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City in Washington weighs fining and jailing homeless people who refuse help

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A city in Washington state is considering adopting a bold measure to combat the rampant homelessness that has endangered residents and plagued quality of life in the community.

What are the details?

Members of the city council in Edmonds, Washington, this week debated a new ordinance that would punish someone who illegally camps on city property and refuses services such as overnight shelter with a fine and potential jail time.

According to KING-TV, the ordinance's text recommends first-time violators be fined $1,000 and face up to 90 days in jail, or both. Those who violate the ordinance a second time in five years would face a misdemeanor in addition to fines and imprisonment. Third-time violators would face the same penalties but with $500 of the fine and five days of imprisonment not suspended or deferred.

If a violator is unable to pay the fine, they would be required to complete community service.

The ordinance's text claims the measure "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."

What else?

But critics claim the legislation is anything but compassionate. Rather, they argue it violates homeless people's constitutional rights.

In a letter sent to the city council, the National Homelessness Law Center wrote, "Both public policy and constitutional precedent advise against policies that punish people for being unsheltered and that prevent them from life-sustaining activities such as sleeping. We are eager to work with the mayor's office and city council on replacing this proposal with policies and practices that effectively and humanely address homelessness in your community."

Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson shot back, insisting that the organization is misinterpreting what the ordinance would do.

"I'm confident in what our city attorney and staff have done to put together an ordinance we believe is lawful and humane," Nelson told KING.

City Council President Vivian Olson added that the ordinance would be a last resort and a tool for law enforcement in instances where things get really out of hand.

Anything else?

The council welcomed public comment and engaged in a back-and-forth debate about the ordinance on Tuesday, but the matter could not be settled by the time the meeting adjourned, My Edmonds News reported. It is set to be addressed again at a future meeting.

The ordinance was reportedly drafted in response to an incident in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood last year, when a homeless woman camped out for weeks and refused to leave.

Neighborhood resident Janet Atchison recalled to KIRO-TV, "It was just horrible for all the neighbors. I took a bag of food over there because I felt sorry for her. I was really worried she was going to be there forever. I mean, it was just so sad, all of her stuff piled all around her."

The woman allegedly grew more and more aggressive over time and eventually became a public safety risk, neighbors claimed. But there was little they could do resolve the issue.

Here's more on the news:

Proposal intended to reduce illegal camping in Edmonds gets pushback www.youtube.com

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