Proposed changes to a city ordinance would make it easier for police officers to remove homeless people from the streets or other public rights of way and would subject them to fines and possible jail time or both.
Mayor G.T. Bynum presented the proposed ordinance amendment to city councilors Wednesday.
“This is really just addressing a growing issue that I know a number of you have contacted me about, with people using sidewalks as campsites and the need to really keep our sidewalks and rights of ways in place for what they are there for, which is for people to be able to use them to walk and move around,” Bynum said.
The Tulsa Police Department had requested four years ago that the changes be made, Bynum said, but he chose not to pursue them because he believed the city at that time had not done enough to address homelessness.
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“We are doing more than we ever have, I think, as a city to support homeless outreach and housing,” he said. “And that is why I feel much more comfortable now bringing this forward, because folks do have an alternative.
“And for people to get the help they need, they aren’t going to get it sleeping on the sidewalk; they are going to get it” elsewhere.
In the past four years, the city has invested more than $13 million into housing for the homeless and outreach programs, established an affordable housing trust and hired a housing director, Bynum said.
A breakdown of the funding sources that the city provided to the Tulsa World shows that all of the funding was from federal housing-related grants that the city had the leeway to spend as it wished within federal guidelines.
“It gives law enforcement the discretion — if somebody refuses to vacate a sidewalk or a right of way — it gives them the discretion to take action,” Bynum said of the proposed ordinance amendment. “Of course, our hope is that that won’t be necessary, but it leaves that as an option.”
The proposal drew immediate criticism from Housing Solutions, one of the city’s leading advocates for homeless people. The nonprofit is the lead agency of A Way Home for Tulsa, a consortium of dozens of local organizations working to minimize homelessness in the city.
“It is criminalizing homelessness. It is not the solution to (homelessness); services are,” said Becky Gligo, executive director of Housing Solutions. “We know that people who are justice-involved have an extremely difficult time finding housing.
“This seems to be a real waste of resources for TPD and law enforcement, and it doesn’t actually get to the crux of what people experiencing homelessness need.”
When asked by a city councilor, Bynum and City Attorney Jack Blair acknowledged that the city did not consult A Way Home for Tulsa before writing the proposed ordinance amendment.
“Not this draft,” Blair said.
Gligo said she was disappointed that the organization was not included in the discussion.
“We have operated in the spirit of partnership with the city,” she said. “The city serves on our leadership council, and we would have appreciated the opportunity to talk about this prior to the City Council meeting.”
The Tulsa Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The proposed ordinance change does not specifically refer to homeless people. Instead, as part of a broader update of the ordinance intended to provide officers with more clarity and discretion, it spells out exactly where people “may not obstruct rights of way with their person.”
Those locations include, but are not limited to, sidewalks, alleys, parking lots, railways, building entrances and exits, as well as “grounds to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access.”
The proposed ordinance includes multiple exceptions, including for individuals experiencing medical emergencies or those using wheelchairs or crutches. Children in strollers are also exempted.
The ordinance would not apply to individuals attending parades, festivals, rallies, performances, demonstrations and other special events licensed or permitted by the city.
Law enforcement could not issue a citation or otherwise enforce the proposed ordinance unless the person continues to obstruct the sidewalk or public right of way after being told that the action violates the law.
First-time offenders would be subject to a fine of no more than $100, excluding costs, fees and assessments, or jail time of no more than five days, or both. For subsequent convictions, the penalty would be a fine of no more than $200, excluding costs, fees and assessment, or jail time of no more than 10 days, or both.
Each day the violation is committed would constitute a separate offense.
City Councilor Jeannie Cue said that although it is important to address the needs of homeless people, it is also important to protect the rights of other Tulsans, including business owners.
“They have people invading their space of business, and they need some kind of protection, so I am glad that we are looking at these ordinances,” Cue said.
“We are seeing that more and more every day in our city.”
Councilor Lori Decter Wright said it was important that the city strike the right balance when establishing ordinances like the one under consideration. Ultimately, she said, it always ends up with local social service agencies picking up the slack, “because at the end of the day, we don’t have housing for all of these folks.”
Wright said she doesn’t “think housing them in our jail is what we want to do, unless they are committing crimes.”
As of March, 1,987 people were homeless in Tulsa, with 1,710 of them experiencing ongoing homelessness, according to Housing Solutions’ website. It said 277 were new to homelessness.
In his discussion with councilors, Bynum argued that the ordinance would help address a public safety issue. He told councilors that recently an individual assisting the city in cleaning up an abandoned homeless encampment had been attacked by a pit bull.
“I have a real concern about us not having a mechanism to prevent those kinds of situations moving forward,” Bynum said.
The proposed ordinance comes two months after the manager of a downtown hotel was attacked by a homeless person she was trying to assist.
The Rev. Steve Whitaker, CEO of the John 3:16 Mission, said he has not seen the proposed ordinance but understands why the city has proposed it.
“We have to give law enforcement an opportunity to enforce when needed. And camping on sidewalks is not optimal in any community,” Whitaker said.
“On the other hand, we need to make every effort to outreach the person experiencing homelessness.”
Whitaker and Gligo said they expect the proposed ordinance to end up being challenged in court.
“You are criminalizing their existence when they have no alternative,” Gligo said. “Our shelters are full; our housing is at 97% occupancy. Folks don’t have anywhere else to go, so you’re making their mere existence a criminal act.”
The Tulsa Police Department is scheduled to brief city councilors on the proposed ordinance Wednesday during a City Council committee meeting.
The meetings are open to the public, but no public comments are taken. Public comments will be received when councilors vote on the measure. No date has been set for the vote.
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