Letter to the editor: ‘Last resort’ tool on council agenda for homeless people refusing help

In 2021, an in-depth look at the difficult issue of homelessness was conducted in Edmonds. I was pleased to serve on this mayor-initiated task force.
Most of the actions and remedies recommended focused on the underlying causes of homelessness, on homelessness prevention, and on human services to help those in crisis. In addition, the task force recommended a “last resort” tool for the rare cases when the persons experiencing homelessness are refusing help and additionally refuse to move on from a public space.
I support the addition of this “last resort” tool, and as council president have put it on the April 26 city council agenda under the title “Unauthorized Use of Public Space.” It establishes protections for our housed residents when unhoused residents refuse to accept help provided by the city and our community partners. The task force noted that this tool was needed and missing in two instances in 2021, when authorities had no recourse for removing individuals who were scaring families and defecating publicly. In one of these cases, the person denied repeated offers of shelter and other help and was camped on public property immediately adjacent to Edmonds residences for five weeks.
Your council makes better decisions when informed by the public, and I appreciate your feedback and input on everything we consider. Please remember (if giving feedback on this proposed ordinance), that it represents a last-resort measure for the most extreme circumstances and not the city’s overall approach to homeless residents.
Vivian Olson
Edmonds City Council
  1. I don’t know the details of this last resort tool, but I support homeless that won’t take offered shelter to be told they need to move along and if they don’t a stay in jail is appropriate. I would prefer a mandatory stay at a drug or mental health facility for most of them but they are likely to not want that either so jail is fine. Now there is a idea we have lots of jails that current government doesn’t want to put people in why not transform them into treatment facilities?

    1. OK now this is also my thought. I am hoping if that can be done in the end they will thank our city for giving them a chance at a better, safer life. Love this and I appreciate Ms Olsens plan.

  2. As a resident that was very, very much impacted directly by one of the instances noted in the above, it is not an exaggeration when Council President Olson notes that offers for services to assist the person in question were refused on sometimes a daily basis, leading to a situation that was so bad for me and my neighbors that I could no longer take my two children to the park near our home, use the trail for recreation, and on a number of occasions, could not sleep at night due to the noise and commotion. There were also two occasions which led to physical threats against me when I tried to enact some semblance of peace and safety for me an my family once I realized that no further help was going to be able to be offered. There was quite literally nothing that could be done for either this person clearly experiencing a severe crisis nor for the residents that were directly affected. It is also true and was communicated to us on a number of occasions that there was truly no stop gap measure to solve the situation, which CM Olson is suggesting be enacted. There has to be something which exists in our community which ensures that the balance between the needs of unhoused individuals and those who also live in the community are balanced in a way that does not shift the pendulum too far one way or another. I urge the council to pass this measure.

    1. Tom, thank you for sharing your experiences. I agree with adopting this “last resort” tool as well. These tools need to attempt to serve everyone in our community.

  3. I assume this proposed ordinance is being vetted by counsel. Otherwise, the city runs the risk of incurring some hefty legal fees defending it.

    1. My understanding is – being very involved as you will see from my previous comment with this issue from last year – that this discussion is many months in the making, has included a large cross sector of individuals in the city government and community at large, of course including the city’s attorney. Similar ordnances either exist or have been passed by many of our neighboring cities, and I believe the pushback and fervor you see after those come to be are from a few on the very far fringe of their approach to solving the issues in our community. I think most folks understand as do I there is a way to operate within the bell curve and from a position of compassion coupled with enforcement.

  4. We agree with adopting the last resort. You only have to travel a short distance south (Seattle and sprawling) to see what happens when not managed and no “last resort”. Thank you for sharing and representing us.

  5. I totally agree with Council President Olson’s viewpoint on this. There is no doubt that some ultra liberal think tank group will take such an ordinance all the way to the Fed. Supreme Court to challenge, but the effort needs to be made to implement such a last resort ordinance at the local level. Enforce it first, and ask questions later would be my view on this one. This is just another case where a centrist approach would work best, but we don’t live in a centrist oriented world anymore, I’m afraid.

