Council debates merits of ordinance allowing police, in rare cases, to cite homeless people on public property

Patricia Taraday of Lighthouse Law Group answers questions about the proposed ordinance that addresses those who are unlawfully occupying public property.

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

  1. “Rare cases?” What evidence do you have that this is rare? It seems quite common. More editorializing by this site to justify its heavily right-leaning bias.

    Also: There is no such thing as “homeless people.” People may may experiencing houselessness for any number of reasons. That fact does not automatically brand them, unless someone has a NIMBY reason for doing so. Clearly, Teresa Wippel does. Maybe you should go back to school and learn how to be a real journalist?

    1. The statement regarding rare cases came from the city, which I noted in the story. As for the term homeless people, we follow Associated Press style — the journalist’s guide — on that one: “Homeless is generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence. Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun the homeless, instead using constructions like homeless people, people without housing or people without homes.” — Teresa

    2. Actually Janice… the facts are most homeless people are homeless because of mental illness and lack of adequate health care in America’s “for profit” system . The most expensive and least effective on earth. Mental illness leads to drug use, job loss, the crumbling of a support system… and a domino of issues cascade. Ever notice the vast majority decline services when an illegal and dangerous encampment is cleared? Why? Services require sobriety and following the rules. Most mentally ill can’t or won’t. As far as NIMBY.. .How my “unhoused” have you opened your doors to? Any camped in your back yard or in your spare bedroom? None? oh, thought so. typical. you don’t like having neighborhood kids finding or falling on needles in your local parks either or the crime the “unhoused” invariably bring to an area.

  2. I wonder how fast certain Council Persons would call the police if someone pitched a tent and homesteaded their own front yards? This do good ultra liberalism has to stop at some point. People allowed to camp out for free in our public spaces is the rough equal to allowing them to camp out in all our front yards. As a society we need to figure out that freedom without responsibility is just a form of anarchy and law of the jungle.

  3. “had a robust discussion but took no action”….. Isn’t that pretty much every single Edmonds council meeting on every single topic?

  4. The city council should work to pass this ordinance addressing the hot-button issue of public camping as soon as possible. It’s a thoughtful, well-drafted piece of work that addresses the issue in a legal and humane fashion and gives our local police another tool to address a growing problem.

    No one wants the streets of Edmonds to be infested with the same level of crime, filth and business failure that has followed from the on-street homeless camps in downtown Seattle. On the other hand, the law and moral imperative demand that the unhoused be treated in a fair and thoughtful fashion.

    As to the hot button? I suggest the council ask their constituency about public camping growing in Edmonds, but members should be prepared for the heated response.

    This ordinance is a step in the right direction lead by those with cool heads. It needs to be adopted.

    1. So if my wife has the locks changed while I’m out having a beer (or three) with the boys at The Salish, it’s okay for me to park my travel trailer at Yost Park parking lot as long as I need? I mean, it sounds like discrimination if they make me leave, but the guy/gal in the tent nearby can stay because he/she has nowhere else and just wants to stay put there. Man, I’m getting tired of being penalized and discriminated against for being responsible and taking care of my social and mental health needs in a legal manner.

  5. Another nutty night at the Edmonds Council meeting. For some reason a few of the Edmonds Council members apparently seem to have some kind of kooky romanticized idea that “camping” in public spaces is some kind of scout adventure with marshmallows and s’mores and sing-alongs. The reality mostly is those who have dangerous mental health problems, often fires and violence, dirty used needles, garbage, and feces. This is a public health problem, not a housing political ideology affordability problem. There is no compassion letting people live this way for them or for the rights of the community.

  6. This ordinance is well thought out and an excellent response to ensure Edmonds avoid some of the same failed path that Seattle followed which has dramatically degraded its downtown and neighborhoods like Ballard.
    The Council needs to pass this ordinance ASAP!

  7. This is a very real problem for city and anyone who says otherwise either hasn’t been directly exposed or is willfully ignorant. I was very much impacted by the situation that started this conversation last summer, and in fact even as recently as yesterday we were dealing with folks camping in their car near Ballinger Park. One person had been arrested in that timeframe and then shortly returned. There was trash and drug paraphernalia around the vehicle and near the entrance to the park which kept me from going back during that time with my two kids. There has to be a levelheaded commonsense approach to address the situation. Similar to the other situation last year there was an impasse were quite literally nothing could be done until the individuals decided that they had had enough of the community hassling and decided to move on their own.

