How should the Pacific Northwest’s rapidly-growing communities respond to rising levels of homelessness, inequality and poverty?
They certainly have options available: They can fund more shelter beds, or sponsor resume workshops and job fairs, or push for mixed-income housing in new construction, ensuring that a city’s exciting new growth benefits all residents. But lawmakers in some communities, apparently convinced that taking on these issues is too burdensome a task, have opted for a fourth approach: criminalizing the poor and homeless.
Everett is one of several Washington cities, including Aberdeen, Arlington and Burlington, that enforce ordinances prohibiting “unlawful camping.” Such laws waste municipal resources, exacerbate the cycle of poverty and fail to do anything to stem the tide of homelessness. In response to a court challenge, Judge Timothy Odell of the Everett Municipal Court recently issued perhaps the strongest condemnation yet of this unfair, misguided policy. It is time for Everett and cities like it to repeal these laws and find ways to meaningfully help their homeless residents.
In effect, unlawful camping applies to public property the laws that prohibit trespass on private property. Everett Municipal Code 8.56.010 makes it illegal to use tents, tarps, sleeping bags and blankets in places like parks, streets or vacant lots. If you go to sleep, and you have no roof over your head, Everett considers you a criminal.
The ordinance might be sound policy if it were used to gently encourage shelter usage, or incentivize use of drug treatment programs, or deter sleeping in city streets or other dangerous areas. But Everett’s burgeoning homeless population has far outpaced the capacity of available facilities. Of Everett’s three shelters, only one, the Everett Gospel Mission, serves single men without children. High demand for the mission’s beds has forced it to hold lotteries for space, and on many nights, dozens of hopeful entrants are turned away with nowhere to go. The law allows police to sweep through public streets and parks and haul these bewildered, exhausted people off to jail.
Because unlawful camping charges are nearly impossible to beat, these cases swamp court dockets and compromise the time of Everett’s hardworking judges, district attorneys, public defenders, and other court personnel. And substantial penalties exacerbate the challenges that the homeless already face. Each offense is a misdemeanor that can mean jail time or a fine of up to $1,000. By saddling homeless residents with a criminal record and debt they cannot repay, Everett makes it even more difficult for them to find work, secure housing, and get back on their feet.
Some policymakers have taken note of this ordinance’s fundamental unfairness. Last August, the federal Department of Justice weighed in on a court challenge in Boise, Idaho, opining that this “poor public policy” amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. In response, the Vancouver (Wash.) City Council voted unanimously in September to repeal its ordinance. And on Jan. 12, Judge Odell, sharply criticizing the “grossly inadequate” facilities available to Everett’s homeless residents, held that the law criminalizes the basic human rights to travel and to sleep and is therefore unconstitutional.
Everett Gospel Mission is in the heart of downtown, and City Council must be feeling pressure from business owners to “do something” about the area’s homeless population. But as officials decide whether to appeal Judge Odell’s decision, they should consider their duty to protect the welfare of all residents, not only those with means. It is lazy governance to shut one’s eyes, close one’s ears, and try to criminalize the homeless out of existence. Lawmakers should repeal these ordinances and re-focus their efforts on implementing more substantive, compassionate and considered policy interventions to address this pressing issue.
Jay Willis is a Seattle attorney.