Often, as important as the capabilities of the tools in a tool box is the order in which those tools are used.
The Everett City Council is considering two tools to resolve homelessness and its impacts for those living on the streets and for those in neighborhoods where homelessness is most visible. But upcoming council decisions on both initiatives should better consider how those initiatives can work together.
Both proposals look to alleviate the homelessness and its impacts seen adjacent to the Everett Gospel Mission, where those who are homeless have erected tents, tarps and other makeshift shelters along Smith Avenue sidewalks beneath the I-5 overpass.
A month ago, Everett announced that it planned to use more than $1 million from a state grant and other funding to establish a “pallet shelter” village on city property adjacent to the mission, as reported by The Herald’s Rachel Riley. The shelters, built by Everett-based Pallet, are 64-square-foot shelters, made from composite materials and aluminum framing, that provide enough room for one to two single beds and occupants’ belongings. The shelters, with electrical service, can be heated and have a door with a lock.
The funding would provide for a small fenced village of about 20 of the shelters, housing 20 to 30 people and a caretaker. The shelters would be served by water, portable toilets and sanitation and garbage services, and are intended as low- to no-barrier shelter for those who are homeless, serving as an interim home while more permanent shelter and supportive services are sought. The Everett Gospel Mission has expressed interest in providing day-to-day oversight, as well as food, clothing and other resources.
The council has given initial approval for the pilot project to move ahead and begin its permit process.
The second initiative, one that was proposed to work in tandem with the pallet shelter village, would be a new ordinance that would bar people from sitting or lying as many are doing now beneath the overpass, as reported last week by The Herald’s Ian Davis-Leonard. Refusing to comply after a police officer has notified someone of a violation could result in a misdemeanor charge carrying the threat of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Other “no sit, no lie” ordinances have brought in lawsuits and a 2008 federal court decision that held such ordinances were unconstitutional if individuals were unable to find space in shelters or in a sanctioned encampment. More recently, following a U.S. 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals case, Martin v. City of Boise, that city reached a $1.335 million settlement with homeless plaintiffs, after the court determined that Boise could not criminalize sleeping in public when no other shelter was available.
But the same court allowed that such ordinances might be found constitutional if they are limited to specific times or areas. Everett’s proposed ordinance would apply to a limited zone, centered on the mission, east of Broadway, between Pacific Avenue and 41st Street.
On the surface, the proposed ordinance would seem to be a departure from the recent realization among local governments that they “can’t arrest their way out” of issues of homelessness and its associated problems. Everett, as an example, has been a leader in efforts such as that to embed social workers with police patrols to connect those with homelessness, addiction and mental health treatment needs with services that better address those ills. That’s a far better option than the costly and unproductive cycle of arrest, jail and release back to the streets.
Another provision in the ordinance seems, well, uncharitable; it would prohibit persons or groups — say a church — from handing out food, beverages, clothing, blankets or other supplies within the zone. Some such donations, yes, become trash, but they also provide support and an important opportunity for connection between the homeless and the larger community.
But if the ordinance can be used in tandem with the pallet shelter project, it might — when used judiciously — provide some leverage for those who are working with those within the homeless community who are more resistant to accepting that aid.
But recent decisions by the Everett City Council may work against both initiatives.
The council’s OK of the pallet project came with the caveat that its approval was contingent on passage of the “no-sit, no-lie” ordinance. Further, the pallet project would have to be abandoned if a lawsuit successfully challenged the ordinance. It makes little sense to abandon one solution, just because another is found constitutionally lacking in a court of law.
Nor does the ordinance appear to recognize the ongoing public health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic; the number of people the mission can currently shelter has been reduced because of the need to provide more space among beds at the shelter, a significant reason for the increase in those taking shelter beneath the overpass.
The ordinance’s timing is equally troubling. Assuming a final vote by the council on March 17, it would take effect 15 days later. At best, assuming approval and no delays, the pallet village might accept its first tenants in June.
Forcing those who are homeless out of the area for two or more months and into other areas in the city could drive them from the services and support available at the mission. It could also make it harder to line up tenants for the pallet shelters themselves. One of the pluses of the pallet village is that it would allow easier access for those who can connect the homeless community with needed support and other services.
It’s true that the businesses and employees who work in the area near the unsanctioned encampment have had to live with more of the impacts of homelessness than have others in the city, but the ordinance — and its threat of jail time and a $500 fine — are ill-timed when a potentially more effective and humane solution is just months away.
The city council should rethink its timing in how it uses these two tools. At the least, the “no-sit, no-lie” ordinance’s implementation should be delayed until the pallet shelters are ready for residents.
Better yet, the ordinance should be placed on hold until the city has had a chance to review how well the pallet project is sheltering people from the elements and making everyone’s lives more livable.