Lynnwood as with most other communities has an increasing number of people who are homeless. Their situations can be short or long term and be due to a variety of causes. Temporary encampments or shelters are not a long-term solution but can help to address the crisis and hopefully give some people a start on a path back to stability.
The term tent cities has been in use for a long time but in fact there are a variety of types of housing and situations. These are organized and structured encampments often housed on the grounds of religious institutions and provided with varied levels of support. They have access to facilities such as bathrooms and cooking. They are distinctly different than the haphazard camps that are found under highway interchanges and the like.
Religious institutions agreeing to host homeless housing are generally protected in their right to do so if they believe that meeting the needs of the homeless is an act of faith. As a result, ordinances dealing with temporary homeless housing are somewhat unique, relying more on cooperation with the City and neighbors than on the use of the Cities authority to impose regulations.
Lynnwood, as with most cities in the region, adopted what was referred to as a “tent city” ordinance in 2008. However, until recently none were ever located in the City. A very small encampment was allowed to locate at Good Shepard Baptist Church several years ago. This was designed to provide housing for homeless students attending EdCC who are working to rebuild their lives.
The proposed ordinance amendment was developed to address four distinct purposes:
· The first is to allow the use of small portable structures as an alternative to tents in temporary tent encampments. Tents are not ideal shelters for this purpose. They are small, have proven difficult to keep warm and collapse in the snow. Additional standards have been proposed to make the structures as safe and livable as possible while acknowledging that they will not conform with all standard building codes.
· The second goal is offer flexibility to locate temporary housing for the homeless in buildings that do not full comply with all current codes. This problem has arisen with the cold weather shelter when churches willing to house it found they were unable to do so since the cost of upgrading their building to current codes was impractical. The State passed an WAC 51-16-030 Exemptions for Indigent Housing, that encouraged communities to provide exceptions on the basis that it is safer to have people sleeping indoors in buildings that are reasonably safe but don’t meet all codes, than having them sleep outside.
· The third goal is for the City Council to affirm by ordinance that it is considered to be in the public interest to try to meet the needs of the homeless by directing the City Building Official and Fire Marshal to seek to make these facilities as safe as possible while recognizing that not all current codes will be met.
· The final goal is to reaffirm that any proposals to build permanent housing for homeless or low income people must be built to all current codes.
The conceptual code amendment was discussed at a Council Work Session and referred to the Planning Commission for consideration. The Commission provided input but asked that additional input and recommendation be sought from the City’s Human Services Commission. This was done at their April meeting and the HSC unanimously recommended that the ordinance be approved.
During the process of taking the ordinance before the Council and both Commissions, revisions were included to address the concerns that were raised.
· A purpose section was added.
· Time limits of 120 days are proposed to be automatically renewed as long as the operation is conducted in a manner consistent with the agreement was established for tent encampments.
· A six month limit was established for indoor temporary homeless housing to insure that permanent housing situations will need to meet all current building and fire codes.
· Additional standards for temporary encampments and housing were drafted to better describe the City’s expectations with regards to minimum conditions and design.
The Planning Commission held a public hearing on April 26th and ultimately recommended that the Council approve the ordinance on a 4/1 vote.
During this process an issue arose regarding the difficulty emergency shelters would have in complying with the requirement that police background checks be performed