With more people homeless, Monroe bans sidewalk-sitting

People are prohibited from sitting or lying near public doorways. Marysville has a similar ordinance.

MONROE — The city of Monroe recently passed a law prohibiting people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks. It went into effect Thursday.

Monroe is not the first city in Snohomish County to adopt this kind of rule. Marysville has had an ordinance for almost 20 years. Everett considered one in 2015, but withdrew it after backlash. Members of Everett’s Community Streets Initiative task force, which studied issues surrounding homelessness, argued it was a violation of human rights. Several other cities in the county have explored legislation around similar social issues.

The Monroe law, which makes the offense a misdemeanor, was proposed by the police department and unanimously approved by the City Council on March 6. Three of the seven councilmembers were absent from the vote.

The rules are enforced between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m., within 100 feet of doorways to public buildings, such as businesses and offices. Those in violation could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for 90 days.

“We wanted to create a safe environment for pedestrians so the traffic is not obstructed, so they could get to businesses in a safe matter,” Deputy Police Chief Ken Ginnard said.

The number of people sitting or lying on Monroe sidewalks has gone up in the past six months, he said.

Between 2016 and 2017, the homeless population almost doubled in Monroe, according to the Snohomish County Point-in-Time count. The survey is completed each January, and estimates the number of homeless people in the county. The information from 2017 indicates 38 people were homeless in Monroe. That year, the city’s population was 18,350.

If a person on the sidewalk is homeless, an officer is supposed to help him or her find space at a shelter and offer a ride, Ginnard said. The department can take people as far as Everett. Monroe officers won’t give citations to anyone unless they are asked to leave and refuse, he said.

“We have a cold weather shelter in town, and if someone asks for a ride we will provide that,” he said.

Most cities in the county have regulations against disorderly conduct on public sidewalks, which could include blocking foot traffic. Monroe and Marysville appear to be the only places to pass laws with language that bans sitting or lying on sidewalks.

Marysville’s code has been in place since 1997, though the law is not strongly enforced, city spokeswoman Connie Mennie said.

Officers likely wouldn’t confront someone just for sitting or lying on the sidewalk, as long as there’s no disturbance, she said.

Marysville’s law is implemented between 6 a.m. and midnight, and officers won’t cite someone unless they refuse to leave, Mennie said. The consequence is an infraction, and is similar to getting a traffic ticket, she said. The person would either pay a fine or request a court hearing.

Long-time employees of the Marysville Police Department don’t remember why the law came to be, or the last time it factored into a write up, she said.

“I can’t 100 percent say a ticket has never been written, but people here now are not aware of any,” Mennie said.

The people behind Monroe’s order reviewed Everett’s work on the subject, Ginnard said.

Everett’s sidewalk legislation never was enacted, but there is a misdemeanor code dedicated to unlawful camping. It says no one can have camping materials, such as sleeping bags, in any public space, including parks and streets.

The Everett Police Department may issue warnings to those who violate the ordinance, officer Aaron Snell said.

“When it becomes apparent the warnings are not effective, we will enforce the law and issue citations or enact an arrest,” he said.

As part of Monroe’s law, people could get in trouble for setting up their own chairs in public, unless they have permission from a nearby business owner. Sidewalk fixtures, such as planters, water fountains and bike racks, can’t be used as resting places, either.

“There are several public benches,” Ginnard said. “If people are using structures on the sidewalks for what they’re designed for, that’s perfectly fine.”

Exceptions exist to the Monroe rule: medical emergencies, parades, bus stops, patio dining, and activities protected by the First Amendment.

Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; sdavey@heraldnet.com.

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