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Homelessness

This page provides a summary of general homeless prevention efforts, as well as regulations on activities commonly associated with homeless individuals.

Released by the Association of Washington Cities and MRSC in February 2017, the Homelessness & Housing Toolkit for Cities provides 18 real-world examples of tools and actions Washington cities have used in responding to the issues of homelessness and affordable housing including information on housing levies, tenant protections, tax exemptions, regional coalitions, emergency rental assistance, and more. 

Overview

Under the requirements of the Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act (Ch. 43.185C RCW) and in order to qualify for most funding sources, jurisdictions must complete a plan to address homelessness in their communities. Specifically, plans are required at the county level, which usually involves a cooperative plan between city and county governments together with local nonprofits, businesses and faith communities. The Act does allow cities to independently opt-in to the planning process and one city, Spokane, has done so.

The Department of Commerce (DOC) acts as the main coordinator of local and state-level homeless programs and resources through its Homeless Assistance and Preventions Programs and the Office of Homeless Youth. As well as providing funding, guidance, and technical assistance to local communities, the DOC also coordinates the annual, point-in-time count of homeless persons in Washington and tracks and reports progress on reducing homelessness in conjunction with local jurisdictions. MRSC highly recommends contacting them regarding any homeless prevention efforts.

In 2017, the Seattle Human Services Department released the results of a survey of 1,050 people living outside and in public shelters to further understand their situations and needs, and to better inform the city’s responses to homelessness. Survey responses confirmed that affordable housing availability, substance abuse and mental health issues are key contributors to addressing homelessness.  Additionally, the survey showed that homelessness affects Black/African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Native Americans and the LGBTQ community disproportionately.

Prevention Planning Efforts

Since homelessness is a regional challenge with workable solutions that are often beyond the resources of most local governments, most planning efforts take place at the county level or higher. Typically city and county governments work with and through nonprofits, both to build and to operate facilities and related programs for the homeless. Money may come from a variety of sources including private, city, county, state, and federal funding programs. Building a regional network of partners and stakeholders is critical for a successful plan. Below are a number of examples highlighting some partnership approaches. The Department of Commerce also has countywide plans.

  • Chelan-Douglas Counties Plan to End Homelessness – After developing the local plan, participating jurisdictions signed an interlocal agreement, naming the City of Wenatchee as the implementing agency for the Chelan-Douglas County Program. A Homeless Housing Task Force, made up of local agency representatives, meets periodically to update priorities for homeless services/programs and reviews progress made on achieving objectives and activities identified in the plan.
  • King County All Home – This collaborative efforts brings together 39 cities, over 300 community partners, and the King County government to support a single goal of making occurrences of homelessness rare and brief in King County. The committee’s efforts are codified in the All Home initiative and their governance structure involves a complex network of relationships and agreements to ensure implementation and tracking.

Homeless Housing

There are many different types and forms of housing that can provide shelter for homeless individuals. However, there are a number of housing types that are usually geared specifically toward homeless populations. 

  • Emergency Housing: Temporary housing for individuals and families for periods not longer than somewhere between 60–90 days, though stays can also last only a day or so. These may or may not include additional supportive services.
  • Transitional Housing: Temporary housing for individuals and families for periods up to two years, which may also include job and/or self-sufficiency training and other supportive services to help people transition to independent living.
  • Supportive Housing: A form of permanent housing that is geared toward chronically homeless individuals (as well as others) who need continuous support to help maintain housing and access to community services.

Codes Defining and Regulating Housing for the Homeless

Zoning and regulation on these types of housing differs between jurisdictions and may or may not include location limitations, development standards, and operation restrictions.

  • Chelan Municipal Code Ch. 17.13 – Limits the size of emergency and transitional housing facilities depending on the zone. Does not allow them in downtown zones. Also requires conditional use permits for use of recreational vehicles and park models for these housing facilities.
  • Sultan Municipal Code Ch. 16.44 – Sets a limitation on how close such facilities can be to each other. Also requires facilities to maintain the “general character” of a surrounding neighborhood.
  • Auburn Municipal Code Ch. 18.31.160 – Limits supportive housing facilities in residential zones to higher density areas and requires a minimum separation of five miles between facilities. Also requires a management plan to be submitted to the planning director.

