Following a somewhat combative public safety committee meeting, the Mobile City Council will delay a vote on an urban camping ban until March, while the city administration explores other solutions.
The urban camping ban proposal was sponsored by District 4 Councilman Ben Reynolds and District 5 Councilman Joel Daves. Reynolds called the act of camping in rights-of-ways a “public health concern” and mentioned that a number of cities in the neighboring states of Florida and Georgia, including Atlanta, had similar ordinances on the books. Opponents consider the ordinance a threat to the city’s homeless population.
“This is not an ordinance that is doing something extraordinary,” Reynolds said. “I think this is a positive thing for the city.”
The ordinance would make it illegal to camp in public rights-of-way without a permit from Executive Director of Public Works Jim DeLapp, or his designee. The ordinance includes punishment through a fine of up to $500, or up to six months in jail.
Reynolds pointed to agencies listed in the city’s continuum of care as providing services for individuals who are homeless. He also highlighted “utilization rates” in the area’s shelters ranging from only 10 percent to 37 percent.
“If we already have those accommodations, how are we dropping the ball?” Reynolds asked. “It’s not healthy for a person to sleep in a right-of-way. It’s not safe for others for them to be there. How long do we wait?”
District 2 Councilman Cory Penn argued that many of the shelters have certain requirements for people with children, families, single men or single women and that could be a reason those utilization rates are down.
Elizabeth Chipalich, a Mobile resident involved in homeless ministry, said the top reason why shelters aren’t full is because many require state-issued identification and many people in the homeless community don’t possess proper identification.
The issues with the homeless population seem to be most pronounced in District 4, especially around the Tillman’s Corner area. Reynolds said he is acting on concerns from his constituents in trying to pass this ordinance.
District 2 Councilman William Carroll said he couldn’t support the ordinance as written because it criminalizes being poor. Individuals who are homeless, he said, can’t pay fines levied on them and many don’t have addresses where one could receive a bench warrant following a missed court date.
“We are criminalizing people for being poor,” he said. “It’s not the right thing to do. We can rewrite the ordinance, but right now it doesn’t make any sense.”
Instead of making homeless encampments illegal, Carroll suggested taking a page from previous mayors Sam Jones and Mike Dow and placing wash stations, portable toilets and a dumpster out near the encampments. Carroll said a dumpster rental fee is about $325 per month and a portable toilet rental fee is about $75 per month.
“It doesn’t cost that much,” he said.
The city’s Chief Resilience Officer Casi Callaway said the city could and “should” try Carroll’s plan for at least a couple months.
“It isn’t that expensive to try for a month or two to see what happens,” she said.
District 6 Councilman Scott Jones suggested the city delay a vote on the ordinance until the council can meet with agencies involved in serving the homeless; the committee decided on March 2 as a firm date for a followup meeting.
Reynolds seemed frustrated with the delay, saying he didn’t want to have “committee meeting after committee meeting” to discuss the ordinance. He wanted to bring it to a vote sooner than that, but backed off a bit at the end.
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