  6. Based on what has been happening in my Edmonds neighborhood, this is a much-needed, last-resort tool. I appreciate the task force and Councilmember Olson for their efforts.

    1. Please share in more detail. I get the sense that a lot of folks, particularly those who live in the Bowl area which has so much focus on all of our city efforts (and a lot of loud voices I might add), think that this is not an issue that we need to solve in our city because it doesn’t exist. Even last year through the issue in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood, I got pushback on the situation from people refusing to acknowledge the realities. It finally took people out to see the situation first hand to understand it was truly a crisis for everyone involved. If you have examples, you should share them!

    1. My general understanding of the law/court ruling is the homeless cannot be removed unless you have shelter available be that a homeless shelter or a hotel voucher. If they refuse they can be arrested. If arrested the city may be required to store their valuables while in jail, so best to get them before they get a established camp. They can be arrested for breaking other laws also but with the soft on crime approach many minor crimes are just tickets they will never pay. So the best way is to have a shelter bed available and when they refuse you tell them they have to move or go to jail and then you help them pack. And give them a ride to the city limits. Rince and repeat.

  7. I believe thee are many sides to these issues and that the majority wants to give compassion. I have a family member who lived on the streets for a few years, drug addicted, and vulnerable to predation. There was some criminal activity that led to her brief incarceration. I think she was actually jailed a couple of times. It led to some hours of relative sobriety and she was then able to choose to accept help (when on the streets, the focus was presumably the next high). After a lot of work and the support of her closest family members, she has become a healthy, productive member of society. Sometimes jail is compassion. It is legitimate, because addicts break laws and cause damage to society and property, so they need to be removed for safety reasons, both for the public and the addict.
    Calling it “unhomed” is woke nonsense, by the way. There are many reasons for homelessness and statistically it is the addicted and the mentally ill that refuse shelter. Let’s not confuse them with people who have lost their ability to make ends meet whether due to medical bills, job loss, abandonment, whatever. Most often, the latter accepts help and works to get out of that situation; they don’t try to stay in it.

  8. my comment above regarding having counsel review the proposed ordinance – which is sounds like the city attorney is doing – is because under current Ninth Circuit precedent, there is a very narrow window by which cities can regulate these issues. Whatever one’s opinion on these issues, it is prudent to evaluate litigation risk so, if there is some risk, the council can make informed decisions. Will there be a challenge if there’s a colorable argument as to whether an ordinance does not comply with precedent? No way to predict that. Maybe whatever is under consideration is carefully drafted, maybe not. Not having seen it yet I have no opinion and wouldn’t offer it here if I did. But having litigated a similar case and having familiarity with the legal principles at issue, I wanted to raise the question. And, again, based on a couple comments above, it appears the city attorney has been consulted.

  9. Just like to add that the word compassion means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortune of others” (oxford). The word pity means “feel sorrow for the misfortune of others”. If you feel pity for others will it move you to hold them accountable when they most need it even if it means using law enforcement? The word compassion has been so overused by many who have tried to use it as a manipulative tool to gain favor for those committing crimes erroneously thinking it is somehow creating equality! (Not referring to anyone commenting here). Obviously it’s not a crime to be a transient but committing crimes while on the street (drug use) should be unacceptable to all. I absolutely do not support changing our laws from “illegal loitering” to allowing use of public spaces to condone all that comes with living on the streets (trash, drugs, graffiti etc). It seems to me that in granting one law to the few (ability to loiter/be on the streets or parks/refuse shelter/use drugs while violating other laws over the majority is never going to be a good solution and very much doubt it’s legal. Kone Consulting stated the majority of “homeless” are substance addicted. Our laws have existed for a reason. “1) it is unlawful for any person to loiter in or near any thoroughfare, place open to the public, or near any public or private place in a manner and under circumstances manifesting a purpose to engage in drug related activity contrary to any of the provisions of Chapters 69.41, 69.50 or 69.52 RCW.

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