Tiny Homes Used for Homeless Housing

Due to the expense of providing housing in traditional forms (such as multifamily housing buildings), one innovative approach has been to utilize “tiny homes” for temporary housing of the homeless. While no formal definition of tiny homes exists, these homes tend to be between 100—300 sq.ft., and are easily constructed and moved to various locations.

Thurston County’s Quixote Village is a community of previously homeless adults that live in 30 tiny cottages (144 sq. ft. interior) with a community building that contains a shared kitchen, dining area, living room, showers, laundry, and office and meeting space. Quixote Village is staffed by a full-time program manager and resident advocate and overseen by the independent nonprofit, Panza. Funding was provided from private, city, county, and state sources. Quixote Village was featured in a 2015 white paper by Community Frameworks on the use of tiny homes as a permanent, supportive housing model.

Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute has also utilized tiny homes in various encampments throughout the city including Ballard, Othello, and the Central Area.

Oftentimes, housing for the homeless have certain requirements that act as a barrier to chronically homeless individuals who often suffer from substance abuse and/or mental illness. In response, Dr. Sam Tsemberis developed "Housing First," which calls for the provision of permanent housing first, followed by supportive services for mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. The Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle uses this approach in its Nyer Urness House.

Temporary Homeless Encampments (Tent Cities)

Over the last decade, temporary homeless encampments, sometimes called tent cities, have become an often-used mechanism for providing shelter for homeless individuals. These encampments usually rotate between various host properties and often have managers and a code of conduct for residents.

The state has authorized religious organizations to host temporary encampments and limits a local government’s ability to regulate these encampments (RCW 36.01.290 for counties, 35A.21.360 for code cities, and 35.21.915 for other cities and towns). The legislation also grants broad authority to religious organizations to provide shelter or housing to homeless persons on property that these organizations own or control. It prohibits local governments from enacting an ordinance or regulation that imposes conditions—the exception being conditions necessary to protect public health and safety that do not substantially burden the decisions or actions of a religious organization—with respect to the provision of homeless housing. It also prohibits the imposition of permit fees in excess of the actual costs associated with the review and approval of the required permit applications for homeless housing encampments.

Many jurisdictions have enacted regulations consistent with RCW 36.01.290 that outline additional rules and procedures related to temporary homeless encampments. 

Codes Defining and Regulating Homeless Encampments 

  • Lynnwood Municipal Code Ch. 21.74 – Lynnwood provides a comprehensive, and fairly common example of temporary homeless encampment regulations. Responding directly to the state rules, only religious organizations are allowed to be sponsor organizations. The regulations limit the maximum size of the encampment to 100 people, prohibit unaccompanied children, and limit the duration of the encampment to 90 days in a single location. To limit the impacts to neighbors, the rules require a 20-ft. setback, downward facing lighting, and sight-obscuring mechanisms, as well as requiring that the host address parking and transit requirements in the application. Additionally, a code of conduct is required that that must address the “health, safety, and welfare” of the campers, as well as neighborhood concerns. As with other temporary uses, an application for permit must be filed that is distributed to the public and neighbors for comment.
  • Kirkland Municipal Code Ch. 127 – Kirkland has similar provisions to Lynnwood but outlines more explicit details in some instances. For example, the regulations prohibit all children and pets, and requires the provision of five parking spaces and transit service within a half mile of the site. It also outlines minimum requirements for the code of conduct. Additionally, sec. 127.42 requires a public meeting to be held for all encampments at new locations.
  • Bothell Municipal Code Sec. 12.06.160 – While Bothell’s regulations share many of the same criteria as the example above, they put much more emphasis on the application process. An application, with “a narrative and drawings,” must be submitted that describes in detail how the encampment will operate, including how it will handle health, safety, security, and transportation. Additionally, the application must consider all potential neighborhood impacts and outline a comprehensive plan to mitigate these impacts. If the site is near a school or daycare, the applicant is required to seek advance discussion regarding the proposed encampment. It is notable that Bothell allows any organization to submit an application, not just religious institutions.
  • Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.42.056 – While Seattle has similar provisions to those outlined above (for encampments sponsored by religious organizations), it also has a code that outlines other areas of the city where encampments can be established for longer durations. Generally, this includes zones away from residential areas and allows encampments to exist in such locations for 1 year with the option for a 1-year renewal. These provisions were adopted as a proactive approach for the city’s own efforts in developing encampments.

