Edmonds council debates — but doesn’t vote on — public camping ban

Council members heard a stream of comments from people opposed to the ban Tuesday, then adjourned the meeting without a vote.

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EDMONDS — The Edmonds City Council failed to vote Tuesday on a proposed ban on overnight camping on public property — a law that would effectively criminalize homelessness if people decline an open bed at a local shelter.

A public meeting adjourned at 10:45 p.m. after failing to get enough votes to extend the meeting into the night. Discussion was to continue on Thursday.

The proposed ordinance would make it unlawful to occupy and store personal property on public property overnight, but suspends enforcement against those experiencing homelessness if overnight shelter is not available.

Under the ordinance, people who refuse shelter could be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail.

Unlike last week’s meeting, the majority of residents commenting Tuesday were in opposition.

Lisa Utter, who helped run the south county cold weather shelter, said the ordinance is not a means of supporting the unhoused.

“Then we’re being a bad neighbor, just pushing people out into other areas and your neighboring cities — having been a council person for Lynnwood, I know that,” she said.

Former state Sen. Maralyn Chase said the city needs to build housing and infrastructure and stop chasing homeless people.

Edmonds resident Priya Sinha said the ordinance could put the city at risk of litigation for violating people’s constitutional rights. Before the meeting, she sent council members a letter that shared her son’s struggle with mental health.

“He has been in and out of the criminal system simply because there were no mental health beds available to him,” she wrote.

Jennifer Bereskin, who introduced herself in the Coast Salish language of Lushootseed, told council members if they adopt the ordinance they are turning away the most vulnerable.

“What it tells me is that a person who has long-term childhood poverty and trauma, and then housing instability, that we are not accepted into your community,” she said. “Now you all stand on the bones of my ancestors there … Before the new people came and decided they were going to make this their home as well, no one in our village or in our communities were homeless.”

The proposed Edmonds law aligns with those of cities like Redmond and Mercer Island, which adopted similar ordinances in 2018 and 2021, respectively.

Each ordinance includes a caveat that the law cannot be enforced unless local shelter space is available, in an effort to be in line with the precedent set in Martin v. City of Boise, a federal district court case. The Martin case established that criminalizing camping in public spaces is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Some Snohomish County service providers worry police may not be able ensure the shelter offered is appropriate. People with PTSD may not be able to stay in a congregate shelter. Many shelters limit personal mementos. Few allow pets.

“We need to do everything wisely, and especially when it’s about someone’s life,” said Galina Volchkova, senior director of housing services for Volunteers of America Western Washington. “Behind the statement ‘refused shelter’ might be hidden many questions: What was really offered? Where? Was it safe? Why refused? Are we going to pretend that we are solving homelessness by shifting people between cities and counties? Or we are going to build more shelters, provide decent and respectful services?”

These types of ordinances create more problems than they solve, Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Homelessness Law Center, told The Daily Herald. Taking a punitive approach, she said, wastes money, causes harm and does not reduce the number of people living outside.

The activity prohibited in the ordinance is known to be inherently innocent, Bauman said. Her group sent a letter to the city last month when staff caught wind of a potential prohibition of use of public space. They asked the city to work with them and said a ban described in an Edmonds Beacon story could put the city at risk of violating unhoused peoples’ rights.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Police Chief Michelle Bennett said officers have already been assessing and offering services to unhoused people. She said implementing the ordinance would mean focusing “on finding services for people … any kind of arrest or turning would be the absolute last resort.” Bennett said officers would work with the city’s Human Services department.

“Maybe twice since my arrival here have people absolutely refused shelter,” said Bennett, who started as interim chief in March 2021.

Human Services Deputy Director Shannon Burley said the ordinance would not be a fix-all.

“I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone to believe that by passing this ordinance, we would somehow be able to immediately put people into shelter,” she said. “… If I called right now, today, there are no congregate shelter beds available (nearby). Period.”

Councilmember Laura Johnson’s motion to table discussion until the city addresses its lack of shelter and other services failed, 5-2.

The proposed Edmonds ordinance is in direct contradiction with recommendations issued in a report in January by the city’s Homelessness Task Force.

The report stated that its 14 members — a cross-section of first-responders, current and former city officials, faith leaders and more — did “not recommend criminalizing homelessness, but rather increasing shelter and working to stabilize those who are unsheltered.”

“The task force’s number one recommendation was to not criminalize homelessness but to instead create other shelter options such as motel space,” said Mary Anne Dillon, executive director for YWCA Snohomish County, who served on the task force.

There are about 450 people without homes in the city of Edmonds, according to a recent homelessness assessment. And there is currently no shelter within the city. The Lynnwood YWCA, the only year-round shelter in south Snohomish County, has a 30- to 60-day wait list.

More people are being housed using motel vouchers than through the shelter, Burley said. But no more vouchers — funded through a state program — are available, according to city staff.

Less than a decade ago, Mindy Woods was homeless in Edmonds. She and her son, then 13 years old, were staying in a hotel the YWCA paid for while waiting for two shelter beds to open up, she told The Daily Herald in 2019.

“People with the lived experience are often left out of the conversation,” she said at the time. So she took it upon herself to share her story, with small community groups and in the state capital.

On Monday, Woods became the city’s first full-time Human Services program manager. She was hired part-time in 2020. She said she could not comment on the ordinance and referred The Daily Herald to her supervisor or the city spokesperson.

There are more people in need in Snohomish County than there is shelter.

Jennifer Ren, a Granite Falls native, said she, her partner and her 4-year-old daughter have spent the past two years in their SUV or a tent.

In December, they got into a short-term shelter in Everett. After 60 days, they had to move on.

“Both my husband and I work,” she said. “… We don’t qualify for help. The system is broken.”

They recently bought a 1993 RV, but most RV parks want such vehicles to be 2012 or newer.

“So we are still sleeping in our car,” Ren said.

The 211 social service line has received more than 26,000 housing and shelter requests from Snohomish County callers, the highest rate of any county in the state.

Snohomish County’s motel shelter program pays for about 173 motel rooms.

There are eight temporary shelters in the county, according to the Housing Authority of Snohomish County. Six of them are in Everett.

Herald writer Katie Hayes contributed to this reporting.

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

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