The Edmonds City Council on Tuesday night had a robust discussion but took no action on a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for those who are homeless to occupy public property when overnight shelter is available and subsequently refused.
Creation of the ordinance was sparked by an incident in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood last summer, when a woman took up residence on a bench located at 76th Avenue West at the Interurban Trail for several months with all her belongings.
According to Patricia Taraday of the Lighthouse Law Group, which contracts with Edmonds to provide city attorney services, the ordinance was drafted “after much collaborative work” with the Deputy Parks Director Shannon Burley, who oversees the city’s human services program, and Police Chief Michelle Bennett and her staff.
The purpose of the ordinance, Taraday said, is “to protect the public health and safety of the residents of Edmonds, those who are housing insecure and those who are unhoused, while still ensuring the constitutional rights of those who are unhoused are being protected.”
In her presentation to councilmembers, Taraday noted that the City of Edmonds has already taken several steps to address the issue of homelessness in the city, from adding a human services department to working with nonprofits to coordinate services, to creating a homelessness task forces “to analyze complex issues related to the unhoused.”
She stressed that the ordinance “was just one tool for the City of Edmonds,” and allows police to cite individuals only if two conditions are met: 1) When available overnight shelter exists and 2) when that available shelter has been offered and refused.
The courts, she said, have limited the authority of police to cite unhoused occupying public property, specifically pointing to the Martin vs. Boise case that stated it’s “cruel and unusual punishment” to cite someone when they are sleeping outside.
The draft Edmonds ordinance falls withing the parameters of case law in that the shelter offered can be public or private, provided at no charge to the individual, and the city facilitates the transportation to the shelter space. If the shelter can’t be used “because of sex, familial or marital staus, religious beliefs, disability or shelter’s length of stay restrictions, the space is not considered to be available,” Taraday said.
In addition to citing individuals if those conditions are met, police can notify them that their personal property must be removed. The city is responsible for storing it for a period of time — likely 60 days — if the homeless individual doesn’t remove it.
Earlier in the meeting, during the public comment period, residents weighed with a range of opinions. Several people noted they moved to Edmonds from Seattle specifically to escape problems associated with homeless individuals living there, and spoke in support of having an ordinance that protects Edmonds residents from facing similar issues.
Westgate resident Jeremy Bartram said he came to Edmonds a year and a half ago from North Seattle, due to pollution and safety concerns generated by homeless people living in his neighborhood. “We have to show compassion but we cannot allow public camping in these areas because it is a public safety issue, it is an environmental issue. We need more resources to support these people but we also need laws to keep the citizens safe,” Bartram said.
Other speakers suggested that the city should look at other options prior to passing the ordinance.
Mary Anne Dillon, an Edmonds resident who works as executive director of the YWCA in Snohomish County, served on the city’s Homelessness Task Force. “The task force’s number-one recommendation was not to criminalize homelessness,” Dillon said, but instead to create other shelter options such as hotel space.
“I would urge you to consider other strategies — expanded shelter options and more permanent solutions — before passing the ordinance,” Dillon said.
In response, Taraday told the council that the ordinance “is not criminalizing homelessness. It’s doing what we can with the current law.”
Councilmember Neil Tibbott asked how available shelter would be defined — for example in Edmonds or Snohomish County. Taraday replied that the city didn’t want to limit the geography too much but the shelter location would need to be defined as reasonable.
Councilmember Will Chen said he couldn’t support the ordinance as written, because it was specifically directed at homeless people and didn’t include “housed people who are occupying property unlawfully.” He suggested that it be rewritten to broaden the scope. “I think the law should be applied to everybody equally,” he said.
Councilmembers Laura Johnson and Susan Paine also said they wouldn’t support the current ordinance, with Johnson stating it “sets up the narrative that there is adequate shelter to meet need, but the reality is a totally different story.” She then went on to list all of the available shelter spaces nearby (the closest one, operated by the YWCA, is in Lynnwood and the others are further away), adding that all are full. She also asked if the city would provide transportation services back to Edmonds if shelter space ends up being filled.
“Are we simply giving people a bus ticket to become somebody else’s responsibility to deal with?” Johnson asked.
Councilmember Paine also said she wanted to learn more about what city was currently doing on the homelessness prevention front, including its work with area partners.
Responding to the various questions raised, Deputy Director Burley said that it’s true that “shelter is incredibly hard to come by.” What’s missing from that, she added, is that motel voucher programs can be used to house people. “There are many more people in motel settings than there are in congregate settings in our direct service area,” she said. “There are options.”
What the city is attempting to bring to light, Burley said, is that “in order to enforce what’s in this document, it will take a significant investment by everybody to increase available shelter. I personally am hopeful that this serves as a catalyst to unify all of us towards a common goal, which is to ensure that none of our residents are living on a sidewalk. That’s not humane.”
The goal behind the ordinance, she added, “is to treat people with respect and provide a basic need that is shelter. We cannot do that today.”
As for its proactive efforts to prevent homelessness, Burley said the city is distributing federal American Rescue Plan Act COVID relief funds “as fast as we can.” The council’s recent decision to convert the human services program manager from a part-time to a full-time position is also helpful in addressing residents’ needs, and the police department and Community Court program are working to ensure that “we are not overcriminalizing crimes of poverty,” she said.
Using the carrot and stick analogy, Burley said the city has been very focused on the carrot. The draft ordinance “allows our police department the opportunity to enforce a penalty upon individuals who are not willing to accept the services provided.” And Burley added, “we rarely, rarely encounter somebody who denies shelter. That doesn’t happen often, especially when most of the shelter we have to offer is an individual motel room.”
Burley also said that the city would be responsible for transporting people back to Edmonds once their shelter stay was complete.
Laura Johnson made a motion to table the issue indefinitely, seconded by Paine, but that proposed failed on a 2-4 vote, with Councilmembers Tibbott, Chen, Diane Buckshnis and Vivian Olson voting against. (Councilmember Kristiana Johnson, who was experiencing internet connection problem, was no longer participating in the meeting when this discussion occurred and the vote was taken.)
The council continued discussing the ordinance a while longer but a motion to extend the meeting (it had already been extended twice before) failed to get a second, and the meeting was adjourned. After the meeting, Council President Olson noted that the issue would be addressed again at a future meeting.
In other business, the council:
– Held a joint meeting with the Edmonds Planning Board, and heard from Planning Board Chair Alicia Crank regarding the board’s accomplishments and future goals.
– Received the 2021 Prosecutor’s Office annual report. Among the items discussed was the urgent need for the city to find a replacment for long-time Domestic Violence Coordinator Jill Schick, who retired in early 2022.
– Extended the appointment of interim Public Works Director Rob English, since a permanent director won’t be in place when English’s interim appointment expires May 10.
– Approved the award of a $1.25 million construction contract for the city’s 2022 street overlay program.
– Approved the April 2022 budget amendment.
– Received an update from Shannon Burley on the status of American Rescue Plan Act funding. Staff has recommended some language changes in the approved ordinance to allow more flexibility in distributing funds, and has also suggested adjusting how the money is allocated. The council directed the city attorney to work on ordinance language and bring a draft back to the council for review.
– A planned update on the Edmonds tree code was delayed to a future meeting due to lack of time on the agenda.
— By Teresa Wippel