Even as council tables proposed ban on camping on Danville property, speakers blast move

Danville City Council voted 8-0 to table the idea for further research and discussion during its regular meeting Tuesday night.

Councilman Lee Vogler attended the meeting but left early before the vote.

Several residents spoke out against the possible prohibition immediately following council’s vote, saying the ban would not solve the problem of homelessness and would criminalize it.

“It will be ineffective at best and, at worst, be cruel,” Jessica Hearne, a Christian minister, told council members.

But council and the city attorney assured the ban’s opponents that the ordinance would not land anyone in jail.

“There is no provision in this proposed ordinance that would incarcerate anyone for sleeping on the street,” City Attorney Clarke Whitfield told everyone during the meeting. “It is … a class 4 misdemeanor and it’s not a jailable offense.”

Putting a homeless person in jail “is nowhere near what council is trying to do,” Mayor Alonzo Jones said.

“Somebody took this [the proposal] by the tail and ran the wrong way with it,” Jones said. “That was not the city’s desire to put people in jail for sleeping on the street.”

If approved, the prohibition would make camping on city property a class 4 misdemeanor. It would disallow the activity “on any street, bridge, underpass, sidewalk, alley, right-of-way, park, trail, building or part thereof, or other public property of the city or any public easement … without a permit from the city manager, unless such area is designated for sleep or company.”

“Camping in violation of this ordinance is hereby declared to be a public nuisance,” the proposed ordinance states.

There would be no arrest on the first offense. Officers would give a verbal warning and provide information on available resources such as House of Hope homeless shelter and other organizations that could provide help for those with no place to stay.

The ban would not apply to anyone suffering from a medical emergency or those with a disability.

Ryan Busby, senior pastor at First Baptist Church, expressed concerns about the costs of the proposed ban to taxpayers and the city.

“This type of policy typically is the most expensive to the city and to the taxpayers,” Busby said. “Fining people who don’t have money, perpetuating the fines, doesn’t solve the issue. It creates just further problems for the city and it doesn’t solve the ones that are currently existing.”

In addition, the proposal may not incarcerate someone, but “it is modeled off of other city policies that do ban camping that were specifically designed to be misdemeanors with … fines to incarcerate people, hence the concern,” Busby said.

“Our concern is that this is being modeled off of a policy that was directly created to target homeless populations in both the city of Austin and the state of Texas,” he said.

The proposal came about after Danville police notified city officials of two instances of someone camping on city property, including a person camping under Robertson Bridge and another involving evidence from an abandoned tent along the Riverwalk Trail.

Though it hasn’t been a rampant problem, Assistant City Attorney Ryan Dodson told the Danville Register & Bee last month the city wants to be prepared in cases of people setting up camp in certain areas.

City officials would provide a ticket book with information in English and Spanish for police officers to give to people camping in forbidden areas, he said.

To come up with the ordinance, Dodson said he examined similar policies in Roanoke, Bristol and Pulaski.

Hearne, during her comments, added that many people who suddenly lose a home would not immediately be living on the streets. Friends and family would provide a place to stay, she said.

But “for someone to find themselves sleeping in public, to have lost access to all of those resources, they would have had to endure many traumas in succession or even simultaneously,” Hearne said.

Adding criminal charges, fines, possible jail time and even loss of rest on top of all of that would be cruel and ineffective, she reiterated.

“Instead of passing this ordinance which would functionally criminalize homelessness, the council needs to pursue policies and programs that will help people in our city find safe, secure and affordable housing,” Hearne said.

Jones repeated throughout public comment that council had tabled the matter to further study and consider the issue.

“Council tabled this because they want to get more information on this,” Jones said.

Danville resident Maggie Richardson said the proposed ban does not address underlying causes of homelessness or support unhoused residents. Also, it would pose an added danger to those individuals, she said.

“Implementing this policy will only further stigmatize and endanger individuals experiencing homelessness by putting them at risk for harassment and harm,” Richardson said.

Even though police officers would be required to provide information on housing resources for those caught camping in forbidden areas, “the reality is that our existing resources are not able to meet this growing need [for housing],” Richardson said.

However, not everyone camping on city property is homeless, said Vice Mayor Gary Miller.

“There are people who just come and camp who aren’t homeless,” Miller said.

A group of people from out of town to fish for several days camped at Anglers Park without a permit, he said.

“We need some way to deal with that because people can’t just come camp someplace that’s not regulated, so that’s council’s problem,” Miller said.

Councilman James Buckner said it was important that City Council take the matter back to a work session for further discussion. Council and city officials need to get input from Hearne, Danville Redevelopment & Housing Authority Executive Eirector Larissa Deedrich, House of Hope Executive Director Jude Swanson and other groups, Buckner said.

“Anything that we can do to get us some insight,” he said.

Danville is a caring city, said City Councilman Sherman Saunders.

“We have to understand the facts that we are dealing with,” Saunders said. “We are giving more time to this, more thought to it, trying to as inclusive, conclusive, as we can be.”

The city is growing and, with that, comes issues, he said.

Jones also pointed out that the city provided $500,000 to House of Hope homeless shelter. The money is helping pay for the facility’s expansion from 16 beds to 42 beds.

“That does not mean we have a lot of money,” Swanson said, adding that if the current rise in housing insecurity and homelessness continues, the expansion will not be enough.

Deedrich pointed to House of Hope as one of the few resources that can provide immediate help for homeless people and added that it has reached full capacity quickly.

She urged the city to address housing and homelessness issues before passing the ban.

“I believe the city of Danville would be better served to look at providing additional housing with supportive service funds for those homeless and facing homelessness as opposed to potentially adding additional burdens to our police department,” Deedrich said.

Petrina Carter, Tri-County Community Action Agency president and CEO, reminded council that $500,000 for House of Hope will not solve the problems of homelessness and housing insecurity. The city needs to do more than just care, she added.

“Until we start thinking about solutions, then all of the care in the world will not house people,” said Carter, a candidate for City Council.

Article by John Crane | Register & Bee