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caption: Alex Shpungin talks with a friend, Dorea, right, while sitting in his tent on Tuesday, January 15, 2019, near the intersection of Columbia Street and Alaskan Way South in Seattle. Shpungin has lived at this location for 3 months and hopes to stay there as long as possible.
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Alex Shpungin talks with a friend, Dorea, right, while sitting in his tent on Tuesday, January 15, 2019, near the intersection of Columbia Street and Alaskan Way South in Seattle. Shpungin has lived at this location for 3 months and hopes to stay there as long as possible.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Edmonds considers making camping in public spaces a misdemeanor

As inequality rises and our housing crunch just gets worse, cities across the Pacific Northwest are grappling with homelessness and how to regulate public space.

The Edmonds City Council is considering an ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to camp in a park or the sidewalk if the person has been offered shelter. But it's not going down without controversy.

According to a recent assessment, there are around 450 homeless people living in Edmonds.

To tackle that problem, last fall Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson created a task force to find potential solutions to the city's rise in homelessness.

According to reporter Isabella Breda of the Daily Herald of Everett, the growing program boiled down to a need for more services.

"There's a really desperate need for shelter because there's no shelter currently existing in the city limits," Breda said. "And they need to expand their human services program in the city, which currently, according to that task force, only includes two people."

But last week, Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson presented a new ordinance that, according to Breda, would essentially criminalize camping in public spaces.

"It would only be enforceable if someone's refusing available shelter," Breda said. "Available shelter wasn't defined by the city attorney. The city attorney basically said they hadn't put up geographic parameters for how far away shelter could be."

The closest option is in Lynnwood.

"That is our shelter the YWCA Pathways for Women in Lynnwood," said Mary Anne Dillon, Snohomish County executive director for YWCA Seattle King Snohomish. "Currently, we have a 60- to 90-day waiting list for shelter."

And that shelter is only available for women and children. According to Dillon, there's currently no sheltering options for men in the south county.

Dillon said she worries this ordinance could have an unintended negative impact on people experiencing homelessness.

"I fear that this ordinance would criminalize homelessness. I fear that this would create undue financial burden on people who are already experiencing homelessness, and are lacking the resource to even house themselves," Dillon said. "I hope that the city would first look at expanded shelter options, affordable housing, and motel spaces for residents before enacting an ordinance that would give them a $1,000 fine and put them behind bars."

Edmonds city council president Vivian Olson said the ordinance is meant to be just one tool in the city's pocket, to be used in only the most extreme circumstances.

"It became obvious that when persons are unwilling to accept the available shelter and assistance, and they're making public property unavailable for its intended purpose, that we can't really leave the choice of whether to accept that available shelter wholly in the hands of the unhealthy person," Olson said.

She said, ultimately, this law would be tied to what services are available in the city or surrounding area.

"The enforcement of this ordinance is directly tied to offers of shelter, it can't and it won't be enforced unless available shelter is offered and refused," Olson said. "So, while we don't have shelter within our limits, in the past and currently we give hotel vouchers. And we have also set that money aside to support the south county shelter that's being planned."

The Edmonds City Council will vote on the proposed ordinance Tuesday night.