City Council delays vote on overnight camping policy; agendas vary
(Missoula Current) As the city prepares to open a second homeless shelter in a Midtown neighborhood to the tune of nearly $2 million, along with additional expenses, the city is trying to craft new policy to enforce camping in city parks to protect children and residents and do so in a way that's compliant with a Ninth Circuit Court decision.
However, that effort on Monday night was postponed in order to craft a more acute policy, and it made for strange bedfellows by night's end.
While some wanted to get the language right and supported the delay, others, including some homeless advocates and perennial city critics, suggested Missoula didn't care about the homeless and should do more to provide for them, regardless of the cost and impact it has on other residents, let alone the taxpayers.
Those critics on Monday urged the city to pass another “emergency ordinance” declaring a homeless emergency, establish a moratorium on enforcing homeless camping in city parks, trails and natural areas, and stop “sweeping camps,” even when campers violate existing laws, such as a regional closure on open burning or rules around open alcoholic containers.
“Vote on a moratorium on enforcement,” David Aronofsky urgedon the proposed delay. “Let's get the right thing done.”
Will Knight, a criminal specialist for the National Homeless Law Center, supported the delay, but only to buy more time. He too urged the city to place a moratorium on enforcing the existing ordinance banning camping in city parks and public places.
Knight, based in Washington, D.C., also urged the city to spend more taxpayer funding on serving the homeless as it considers its next move. He accused the city's current policy as “weaponizing” rules against the homeless.
“Homelessness is an economic problem,” he said. “Throwing police and cages and handcuffs at this will only cost Missoula taxpayers far more. Give people places to go. If there's a concern about sanitation, provide waste disposal.”
Knight accused the city of a fake public health threat, alleging it was using “faux public health concerns as cover for forced human migration and punishment for poverty.” He also pledged that his nonprofit organization on the East Coast would be a resource to the city and provide technical assistance “to do like Milwaukee has.”
Going on several months
Mayor Jordan Hess declared a public emergency around homelessness in the spring. It's set to expire on Sept. 4. and given Monday's vote, city code will revert back to what it was before the emergency ordinance was declared, effectively banning camping in parks and other areas.
Whether the city will enforce it is another matter.
Delaying a vote on the new ordinance until later this year gives the city time to address concerns on both sides of the debate, Mayor Jordan Hess said.
“The goal and the reason for the postponement is to bring forth something – a lot of criticism we've received in public comment – is that this was a one-size fits all approach that lacked nuance and was overly broad,” Hess said. “We're trying to be responsive to those concerns and we're trying to adopt this into something that incorporates the feedback from the community we've received over the last couple months.”
Council member Mike Nugent, who advocated for the delay, said the current arrangement wasn't solving the problem. Nugent also has an agenda item this week to close and raze the Johnson Street shelter within three years – a nod to the concerns of area residents who have said they haven't had a chance to weigh in on the shelter and its impacts on their neighborhood.
The shelter property was purchased by the city for economic redevelopment, not homeless services.
“It wasn't comprehensive enough. It wasn't addressing other things,” Nugent said of the status quo. “This is trying to give staff time to take everything in and get us to a point where we're actually solving some of the larger issues and questions that everyone on every side of this discussion has brought up on what happens next, and clarity on things of what people can and cannot do.”
While several council members agreed and voted to delay the ordinance, they did so for other reasons. Council member Kristen Jordan said the city needed to spend more time on the issue.
But Jordan has used that line in the past, suggesting two weeks ago that the city wasn't spending enough time debating the opening of the Johnson Street shelter. The next week, after another two hours of discussion on the same topic, she abstained from voting and avoided making a decision.
Jordan also has advocated for sanctioned drug use at homeless camps and is now pushing for “rotating” homeless camps around the city.
“I'm glad we're postponing this to come up with a more comprehensive plan to look after our unhoused community while we also make sure our housed community is also being looked after. But our unhoused community is the most vulnerable. The existing ordinance is going to increase the criminalization of houselessness,” Jordan said.
Before the city opened the Johnson Street homeless shelter, city officials lamented that it couldn't enforce regulations on urban camping.
Along the way and in the face of neighborhood criticism, the city said it was “shackled” by a Ninth Circuit Court decision saying the city must offer beds to the homeless before it can enforce existing regulations.
Now that taxpayers will fund the cost to open and operate another shelter - despite voter opposition last November - those same critics have come back to resist any enforcement on camping in city parks.
Hess said the city was trying to walk the line.
“What we would do is look to have this (Ninth Circuit Court) compliant and in conjunction with the shelter beds being available,” Hess said of the pending new ordinance. “This is part of the broader package. We need to have areas where camping isn't permitted. That's the intent. But we intend to be more clear on where those restrictions apply.”