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Edmonds City Council passes ordinance making camping on public property illegal

The ordinance makes it unlawful to stay on public property overnight and those who refuse shelter or human services can face jail time.

EDMONDS, Wash. — After weeks of debate, the Edmonds City Council voted to approve an ordinance Tuesday night that bans illegal camping on public property overnight.

Under the ordinance, penalties would be enforced if there is evidence that someone intends to occupy city property, at least overnight illegally, and refuses shelter. Shelter space would need to be available in order for the ordinance to be enforced.

A first-time violator would be fined up to $1,000, face up to 90 days in jail, or both. Those who violate the law a second time within five years would face a misdemeanor and the same fine and jail time - $100 of the fine and one day of imprisonment would not be suspended or deferred. Third and subsequent offenses would face the same penalty, with $500 of the fine and five days imprisonment not to be suspended or deferred.

Those unable to pay the monetary penalty would face community service or be placed on a work crew.

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The ordinance "seeks to establish a compassionate approach to assist the unhoused residents of our city by first offering human service, including available shelter, and only causing the penalty provisions to be enforced when available shelter is refused," language in the ordinance states.

The ordinance was initially brought up for a vote when it was introduced on April 26. However, several questions were brought up and the meeting ended before a vote. The ordinance was amended during the May 3 meeting, but the meeting adjourned before action could be taken.

The YWCA in Lynnwood is the nearest shelter serving Edmonds, but it only accommodates women and children. Staff said they only have the capacity to shelter 35 people at most and that there is often a wait time of two to three months.

According to a study commissioned by the city, there are at least 450 homeless people in the city limits. 

While the numbers are decreasing overall, the number of unsheltered people 65 and older is going up, and there are 117 children enrolled in school that don’t have a stable place to sleep.

"I do believe that we have just criminalized poverty," said Edmonds City Councilmember Susan Paine.

Paine estimates the number of chronically homeless people in the city at fewer than 20. She voted against the ban because she thinks the city should be expanding its human services department and doing more to build relationships with the homeless.

"If we have less than 20 that’s a very manageable number that we could manage capably by having a more fully fleshed out human services program," she said.

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett calls the new ordinance compassionate enforcement.

"Our sergeants have credit cards they can use for emergency vouchers for motels. We have a social worker who attempts to give help whenever called. I think it’s a very compassionate means to a difficult problem," he said.

"Sometimes it’s hard to enforce some of these things if there isn’t an end consequence," said Bennett. "We can theorize all day about how things should work, but having an end consequence helps us and helps the community."

Bennet said any arrests resulting from the ordinance would be a "last resort."

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