EVERETT — Homeless people who camp along Smith Avenue beneath the I-5 overpass might soon have more than tents and a concrete bridge to call home.
Officials are proposing a pilot program that would create a new community of individual shelter units behind the Everett Gospel Mission’s nearby shelter at 3711 Smith Ave.
The makeshift “pallet shelter” village, funded with roughly $1 million in state grant money, would house some 30 people for about a year while they try to find a longer-term housing solution, city staff told the Everett City Council late Wednesday.
Anyone left loitering in the area, though, would need to go elsewhere. Officials pitching the pilot program will also ask the council to approve an ordinance that would prohibit people from sitting or lying on the streets, sidewalks and other public rights of way surrounding the site, said Julie Willie, Everett’s community development director.
Willie first publicly outlined the project last fall after the city won a state grant that will pay for the pilot project. On Wednesday, she provided new details, including the proposed location and the recommended “no-sit, no-lie” rule for the surrounding area.
Officials say the pilot project is intended to provide assistance to those experiencing homelessness while also creating “legal tools” to help reduce impacts to residents and businesses in an area of the city that has long felt the brunt of the crisis.
City staffers plan to return to the council in the coming months to obtain various approvals for the project, with the goal of having the shelter community up and running in June.
A federal court ruled in 2018 that governments cannot legally enforce ordinances that bar homeless people from sleeping or camping on public property if those individuals don’t have an alternative place to go, such as a shelter or sanctioned encampments. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ high-profile decision in Martin v. City of Boise has forced some U.S. cities to rethink their approach to addressing homelessness.
But Everett City Attorney David Hall told the council that the ruling makes an exception for no-sit, no-lie laws that cover a limited time period or geographic area.
“We’re pretty confident that that it is very defensible,” Hall told the City Council.
He cited a footnote in the court decision that states, “even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible.”
Council members expressed general support for the pilot project, though no vote was taken. Councilmen Scott Bader and Jeff Moore noted that they would only support the planned community if the no-sit, no-lie rule was implemented, too. They cited the need to protect businesses and residents in the area of the men’s shelter.
The pilot community would be on what is now a vacant lot just east of the men’s shelter, across an alleyway, Willie said.
The Everett Gospel Mission has expressed interest in managing the community by providing “day-to-day oversight,” food, clothing and some other resources, said Sylvia Anderson, CEO of the mission.
The need for housing among people experiencing homelessness has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic because the men’s shelter and other similar local facilities have had to slash bed counts in order to comply with social distancing requirements, Anderson said.
The stigma against people living on the streets has intensified, too, creating additional safety issues in the area surrounding the mission, she said.
She recalled three recent incidents of passersby throwing firecrackers into groups of homeless people camping beneath the I-5 overpass.
“We really need to address what’s happening under the bridge,” she said. “We’ve got to have some alternatives. I don’t want any other businesses or neighborhoods to be negatively impacted because people don’t have anywhere else to go. So we need to try this innovative approach.”
The proposed pilot site is owned by Everett Transit. The land’s current industrial zoning designation allows a religious organization to establish a temporary shelter for up to four consecutive months. However, Willie noted, state law provides an avenue for that time limit to be extended. The city hearing examiner would likely need to grant that extension through a public process, she said.
City staff chose the lot after reviewing a variety of locations based on factors such as surrounding neighborhoods, land use restrictions and proximity to bus stops and emergency services.
A diagram of the pallet shelter community shows 21 units, including one for a caretaker, plus a dumpster and portable toilets. The village would be surrounded by fencing and equipped with heat, electricity and basic water service.
City officials plan to purchase the individual shelters from Pallet, an Everett-based manufacturer that designed the portable structures as a novel approach to providing interim housing to those living on the streets while they search for permanent homes.
The budget for the pilot program is about $1.04 million, counting a year’s worth of security and sanitation services and other operational expenses, Willie said. The state Department of Commerce’s Shelter Program would provide about $985,000, including some $250,000 that Snohomish County was awarded and allotted for the pilot. Another $55,000 would come from a sales tax intended to fund mental health and addiction treatment programs.
The council will be asked later this month to approve a grant agreement finalizing how the state money will be spent.
The no-sit, no-lie ordinance will likely be formally considered at public meetings this spring, Willie said.