City Council struggles with homeless camping on city property News

Brevard City Council has begun the process of creating a city ordinance to address homeless people camping on public property but ultimately decided the proposed new regulation needed additional consideration and review before moving forward.

Brevard Police Chief Tom Jordan said there is currently no city ordinance addressing camping in tents on public property within the city limits. Last month the issue was raised at the city’s Public Safety Committee and Jordan proposed an addition to the Brevard Code of Ordinances that states “no person shall set up or maintain a camp within city limits for any period except within private property with the express consent of the property owner” and that “any sleeping on any city street, sidewalk, park, alley or other area within city limits, unless within private property and with the express consent of the owner, is prohibited.”

Jordan explained failure to comply with the proposed ordinance would result in a Class 3 misdemeanor, but he wanted his officers to first direct the homeless to local support services such as local shelters and other resources before approaching the situation as a criminal violation as a last resort .

“The Brevard Police Department is dedicated to treating all individuals, including those experiencing homelessness, in a manner that respects individual rights and human dignity,” he said. We are committed to enforcing all laws and ordinances in protecting life and property within the city of Brevard. When encountering residents experiencing homelessness, our efforts will be focused on finding appropriate services first. We don’t want to criminalize homelessness.”

Instead of arresting violators on sight or forcibly removing them from city property, Jordan said his officers would contact resources such as the Haven of Transylvania County and Blue Ridge Health for assistance.

“If we encountered someone in a tent, we would advise them where there is a shelter they can go to and other resources available to them,” Jordan explained. “If the shelters are full, we would notify our resource list. They would come out as soon as they possibly can and we allow the tent to remain in place. We don’t just scoop everybody up and take them to jail, dismantle their tents, or anything like that. We give the resources a chance to stick and from there try to find a place that they can go with their own circumstances.”

The police chief also said he realized the situation was a difficult one for the city to address.

“I know there’s people on both sides who will see this differently and I respect both sides.” Jordan said. “All I can say is that our police agency is going to do this with as much compassion and empathy as possible. It’s not something you can criminalize and arrest your way out of to solve the problem. It is something that involves people, and we can’t forget that.”

Several people present for the public hearing on the potential ordinance said they appreciated Jordan’s intentions, but pointed out adding minor criminal consequences for those facing homelessness would only exacerbate the issue.

“If compassionate enforcement of the ordinance is what you seek, why not remove the criminal and civil penalties in the ordinance and make those policies and protocols part of the ordinance to ensure that it is affected every time an interaction takes place?” said Madeline Offen, president of the Board of Directors of The Haven of Transylvania County and co-director of homeless prevention for Pisgah Legal Services. “I appreciate the police and the chief’s efforts in that they don’t want to criminalize homelessness, but that is exactly what this does.”

“I do understand how having tents in the middle of the city is an issue, but you have to look at it as more than a tent; it’s a person and that person should be treated as a person,” said Haven’s Executive Director Emily Lowery. Sitting them will only add burden on the court system as these people are not able to pay fines. They already do not have money to do what they need to do as it is. It’s just not the answer.”

Members of City Council pointed out that Jordan’s provisions for compassionately dealing with the homeless were not specifically stated in the proposed new ordinance.

“I have no assurance that if we would pass this ordinance tonight that officers would do anything other than tell people who are camping out in 28-degree weather, which in my mind is not a choice, to move along,” said councilwoman Geraldine Dinkins.

“There are no policies and procedures in here. There are no compassionate words here. I appreciate what staff and others have mentioned here tonight, but this is not good. What we’re reading here is not good and it’s not moral added Councilman Aaron Baker. “If the compassion is supposed to be here, I want to read it in a policy when we’re making a decision and that’s not here. All I have to judge this on is what’s here and what I read here is targeting people who are experiencing homelessness. It’s criminalizing being poor enough that you cannot afford a house in Brevard.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gary Daniel pointed out being charged with a misdemeanor could prevent someone from accessing public housing opportunities and that was just one reason he thought the proposed ordinance needed more work.

“In my opinion, this proposed ordinance seems ill conceived, unplanned and unformed considering all the effects it will have,” Daniel said. “This is not something that I feel should move forward.”

After a motion to defer a vote on the ordinance at council’s Dec. 5 meeting failed to pass, council members unanimously approved sending the proposal back to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion on policies and procedures with representatives from local agencies serving the homeless population. Those staff discussions will not include criminal misdemeanor punishments, but will include involvement from Brevard’s Housing Trust Fund Committee or a special task force formed to further consider what role the city should have in the issue.

“Providing services to homelessness and generally addressing homelessness is not typically in a municipality’s sandbox,” said City Manager William Hooper. “We need to get a little bit smarter about what our involvement in a homelessness response would look like.”