Unauthorized Encampments on Public Property

In some cases, homeless individuals occupy or reside on unused or underutilized public lands within a jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions have provisions that make this illegal: Burlington Municipal Code Ch. 8.20 and Lynnwood Municipal Code Ch. 10.17 are good examples. However, if a decision for removal is made, the process can often be challenging to do effectively.

In 2008, Seattle developed an Unauthorized Encampment Procedures Manual, which provided procedures for a number of common issues, including identification of encampments, notification and outreach to campers, and dealing with private property left at an encampment. That said, the City of Seattle is currently being sued by the ACLU, which claims the city’s policy regarding unauthorized encampments is unconstitutional.

Panhandling/Solicitation

Outright restrictions on panhandling or solicitation are generally considered to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment due to the limitations on free speech (Comite de Jornaleros v. City of Redondo Beach, 657 F.3d 936 (9th Cir. 2011)). However, more narrowly focused panhandling laws, specifically those identifying and discouraging panhandling considered harmful or dangerous, have been upheld in Seattle v. Webster, 115 Wn.2d 635 (1990). Regulations to this effect place restrictions on the locations and actions of the panhandler and are often referred to as “aggressive panhandling” or “pedestrian interference” laws.

Codes Defining and Regulating Panhandling

  • Puyallup Municipal Code Ch. 9A.08 – This regulation is fairly standard for jurisdictions across Washington. It outlines a number of locations and situations in which panhandling is prohibited, including at ATMs and bus stops, and after dark. It also makes it illegal to “solicit by coercion,” defined to include using abusive language, being violent, or physically blocking passage of an individual, among other things.
  • Oak Harbor Municipal Code Ch. 6.95 – This regulation also contains language common across numerous jurisdictions and covers both aggressive panhandling, whichis defined in a similar manner to the Puyallup code, and pedestrian interference, which is defined as obstructing people or vehicles.
  • Deer Park Municipal Code Ch. 9.16 – Using less defined language this regulation makes it illegal to solicit “with intent to intimidate another person into giving money or goods.” The law also prohibits soliciting people in vehicles from the street.

Loitering and Sit-Lie Laws

Like panhandling, general loitering ordinances have been found to violate constitutional protections by being either too vague or too overbroad (Seattle v. Drew, 70 Wn.2d 405 (1967)). However, banning loitering as it relates to other illegal activities, such as drug activity and prostitution, has been upheld (Seattle v. Slack, 113 Wn.2d 850 (1989)). Additionally, restrictions on the use of public right-of-ways, particularly those restricting individuals from sitting or lying on the sidewalk, have been deemed constitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Roulette v. City of Seattle. While allowed, these laws, commonly called “sit-lie” laws, have generated significant criticism in some cities in which they have been proposed or enacted, including Monterey, Berkeley, and Portland, Oregon. In San Francisco, a proposed sit-lie law generated significant controversy and was subsequently taken to voters in a 2010 proposition where it was approved.

Codes Defining and Regulating Panhandling

A number of Washington jurisdictions have sit-lie laws, some limiting the scope of the law to certain downtown or commercial areas and/or within certain times of the day. 

Recommended Resources


Last Modified: March 08, 2017