Edmonds proposal would criminalize camping on public property

Under the ordinance, backed by two council members, unhoused people who don’t accept services could be fined — or arrested.

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EDMONDS — An ordinance proposed by the Edmonds City Council president would make it illegal for unhoused people to “occupy public property overnight” if they refuse services, like overnight shelter.

“It establishes protections for our housed residents when unhoused residents refuse to accept help from the city and our community partners,” City Council President Vivian Olson said in an email to city officials last week.

Resident after resident appeared Tuesday in council chambers and via Zoom to express support for — or disgust with — the council’s consideration of the ordinance.

“Criminalizing homelessness actually runs counter to the recommendations of the city’s own task force,” Edmonds resident Dan Murphy said. “It seems like the council and the city are just taking the easy way out. … ‘Let’s kick the unfortunate people out of town. Let’s get them out of sight, out of mind.’”

The Edmonds Homelessness Task Force was formed last fall “to assist the city” with finding ways to prevent homelessness and address the housing crisis, Mayor Mike Nelson said in a statement.

Olson was among those serving on the task force. Alongside her were representatives from the YWCA, local churches, South County Fire community paramedics, Edmonds police, Edmonds planning and human services staff, the Korean Community Service Center, the Edmonds Senior Center and a social worker from the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

One of the recommendations that came out of the task force was to prohibit the “unlawful use of public space.”

Council members most vocally in favor of the ordinance — Olson and Diane Buckshnis — called it a necessary “tool.”

“This is one tool in the toolbox,” Olson said. “And we don’t expect to use it regularly.”

Councilmember Will Chen said he couldn’t support the ordinance if it only targeted the least fortunate, but would support a revised ordinance “that applies to all people who break the law.”

He said he would encourage a new version to include verbiage to ensure that when the city offers services, it’s documented.

A federal district court case, Martin v. City of Boise, set a precedent that legalized public camping by unhoused people who have nowhere else to go. It 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.”

“The courts really limited the authority to cite the unhoused,” said Patricia Taraday of Lighthouse Law Group, which represents the city.

In Edmonds, the penalty provisions of the ordinance would only be enforceable if someone refused available shelter.

“Available shelter is defined as public or private space available for overnight shelter at no charge to individuals or family units experiencing homelessness,” the proposed ordinance states.

Police could only cite people who refuse available shelter. Shelter is only considered “available” if the person in need has no barriers to entry based on gender, religious beliefs, disabilities or a shelter’s length-of-stay restrictions, for example.

People who refuse shelter could be charged with a misdemeanor, and that could lead to an arrest with up to a $1,000 fine or jail time.

Taraday said the city has not yet defined where “available” shelter needs to be. She suggested people could be taken to shelter space across the county and even across county lines.

Councilmember Neil Tibbott suggested people could be transported to more distant shelters.

“Let’s say a specialized type of shelter would be required — it might not be readily available in the immediate local area, but it would be suitable and desirable in another part, perhaps, even of the state,” Tibbott said. “And so, creating geographical boundaries would be difficult.”

Being told to go elsewhere isn’t helpful, North Snohomish County Outreach Founder Sarah Higginbotham told The Herald last fall. People want to stay in the area they are most familiar with, where they are near the resources they rely on, she said.

Edmonds paid $8,400 for a consultant to produce a “Homelessness Assessment,” according to vouchers approved by council in February. The report found that the city needs shelter, affordable housing and more human services staffers.

There are about 450 unhoused people living in Edmonds, according to the report. But there isn’t a single shelter within Edmonds.

“How can you say anyone is refusing services when the city of Edmonds doesn’t have services to give?” said Councilmember Laura Johnson. “… Is that compassionate to remove somebody from their place, the community that they reside in, and dump them someplace else?”

The south Snohomish County shelter at the YWCA in Lynnwood only has space for 17 women and children. It has a two- to four-month wait list.

More people are being housed using motel vouchers than through the women-only shelter, Edmonds Human Services Deputy Director Shannon Burley said.

Those vouchers are currently funded through a state Department of Revenue grant, Councilmember Susan Paine said. She wonders what will happen if or when those funds run dry.

St. Albans Episcopal Church Deacon Jim Gilman said his church offers ministries serving the homeless and hungry. He said the need for shelter and food has grown since the pandemic began.

Leaders at his church regularly refer those seeking shelter to the Everett Gospel Mission, which often has a wait list, Gilman said: “They’ve been completely full for some time.” Gilman said the city of Edmonds has not provided the church with any information about resources in the area beyond an informational pamphlet.

Finding services for the homeless “is the biggest gap,” Gilman said.

The Edmonds Human Services Division consists of two people: Human Services Program Manager Mindy Woods and Burley, according to a city news release. It’s just two years old.

“We’ve barely begun to get the Human Services program into place and this (ordinance) comes along and seems to criminalize poverty,” Paine told The Herald before Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said she believes such an ordinance is necessary.

“I do believe that we should, in fact, provide an ordinance that allows people — normal people — like myself to have a right,” she said, “that if someone starts camping in my driveway, I have a right to allow them to call Chief Bennett and have the police come and check out what’s going on.”

“‘Normal people like myself’ is my favorite council quote of the night,” one resident wrote on Twitter. “So out of touch.”

“Normal people?” another resident wrote. “Who are the abnormal ones?”

In Edmonds, about 40% of residents are cost-burdened, or spend more than 30% of their income on housing expenses.

The advertised average rent in Snohomish County is $2,080 a month, according to a United Way of Snohomish County presentation.

In Edmonds, the average advertised rent for a studio apartment is $1,532 — about $400 more per month than the cost to rent a studio in Seattle. Edmonds rentals on average cost about $2.30 per square foot per month.

Last year, the Everett City Council adopted the similarly controversial “no-sit, no-lie” law but at the same time created more shelter through a small village of tiny homes. The lone “no” vote for that ordinance came from Councilmember Liz Vogeli.

“Arson is a crime, property damage is a crime,” Vogeli said at the time. “… I don’t think sitting and lying down is a crime, nor do I think that it is a good idea to create it as a crime.”

The city of Edmonds has not shared plans to create shelter in the city. Councilmembers Paine and Laura Johnson both said they think the city should begin addressing homelessness by providing shelter. Laura Johnson’s motion to table the ordinance indefinitely — until the council tackles the causes of homelessness, like the affordability of housing — failed 2-4.

The meeting ended abruptly at 10:35 p.m. Tuesday after a motion to extend the meeting failed. There was no discussion about when the proposed ordinance could be up for a vote.

Councilmember Paine told The Herald a vote is scheduled for a meeting May 3. She said she had hoped for more time.

Affordable housing is a countywide issue, Housing Hope CEO Fred Safstrom said in an interview.

If a city is considering an ordinance banning camping in public spaces without expanding access to shelter, “people have no option, nowhere to go,” Safstrom said. “I mean, what are you doing? What are you expecting?”

Burley said she’s hoping the proposed ordinance “serves as a catalyst to unify all of us towards a common goal, which is to ensure that none of our residents are living on a sidewalk.”

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

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