspoon, the church pastor, said the site would have far fewer than 80 people, contrary to a TV news report, because of social distancing and the church owning only part of the parking lot adjacent to the main building.

City code lists 21 standards for encampments, such as a 40-foot buffer from neighboring properties, a cap of 100 people, privacy fencing, no children under 18 or the manager must call Child Protective Services, and a code of conduct that bans alcohol and drugs, violence, weapons, loitering and abusive language. It also requires quiet hours between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. The city’s regular quiet hours are 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Hosting the encampment is tantamount to the congregation’s mission and values, Witherspoon said.

“These people are fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles,” he said. “And though we might not see it when we come in contact with them, it is so important that we see them … When we are not doing that, we are in such contradiction to the ways of the universe, even outside of the concept of God.

“We’ve got to do better by the people that are in the space with us.”

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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