After a long debate, Edmonds bans homeless people from living outside

EDMONDS – Homeless people may soon be forced to ditch their belongings and take a bus ticket to a shelter up to 35 miles away under a new Edmonds law.

If not, they can be charged with a misdemeanor, which could lead to an arrest with a fine of up to $1,000 or jail time.

The Edmonds City Council passed an ordinance 5-2 on May 17, making it illegal for anyone to occupy public property overnight if “available” shelter is denied. Shelter will be considered available if it is within a 35 mile radius of the City of Edmonds and the person is eligible to stay there. The law cannot be enforced if the authorities cannot find a suitable place.

Councilors Will Chen, Vivian Olson, Neil Tibbott, Kristiana Johnson and Diane Buckshnis voted in favor of the ordinance.

Councilwoman Laura Johnson proposed adding a caveat that the ordinance could not be implemented until the city partners with Snohomish County to create a hotel respite program.

“Services should include … detoxification, counseling, vocational training, transportation to medical appointments, medication assistance and more,” she said.

Laura Johnson said she thinks councilors should take the advice of the city’s homeless task force and start creating more shelter. His proposal failed 5-2.

She and Councilwoman Susan Paine cast the two votes against the new law.

Councilman Will Chen’s proposal to add an expiration date, to review the law in a year, also failed 6-1.

After weeks of debatealdermen heard more than an hour of public comment on both sides of the issue again on May 17.

As the City Council considered the ordinance, Andrew Brokaw sat on a bench outside the council chambers, where he set up an orange one-person tent on the city lawn. Two cardboard signs were propped up against the tent. In black Sharpie he wrote, “Why won’t Edmonds City Council work for all Edmonds?” He then cited statistics about community needs.

“67,180 people in Snohomish County face food insecurity,” one sign said.

Another sign highlighted that only one full-time “human services staff” has been hired to provide services to the entire city of Edmonds (42,347 people).

Brokaw, who works for the Edmonds food bank, told The Daily Herald that she often answers questions from clients about where to find rental assistance and utilities.

He also spoke about his own experience. Brokaw was homeless when he worked for AmeriCorps in Montana.

“Homeless people living in Edmonds are just as much citizens as everyone else,” he said.

Edmonds residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance cited safety concerns and the right of other citizens to use public space. Among those opposing the ordinance were state Rep. Strom Peterson, who chairs the Housing, Human Services and Veterans Affairs Committee, and former state Sen. Maralyn Chase. They said the ordinance could create more barriers for people who are already struggling.

Local and state lawmakers, service providers and homeless people have criticized the proposed ordinance since its introduction in April.

Rep. Peterson told councilors in early May that there is no group that works with the homeless that thinks the ordinance is a good idea.

Jennifer Bereskin, formerly unhoused in southern Snohomish County, now serves on Gov. Jay Inslee’s poverty reduction task force. Earlier this month, he told the City Council that the ordinance suggests that people living in poverty are not welcome in Edmonds.

Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of YWCA Snohomish County and a member of the city’s homelessness task force, told councilors she hoped the city would first look at expanding housing options, affordable housing and the motel space before enacting a punitive law.

The Lynnwood YWCA is the only shelter in southwest Snohomish County. There is no shelter in Edmonds.

More people are currently staying in the city with motel vouchers than through the shelter, said Shannon Burley, Edmonds’ assistant director of human services. Once the motel vouchers run out, Edmonds would likely look to Everett and King County to provide shelter. As of early May, no more vouchers were available, according to Edmonds city staff. They are funded through a state program.

In early May, Everett City Councilwoman Liz Vogeli warned Edmonds councilors that the city of Everett “doesn’t have the bandwidth or the resources to take care (of) the entire county from Snohomish.”

According to Snohomish County’s latest point count, the county’s homeless population is at a 10-year high. In all, 1,184 people were counted, up 42.8% from the county’s lowest point in 2015 and up 52 people from the 2020 count. Shelters saw a 30.7% increase in clients .

About 450 people were homeless in Edmonds, according to the city last assessment.

Burley said the human services program “will do everything possible to increase shelters in South County.”

Discussions are ongoing with the county to develop a hotel respite program.

“I don’t think the ordinance would fundamentally change the way the police do business,” Rep. Peterson told The Daily Herald before the vote. “But it radically changes the statement that Edmonds makes about people who suffer. And I think that’s very important.”

Herald reporter Claudia Yaw contributed to this report.

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Jennifer Ahdout

Jennifer Ahdout

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