City Attorney Martha Rice reflected Monday on the Sept. 9 ruling by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping, on public property, on the false premise that they had a choice in the matter.”
Rice told Crescent City Council that such was never a practice of the city but those who have no overnight shelter have become more bold when it comes to sleeping or camping in public areas.
She said the issue has drawn more attention from local residents, and a town hall meeting was held in November to look at measures that could be taken to address the issues. Rice said some residents have expressed unhappiness that people are camping on areas near Beachfront Park.
“We just don’t have any laws on the books against that right now,” Rice said. “Not during the daytime, anyway. We do at night, but if you are homeless and don’t have anywhere to go, we don’t enforce that during the day.”
She said a future code revision will state that camping is not allowed during the day or night. If a subject is homeless and using the area to sleep, their belongings would need to be picked up during the day.
“That would prevent the establishment of an encampment or a home in one area,” she said, noting a subject would need to be sleeping, lying or resting, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
According to staff reports, “The Court emphasized that is holding was indeed a narrow one, that ‘so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in (a jurisdiction) than the number of available beds (in shelters),’ the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for ‘involuntarily sitting, lying and sleeping in public.’”
Rice said the ruling says people need a place to rest but erecting shelters, starting fires or disturbing others in public places would not be permitted.
Wier said staff has reviewed the city’s municipal code and is working to develop amendments.
The staff report said the proposed amendments will prohibit camping on public property except in designated areas, contain a qualified exception for homeless persons, prohibit unauthorized camping on private property, prohibit overnight parking in public parks between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., prohibit sleeping in vehicles on public property and public streets, impose parking restrictions on oversized vehicles and impose a general leash law.
Oversized vehicles referred most specifically to motorhomes and travel trailers parked on public streets.
Rice said the city has heard complaints from residents about large recreational vehicles parked on city streets for extended times. Owners are required not to park such a vehicle on a public street for more than 72 hours, and therefore move the vehicles every few days to avoid penalties.
She said another staff idea has been to increase restrictions on oversized vehicles, such as RVs, reducing that time to as little as eight hours per day.
Wier said staff has met with Police Chief Ivan Minsal to determine which actions are causing the most impact to the public, and how to address those impacts.
“That’s what we’re trying to address with this,” he said, “and not trying to take away any rights afforded to all people with the Ninth Circuit ruling. Currently, our hands are pretty much tied with the ability for anyone to park in one spot for 72 hours and move, so this would address some of those issues.”
Laws for all
Rice reminded the council any new regulations made would apply to everyone, and cannot be limited only to those who may be homeless.
“So when you say, ‘no tents in the park,’ that will be for everybody, regardless of how they are using it,” she said. “so, it’s quite a task not to create unintended consequences by drafting regulations to fit a certain situation because whatever we impose will be applied to everyone.”
Mayor Pro Tem Heidi Kime said she could not imagine how those using the park during July 4 and Sea Cruise would react to an ordinance prohibiting tents or other activities. Rice said enforcement becomes more difficult when ordinances define which purposes are allowed.
When asked, Rice said permits could apply as part of particular events in the city.
“But again, if that’s the case, you can’t complain about some people you don’t think should be doing it,” Rice said. “I mean, everyone would be able to do it.”
After some discussion about people’s intended use of public areas, Councilor Jason Greenough suggested the city adopt mandated hours for sleeping and that all of one’s belongings must be taken away in the morning.
“That’s probably the centerpiece of our proposed revision,” Rice replied.
Greenough called the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling an overreach, predicting that it will be one of the “85 percent off the time that the Ninth Circuit is going to be overruled by the Supreme Court.”
“Unfortunately, we are going to have to deal with it until then,” Greenough said.
“I don’t think that we should hope and pray that this gets heard by the Supreme Court,” said Councilor Alex Fallman. “No city council gets to determine what the Supreme Court will and won’t hear. I think it’s good that we are taking a proactive step. I appreciate that Ms. Rice and staff are doing all they can to make sure no one’s rights are getting trampled on.”
Fallman said he felt the council was getting ahead of itself in the discussion and would rather discuss proposed ordinances once drafted.
Mayor Blake Inscore said ordinances should prohibit the erection of tents primarily for sleeping during the day, except during city events or by use permit.
“I think that’s a reasonable way to address those who are simply taking advantage and turning Beachfront Park into a free campground,” he said. “Instead of making this a homeless issue, I think we should just be making it a public property issue. We have an RV park and if people would like to use a beautiful, beachfront, harbor view place for camping, we have some sites available for rent.” Inscore called it unfair that certain members of the public have to pay for those amenities while others use them without paying. He suggested creating reasonable ordinances that respect all citizens.
“This, to me isn’t a homeless issue,” he said. “It’s about the appropriate use of public property.”
After some discussion about RV parking, Rice said she hopes to group draft ordinances by camping, overnight parking and leash laws. She said she could bring back the draft language for discussion later.