  8. There seems to be a twisted thought process by some on this issue. If you are homeless, you can use public property and facilities with total disregard of the laws that regulate everyone else and often to the exclusion of taxpayers who pay for these facilities. Edmonds public parks are for the use of all citizens subject to the same rules of use by all. Mr. Chen does not seem to grasp that normal criminal trespass laws would apply to those who try to camp in parks after closing hours. This law is targeted to the homeless because the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Martin vs. City of Boise decision held that “homeless” could not be forced to comply with public property use laws applicable to everyone else unless shelter was available for them because to do otherwise would be criminalize homelessness. This proposed ordinance addresses that specific situation hence, it does not need to also specify “housed people who are occupying property unlawfully.” Housed people can already be cited and arrested under existing laws. Mr. Chen needs to support this ordinance unless he really wants Edmonds to start looking like the mess in Seattle.

    1. Well said and my thoughts exactly. I shared the same sentiment directly with CM Chen this morning. I was quite disappointed yesterday with his comments and thought process in the meeting. As you have articulated, the laws “for everyone” already exist. He used the example in the exchange with me about me parking my car on city property. My answer was simple – someone would call the police, they would come chalk my car, and then would tow it 72 hours later. Same if I had trash strewn across my yard and in front of my house the code enforcement folks would come and make me clean it up. The inequity in enforcement is exactly what you are hitting on and what is so head scratchingly confusing in these exchanges.

  9. I have an interim plan that should take care of things. Since Chen, Paign, and L. Johnson are so concerned about fairness to homeless folks, how about they volunteer their yards and spare bedrooms as a place our police can take people we don’t want living in OUR parks. How about walking the talk so to speak? You claim to represent the interests of all of us, prove it now!

  10. Why don’t they have any homeless living in Medina? How many living on Mercer island? Seems Bellevue doesn’t have nearly the same problem as Seattle yet they have the same root causes? I would be asking around to these places for how they handle it. How many of the homeless in Edmonds have any ties to the community rented, owned, worked? No a stay at the motel doesn’t count. I am much more supportive of helping people in our city that fall on hard times or have developed other issues than some random person from wherever. It seems like in Seattle they are more tolerant of bad behavior soft on crime, public drug use, free needles free food free tents free clothes the easier you make it for them the more people you have I refer to this as enabling. And as a result you have people that come from far and wide to take advantage of those services. It has become a industry serving the homeless in Seattle. Do we want to make Edmonds a magnet for homeless people? The reason they don’t have any homeless in medina is because the citizens won’t tolerate it. If spotted the police come and help you to move along or arrest you they don’t have or offer services. The moto is you can go anywhere but you can’t stay here. As a state we need more facilities to to house and treat these people and make it mandatory for some. There are no easy answers. In my opinion most of these people need tuff love and as a city we shouldn’t be tolerant or enabling.

  11. Many thought out comments here and Jim, I wondered the same thing about the cities you mentioned. It appears hotels are being purchased in some Eastside cities. Renton now has a former hotel converted to a homeless shelter. They’re pushing for this in kirkland but parents banding together and suing the city as it would be unsafe for nearby children. We must not allow the example of Seattle to become edmonds. It is important to note that homelessness in edmonds declined and there’s a reason. Without continous occupation at a hotel (let’s say) they move on. If we start allowing the takeover of public spaces, Edmonds is done as a healthy community. As the Kone consulting analysis became available at a council meeting, it was revealed that the majority were substance addicted. As a community of taxpaying citizens do we want to give up our freedoms to spaces we pay for to allow our streets or parks to be overtaken? Not me! Along with allowance of taking over our spaces comes needles, trash left behind, defecation, urination, graffiti, etc. I don’t want Edmonds to look like the disheveled community Ballard and Seattle have become. If we don’t push for this ordinance we’re toast. Everyone talks of protecting the rights of homeless and completely throw the rights of lawabiding citizens out the window. If we lose our public spaces…what will be our next freedoml we are forced to give up? I will not be manipulated by the rhetoric they want to force on us. Homeless addicted need treatment. Why all the focus on housing and not the root problem? Simple, grow the problem, grow the funding to our govt. If drug addicts wont get clean but want to be on our streets, we have to prosecute. Please email council Niel, Diane, Kristiana, Viviane. It’s too important not to.

  12. After another re-read of the article I think my previous comments regarding Mr. Chen were probably not fair and I sincerely apologize to him. He is right on this; any such law or ordinance should apply to all citizens and probably should be written a little broader in context. I would caution him though, not to let perfection become the enemy of pretty darn good.

    As to the other two dissenters on the matter, I think they are engaging in a little partisan politics and a little resentful negativity toward Ms. Olson instead of addressing the good of everyone in our city in an impartial way. There are people working for us who really try to see all sides of every issue and I applaud them for doing that and trying so hard to get answers that work the best for everyone.

    The kindest thing we can do for an out of control addicted or mentally ill person would be to NOT let them live in our public spaces being of no use to themselves or anyone else. Take them somewhere where they can get the REAL help they need and deserve from us. I’m tired of do-good types creating more problems than they ever solve. Enabling just creates more anti-social behavior in the end.

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