Everett’s struggle with homelessness in light of SCOTUS decision


EVERETT JULY 3: A year after the City of Everett expanded its “no sit, no lie” ordinance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that banning homeless encampments on public property does not constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment.

In 2021, the Everett council approved a law that created a buffer zone around the Everett Gospel Mission, a homeless shelter on Smith Avenue, according to the Everett Herald. The ordinance made lying down or sitting on nearby public property a misdemeanor with a fine up to $500 and 90 days in jail. It also prohibited providing food or beverages to the people in this area without a permit.

These controversial laws are not uncommon and have been initiated across Washington and the Northwest.

In a recent statement from the City of Everett, they wrote:

“While providing compassionate support to those who are struggling is critical, we also need to think about our entire community and how some of these issues are also negatively impacting the surrounding areas. This is what led to the City of Everett creating buffer zones – as a tool for both regulating use of public property and encouraging acceptance of support and services. These buffer zones are intended to mitigate impacts to the surrounding neighborhood and prevent those who are utilizing services from being victimized. It ultimately comes back to safety – the safety of those who are struggling and our community at large.”

Last year, in May the council voted to revise the 2021 ordinance to be able to expand the buffer zones around facilities that provide behavioral health, substance abuse, emergency housing services or places the Mayor deems appropriate. Currently, there are buffer zones around the Everett Gospel Mission, Compass Health on Lombard Ave., and Fred Meyer on Evergreen Way.

“All welcome in Everett– except the houseless? Shame on you for even bringing this forward,” said one public testifier regarding the “no sit, no lie” ordinance. 

The buffer expansion is expected to end Dec. 31, 2025, meaning more boundaries could be set around the City of Everett. 

Current buffer zone areas in Everett as of March 4, 2024. Taken off the City of Everett website.

When the ordinance was put in place, city staff added criteria for at least six “qualifying events” that would occur in the past six months at or near the property. This includes assault, disorderly conduct, drug offenses, theft, trespassing and more.

“In Everett and in cities across our country, there are people living unsheltered for a variety of reasons, facing many different challenges, like a serious, untreated mental health condition or substance use disorder,” Simone Tarver, spokesperson for the city wrote in an email.

In May, Snohomish County released its 2024 Point-in-Time count of homelessness and found that homelessness is down 10% from last year’s study, close to 625 individuals.

“As the County seat and the biggest, most urban city in Snohomish County and the location of the jail, the hospital with an emergency room, the bus and train station, and most of our county’s social services, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are in Everett,” Tarver wrote.

Tarver also explained that the housing and fentanyl crisis also contributes to the complex discussion on homelessness.

The Supreme Court was presented with the case Oregon v. Gloria Johnson in 2023, a case that was deemed a “significant case for homelessness in 40 years” by The National Homeless Law Center (NHLC). In Grants Pass, OR, they have laws that restrict homeless encampments on public property, similar to the laws in Everett. Last week, SCOTUS ruled that these laws do not constitute cruel or unusual punishment.

In a press release from June 28, NHLC wrote, “Cities are now even more empowered to neglect proven housing-based solutions and to arrest or fine those with no choice but to sleep outdoors.”

The City of Everett has several ways to combat homelessness other than the buffer zone ordinance. The Pallet Shelter program started in 2021 and provides temporary shelter to those experiencing homelessness. The program is funded using $3 million American Rescue Plan Act dollars. In 2021, The Everett Gospel Mission installed 20 Pallet shelters, with 20 more being installed in 2022. Faith Family Village and Volunteers of America will soon adopt the program as well.

The city has an Encampment Response Team that responds to encampment reports and connects people with services, according to the city website. There is also a Homeless Student Task Force that studied student homelessness and made recommendations to community partners to help support students.

Within Everett, there are multiple outer programs addressing homelessness, such as Clare’s Place, Cocoon House, Cars to Housing and more.

According to Tarver, the city is currently working on embedding social work programs into police, fire and library departments, adding downtown public restrooms and launching a mobile opioid treatment program.

“This is not about being able to arrest people for being unsheltered; the City’s goals have always been to help those who are struggling and to keep our community safe,” Tarver wrote.