Edmonds City Council held a virtual special meeting Thursday to discuss the proposed ordinance that would ban occupying public spaces overnight. (City of Edmonds)

Edmonds City Council held a virtual special meeting Thursday to discuss the proposed ordinance that would ban occupying public spaces overnight. (City of Edmonds)

Edmonds council refines, but again doesn’t vote on, public camping ban

Councilmembers tried to address public concerns at a meeting Thursday. Meanwhile, officials weighed in from nearby cities.

EDMONDS — The City Council again failed to vote on an ordinance Thursday that would have made it illegal to occupy public property overnight in Edmonds.

After discussing a series of proposed amendments, motions to extend the meeting failed and it adjourned at 9:30 p.m.

The proposed ordinance would ban occupying and storing personal property in public spaces overnight. People who refuse any available shelter could be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail. It can only be enforced if overnight shelter is available, in an effort to be in line with the precedent set in Martin v. City of Boise, a federal district court case that established criminalizing camping in public spaces is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“I want to make very clear that none of this process is, ‘Oh, you have a tent, I see you’re camping, you’re under arrest,’” Police Chief Michelle Bennett said. “That will not in any way, shape or form be what happens. It’s not illegal to have that happening as we come upon it. The only time it would become illegal or the only time it would become arrestable would be if … we tell the person we have the services, they say, ‘No I don’t want them.’”

Councilmembers chipped away at concerns raised by the public Thursday.

Councilmember Susan Paine proposed defining “available” shelter as within a 35-mile radius of Edmonds City Hall. It passed unanimously.

“It’s a good amendment to ensure that we’re not just driving people out,” Councilmember Will Chen said.

Councilmember Laura Johnson proposed reducing the maximum fine from $1,000 to $25. That amendment failed 2-5.

“My guess would be, with our current judge, I can’t imagine there being a fee attached to this as a first offense,” the police chief said.

“This is an ordinance that the city is putting their name on,” Councilmember Laura Johnson said. “While you (Chief Bennett) may be here now, as (the judge) may be there now, that could change.”

‘Please do your part’

In the hours leading up to the expected vote, public officials from nearby cities, current and former state lawmakers, local political organizations, city committee members and service providers urged Edmonds City Council members to vote no.

The 32nd District Democratic Organization passed a resolution Wednesday night asking that councilmembers “immediately cancel any further action” on the ordinance.

“Traditional shelters are not a solution for many people,” the resolution states, “including those whose practical options have been constrained by mental illness or addiction, men who wish to remain with their partner, individuals with pets, or people who are unable to return from work by the time the shelter closes or opens or to leave in the morning.”

At the same time, the Edmonds Diversity Commission said they “would like to go on record opposing the proposal to ban overnight camping on public property that would criminalize homelessness.” The proposed law would disproportionately affect people of color and the LGBTQ community, states the memo to Mayor Mike Nelson and councilmembers.

“Instead of criminalizing the unhoused, we suggest the City of Edmonds create services and infrastructure to assist those in need.”

The majority of the county’s eight temporary shelters are in Everett, according to the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

Just a few hours before the vote was expected, 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.”

Since Everett’s No Sit, No Lie ordinance was implemented, many unsheltered people have been moved out of the area, Vogeli wrote in the email to Edmonds leaders. “And not all of them received shelter, they just relocated to more or less hidden locations. … Please do your part, City of Edmonds, to increase shelter and services in your city for your humble and hurting residents. We will all be better for it.”

There is no shelter in Edmonds, though there are about 450 people without homes living in the city, according to one recent official report. The nearest shelter, at the Lynnwood YWCA, has a 60- to 90-day waitlist, and it only serves women and children.

“Displacing encampment residents and tearing down their ‘makeshift housing’ threatens the life and health of encampment residents,” Tristia Bauman and Lily Milwit of the National Homelessness Law Center wrote in April in a letter to Edmonds. “Because people experiencing homelessness have heightened risks of serious illness, hospitalization, and early morbidity compared with the general population, they are especially vulnerable to serious harms flowing from loss of their shelters and other property.”

The Resident Action Project, a state civil rights organization, took issue with the city’s use of the term “camping” in a tweet during the Thursday meeting.

“To be clear, camping is what housed people do, and usually involves a campfire, s’mores and a serene setting,” they wrote. “Unhoused people are not ‘camping’ … they are trying to survive another night without comfort, protection, safety, privacy and dignity!!”

‘No recourse’

Council President Vivian Olson has attributed the origins of the ordinance to conversations in Homelessness Task Force meetings.

Meanwhile, members of the task force have pointed out the task force’s number one recommendation was creating more shelter in the city.

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

Olson, who also served on the task force, said members “noted that this tool was needed and missing in two instances in 2021, when authorities had no recourse for removing individuals who were scaring families and defecating publicly,” in an email to city staff and councilmembers April 21. “In one of these cases, the person denied repeated offers of shelter and help and was camped on public property adjacent to Edmonds residences for five weeks.”

On Thursday, Olson said the Human Services program and the police chief have been working together to draft the ordinance since the task force’s recommendations were presented in January.

Olson and Mayor Mike Nelson did not respond to requests for comment this week.

State Rep. Strom Peterson said the ordinance seemed to be based on the incident referenced by the council president. Peterson, a former Edmonds councilmember, said he finds that justification for the ordinance “tragic.”

Roughly 85 to 90% of the unhoused people in Edmonds were formerly housed in Edmonds.

“It’s heartless,” former city councilmember and task force member Adrienne Fraley-Monillas told The Herald. “A very high majority of them are homeless in the areas that they had been living because they’ve had a hard time paying $1,500 a month for a studio apartment. And we have very little low-income housing.”

According to the city’s most recent homelessness assessment, about 40% of Edmonds residents are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. And almost 70% of survey respondents said the city’s lack of affordable housing was the largest factor in becoming homeless.

Discussion is expected to continue at the next City Council meeting on May 17.

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

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