Small towns across rural Grant County have been responding with frustration and derision at a recent circuit court decision that restricted the ability of municipalities to criminalize homeless encampments on public land when no other shelter options exist.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over nine western states including Alaska and Hawaii, ruled on Sept. 4 that city ordinances preventing the homeless from camping in public were cruel and unusual punishment if the city did not have room in homeless shelters. The county does not have any shelters dedicated to the general homeless population, opening the doors for the region’s homeless to sleep in public parks and on sidewalks.
While larger cities in the county like Moses Lake have seen an increased visibility of the homeless in recent weeks as many come out of hiding and camp more openly in frequented parks and sidewalks, smaller towns in the county have also expressed concern and anger at what the court’s decision could mean for them.
At an Oct. 2 Royal City Council meeting, council members and the city attorney discussed the possibility that the court’s decision would open the floodgates to residents sleeping on the streets, even if they have the income to maintain housing.
“Why pay rent?” said Katherine Kenison, city attorney for Royal City and municipalities across Grant County.
Though the court’s decision only applies to the involuntarily homeless, Kenison said that it would be difficult or unmanageable to assess whether an individual living on the streets had the ability to house themselves, opening the door for people to avoid paying rent even if they had the capacity.
“I might start doing that,” said Royal City Mayor Kent Anderson, referring to sleeping on the street instead of paying rent.
Similar concerns have been voiced in city councils across the county in recent weeks. But for advocacy groups working with the homeless, the claim that people will start living on the streets to avoid paying rent has little merit – even in the state’s largest city, said Meg Olberding, director of external affairs for the Seattle human services department.
“In our experience, most people who are experiencing homelessness want to come inside; they want a roof over their heads,” Oberding said.
While agencies working with the homeless in Seattle offer some resources for relocation, they are not sending the homeless haphazardly to rural communities just because they contain resources, Olberding said. Olberding continued that services were sometimes made available if relocation could help an individual secure housing, not just to push the homeless into other regions.
The Royal City Council also discussed the possibility that providing further resources in the region, such as a homeless shelter, would only attract more homeless, or that cities such as Seattle would actually bus homeless to Grant County.
“If you build it, they will come,” Kenison said.
This perception is not borne out by data for the county, however. In the two years after Moses Lake’s warming center opened in 2014, Moses Lake’s overall population grew 3.9 percent, according to U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, the unsheltered homeless population in Grant County actually decreased by almost 24 percent over the same time period, according to annual data collected by the Housing Authority of Grant County.
Further, the vast majority of those unsheltered homeless making use of existing resources such as the warming center are local to the area, said Sheila Chilson, CEO of the Moses Lake Community Health Center and ex-chair of the Homeless Task Force.
There are other factors, such as the size and location of Royal City, that make it unlikely the city would ever see a large homeless population. Royal City’s overall population was only around 2,200 in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and it is located at least 20 miles from the interstate or a city larger than itself.
Whatever the practical reality may be, the dramatic change in laws regarding the homeless has generated animosity within the county’s various communities. In the Royal City Council meeting, frustration over the issue was strong enough to bleed over into other orders of business, such as ordinances regarding dangerous dogs. At one point, a council member referred to the number of dogs that wander freely throughout town as “strays.”
“They’re not strays, they’re homeless,” Kenison said to laughter from the crowd.