People living on Edmonds’ streets may soon be given a choice: bus to a shelter up to 35 miles away or risk a fine of up to $1,000 with a possibility of jail time.
The Edmonds City Council passed an ordinance May 17 making it illegal to occupy or store belongings in public places overnight, part of both a regional and national trend of local governments criminalizing visible homelessness. Edmonds’ ordinance is unusual in that its enforcement requires relying on social services outside city limits.
Mercer Island passed a similar law banning camping in public places last year, a month before Everett passed a “no sit, no lie” ordinance. Auburn followed suit, turning a civil infraction for public camping into a criminal penalty.
In Edmonds, city officials say the measure is partly preemptive, aimed at keeping what residents see as the growing homelessness crisis in Seattle out of their city. There are at least 450 homeless people living in Edmonds, according to the city’s latest assessment; 117 of them are students. City officials say there are 10 to 20 people sleeping outside on any given night.
Edmonds’ ordinance states the city cannot enforce its camping ban against a homeless person unless there is available shelter within 35 miles of Edmonds City Hall.
City Council President Vivian Olson said the ordinance was introduced because of a few cases in recent years when a single individual created an outsized disturbance. She said the city offered those people shelter, but when they refused, police had no way to remove them by force.
“I don’t agree that this is criminalizing homelessness. If anything, we’re criminalizing not accepting the support and help when we’re offering it,” Olson said. “There will be people who will refuse literally everything, no matter how perfect.”
But there is no homeless shelter within Edmonds.
Edmonds’ shelter offerings include five long-term motel vouchers, all of which are currently in use, and a $6,000 to $7,000 budget to purchase short stays at a motel. The city has allocated around $300,000 to work with Snohomish County to build a shelter that includes supportive services, but has not yet identified a building to purchase, and did not provide a timeline for when that project will be completed.
Olson said that Edmonds could also rely on shelters in other cities in the meantime. The YWCA in Lynnwood, the only shelter in south Snohomish County, serves only women and children. The closest shelter available to men in Snohomish County is in Everett, almost 20 miles away.
Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of YWCA Snohomish County, said Edmonds reached out to her organization last summer when it was trying to house a person. She told the city the waiting list for an overnight bed in the shelter was 60 to 90 days.
“The need for shelter far exceeds the resources in our community,” Dillon told council members in April. “When there are no shelter beds available, it defeats the very purpose of the ordinance. So I would urge you to consider other strategies, expanded shelter options and more permanent solutions before passing.”
That’s the same recommendation that Edmonds’ own Homelessness Task Force, which Dillon is a member of, offered to the city.
Edmonds’ strategy for enforcing its camping ban could open it up to potential lawsuits, according to Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center.
Under a 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. Boise, local governments are prohibited from criminalizing homeless people camping in public spaces when there is no shelter that is “practically available.” That term leaves room for interpretation, but Tars said Edmonds transporting people up to 35 miles away across city limits pushes that definition.
“If Edmonds wants to roll the dice with the courts and defend this ordinance using taxpayer dollars to do so, I guess that’s their choice, but it wouldn’t be my recommendation,” Tars said.
City of Edmonds spokesperson Kelsey Foster said in an email that when enforcing its ordinance, the city would “evaluate the needs of a particular person experiencing homelessness before determining whether a shelter space can be considered ‘available’ to that person.”
From 2006 to 2019, the number of laws in cities nationwide prohibiting camping nearly doubled, according to the National Homelessness Law Center. Tars said that number has grown even more since the pandemic.
“What we’re seeing is a reaction to the growth of homelessness, and primarily the growth of unsheltered homelessness,” Tars said.
The homeless population in Snohomish County has increased 42.8% since 2015, according to the county’s latest Point-in-Time count, a biennial homelessness census.
Weeks of heated discussion and public testimony led up to the Edmonds City Council’s 5-2 vote on the camping ban.
Councilmember Laura Johnson proposed an amendment that would have required the city to build a shelter program before the ordinance could go into effect. Her proposal failed 5-2.
Many residents spoke in favor of the ordinance. They described encounters with homeless people in Seattle where they felt unsafe, and several said they moved to Edmonds to leave that behind.
“Don’t put people who are having problems at the top of the pyramid and ignore the citizens who are here and pay taxes and support the city government,” said Edmonds resident Bill Herzig.
Another resident, Dan Murphy, said the city’s ordinance did nothing to address what he said was the root cause of homelessness, the rising cost of housing. The median home price in Edmonds is over $900,000.
“It seems like the council and the city’s just taking the easy way out,” Murphy said. “’Let’s kick the unfortunate people out of town. Let’s get them out of sight out of mind so we can go on with our lives.’ And to me, that’s not the way.”
The King County Regional Homeless Authority agrees that Edmonds’ new ordinance is not an effective strategy for dealing with homelessness. With Edmonds just 4 miles away from King County and not having any shelters of its own, the authority said it was concerned that could cause spillover effects into King County, which is also dealing with a shortage of shelter options.
Edmonds police Chief Michelle Bennett said that while officers would not enforce the ordinance if shelter options weren’t available, they would inform people staying outside of the new ordinance.
“It would be made known that in the city of Edmonds, there is no public camping overnight,” Bennett said.
That message has already been received by some of the homeless people in Edmonds. Brad Peterson, 51, has been staying in a wooded area behind a grocery store parking lot, but since hearing about the new law, he says he’ll be leaving soon.
“Makes me feel a little embarrassed, you know,” Peterson said. “I don’t want to stick around and get in trouble.”
Peterson has long blond hair that’s graying at the edges. He attended Edmonds College studying music and says he came back because “there’s a lot of good people.”
He sits on the sidewalk next to Highway 99 with a sign that reads, “Hungry, Help, $10/hr labor.” He used to work in construction, but an injury left him unable to work full time. He became homeless two years ago.
A lot of cities have been cracking down on homeless people, Peterson said. Since September, he has been arrested at least three times in Washington for trespassing or activities related to camping so he says Edmonds’ new ordinance doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s like, ‘OK, push them all out. Push all the homeless away.’ And it’s like, I can’t think of the words and I don’t want to say anything really mean, but it’s kind of fearful,” Peterson said.