EVERETT — The law has yet to take effect, but its intent already seems to be having a dramatic impact.
Weeks after the Everett City Council passed a controversial “no-sit, no-lie” ordinance to provide relief to a largely commercial and industrial section of downtown, the streets and sidewalks don’t look the same.
There are far fewer signs of a homeless population that once staked nomadic claims with shopping carts, tents and tarps.
The ban is months from being legally enforceable, but the scattering is evident to the casual observer and certainly to advocates whose mission is to aid those living on the street.
Most of the dozens of people who made their homes under an I-5 overpass on Smith Avenue and surrounding arterials have moved on.
Some of the street denizens say Everett police officers have told them to hit the road. Not so, say higher ups within the police department and City Hall.
Police insist their enforcement hasn’t changed and that the mass exodus is as much a surprise to them as anyone else.
The issue of what to do about the homeless in and around Smith Avenue became a focal point of intense City Council and community-wide debate in March.
The Everett City Council connected a unique opportunity to shelter about 30 people in a “pallet village” — a collection of miniature dwellings to temporarily shelter people seeking permanent housing — to the passing of a law prohibiting homeless people from sitting or lying on the streets, sidewalks and other public spaces in the area surrounding the site.
The 10-block zone has long borne the brunt of the city’s homelessness crisis. It includes Everett Station, the Everett Gospel Mission and a myriad of industrial businesses. On March 17, the city council voted 5-1 to approve the ordinance but delayed enforcement until some alternative housing is available in the pallet village, later this summer.
Still, in a matter of weeks, many of those without housing abandoned the Smith Avenue area. As the community dispersed, people found new places to stay, taking refuge on Hewitt Avenue, along the Snohomish River off 41st Street, in an area near Marine View Drive or in small groups on the streets.
Two weeks ago, Jessica Warrington was one of the 20 or so people living in tents under the I-5 overpass on Hewitt Avenue, one block outside the impending no-sit, no-lie zone. She said the police told those living on Smith Avenue they would face fines or jail time if they didn’t leave the neighborhood.
“If you’re a homeless person — if you don’t have a house or a car — the city of Everett looks at you like you’re illegal,” she said.
Everett Police Department Capt. David Fudge said officers haven’t changed anything about their work on Smith Avenue.
“The March 17 passing of the no-sit, no-lie … had no impact on what we were doing down there or anything we did,” Fudge said. “We were continuing to enforce obstructing the sidewalk based on complaints and also, simply, they were violating the law by obstructing the sidewalk down there.”
Since no-sit, no-lie passed, folks on Smith Avenue left of their own accord, Fudge said.
Rumors made it back to the department that officers were enforcing the ordinance, but Fudge said that’s “flat out not true.”
In his 34 years policing Everett, Fudge said, he can’t remember the last time a person was arrested for obstructing the sidewalk. Instead, officers were educating people experiencing homelessness on the pending action and when it would go into effect.
“It was as much a surprise to us as anyone else, because we changed nothing,” Fudge said. “Whatever the reason, still to this minute right now, we have no clue as to why they completely vacated the area and moved out.”
Warrington, 42, said police harass the community living on the streets, making already difficult circumstances worse.
“It’s exhausting to be homeless,” Warrington said.
She said she hadn’t eaten in more than 24 hours when Penelope Protheroe, president of the Angel Resource Connection, arrived with hot food, water and other essential items. Once enacted, the no-sit, no-lie ordinance will outlaw advocates like Protheroe from providing food, goods, supplies or services in the zone without a permit from the city.
Before the mass migration from Smith Avenue, Protheroe and other members of the nonprofit could set up a table at a central location in the corridor to distribute goods or deliver other assistance, like help applying for pandemic stimulus checks.
Now, Protheroe said, she spends hours bouncing around Everett in a white Sprinter van finding the folks in dire need of a pick-me-up. The dispersal has tripled the time Protheroe spends serving them and creates barriers that make it even more difficult to provide consistent resources.
“At least Smith Avenue was kind of an address for them,” Protheroe said. “When they are scattered, you’re helping with necessary survival needs.”
For a few weeks, those living under the Hewitt Avenue I-5 overpass thought they’d found a new home. They reported being hassled less and visited by police only once or twice.
“What we want is somewhere to go where no one will mess with us,” said “T,” a middle-aged man living on the street who was concerned about sharing his name for fear of harassment.
“Not all of us want to be out here,” T said. “I want to get the hell off the streets.”
He hopes to get into the pallet shelter operated by the Everett Gospel Mission when it becomes available, but he wasn’t sure if there would be space or if he’d be considered. In the meantime, he thought Hewitt Avenue was a safe place to wait.
That haven has since disappeared.
The sidewalks on Hewitt, too, are now empty. Freshly painted bike lanes glisten on the pavement where tents, tarps and sleeping bags were not long ago.
Fudge said the department initiated the exact same enforcement and outreach it had elsewhere in the city.
In a statement, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin insisted there hasn’t been a premature enforcement of no-sit, no-lie, only a continuation of ongoing efforts to connect people experiencing homelessness with services and an attempt to limit crime.
“It’s important to address with compassion the needs of our unsheltered population, while also protecting the residents and businesses who have been impacted by criminal activity in the area,” the mayor said.
Everett Gospel Mission CEO Sylvia Anderson said she is concerned the city’s approach is creating mistrust. Already, daily meal service at the mission is feeding half as many people.
She said her team has worked hard to ensure the population living on the streets of Smith Avenue that they’d be safe until the pallet shelters open.
“It feels like, no matter what was said, we are enforcing no-sit, no-lie right now. That’s what it looks like, that’s what it feels like,” she said.
City leaders said the pallet housing should be open by July. Permit applications were submitted to the planning department last week for review and public comment.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.