City to consider changes to camping ordinances that some say make being homeless illegal

photo by: Kim Callahan

People sleep in a tent under the Kansas River Bridge the morning of Sept. 8, 2019.

Advocates for the homeless say city camping ordinances criminalize being homeless, and city leaders are questioning whether changes should be made.

Earlier this winter, some residents spoke out against the city’s illegal camping ordinance to the Lawrence City Commission, saying that it gave the city cause to police, ticket and clear the campsites of homeless people who have no other choice but to sleep outside. And some who work to serve the homeless have similar views. Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl recently told the Journal-World that she was against any ordinance that made being homeless or sleeping outside a crime.

“I think that criminalizing homelessness criminalizes poverty and criminalizes behavior that is normal and understandable given what people are going through when they are homeless,” Kuhl said.

The shelter reduced its capacity this year because of a budget shortfall and changes to its staffing model, which some say has increased the number of homeless people sleeping outdoors. City of Lawrence officials have said that the city has been more permissive of illegal camping this winter, and multiple city commissioners recently said they would like to consider potential changes to the city’s illegal camping ordinance and other ordinances that affect homeless people.

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei, an attorney who was also formerly on the board of Family Promise, a nonprofit that serves homeless families, said there were reasons for the city’s camping and park rules. However, he said a conversation needed to occur about how the city ordinances affect homeless people in a disparate manner.

“I don’t think there are very many people saying ‘let’s just have no rules in our parks and let anyone do whatever they want,'” Finkeldei said. “But I think when someone is in a situation of homelessness, how do we treat them with respect and dignity and how can we make those two things work in concert?”

Illegal camping

It is against city ordinance to camp on any public right of way or private property without the owner’s permission. The definition of camping also includes storage of bedding or other personal belongings downtown or sleeping or preparing to sleep downtown. The illegal camping ordinance lays out fines but does not specify how the city should handle campsites.

Generally, city spokesman Porter Arneill said, the city responds to illegal campsites on a complaint basis and posts a notice at the site giving people 24 hours to remove any belongings they would like to keep. After that, the city clears the camp. However, in the wake of capacity reductions at the community shelter and the onset of winter, Arneill said that the city considered ways to be more permissive.

“How can we adapt to help people and be as humane as possible while also still upholding city policy?” Arneill said.

The city still addresses illegal campsites on a complaint basis and gives 24-hour notice, but Arneill said the city has been using a new cold-weather approach this winter. He said the city would not disturb a campsite if the temperature was below freezing as long as the campsite did not present a safety concern to the camper or to the public. He said safety issues that have been encountered include evidence of fires being set, human waste, hypodermic needles and accumulation of garbage.

Arneill said the 24-hour notice included contact information for local social service agencies and that someone from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center would accompany city staff to clear campsites when available. Since bathrooms in city parks must be closed for the winter to prevent pipes from freezing, Arneill said the city has placed portable toilets in two parks, the Sandra J. Shaw Community Health Park, 110 Maine St., and Burroughs Creek Trail and Linear Park, 900 E. 15th St., which are near locations where homeless people are known to camp. He said the city was also exploring providing receptacles for needle disposal, but that was still under review.

The city cleared a total of nine campsites in 2019, one of which was abandoned, according to information the city provided to the Journal-World. That includes two clearings of an area along the north side of the Kansas River, as well as two campsites under the Kansas River bridge and several campsites at city parks: Brook Creek Park, Burcham Park, Walnut Park, Naismith Valley Park and Prairie Park. Arneill said the scale of sites varied from an individual campsite to sites where it appeared several individuals have been congregating and camping.

Since the community shelter reduced its capacity in August, the city has cleared three active campsites and one abandoned campsite, with the last campsite cleared on Jan. 15. When asked about the cost of clearing campsites, Arneill said that the city did not begin specifically tracking the cost until this year, but that labor was the biggest cost.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

Police involvement and fines

Arneill said both the police department and parks and recreation staff investigated complaints of illegal camping. He said parks and recreation employees cleared the campsites and police accompanied them for safety and to assist with site inspection.

Though a citation can be issued, Arneill said that in most cases gaining compliance through other means, such as a warning, was preferred. He said that decision was primarily up to officer discretion and might include a situation where there had been multiple warnings or the discovery of some other violation or enforcement.

The illegal camping ordinance specifies that penalties for a citation cannot exceed a fine of $1,000, a jail sentence of six months or both. City code also prohibits people from being in public parks after certain hours, which can also result in a citation.

Police spokesman Patrick Compton said in an email to the Journal-World that in 2019 police issued 12 illegal camping citations and seven citations for park after-hours violations.

Though city code states the penalty for illegal camping can be as much as a $1,000 and a six-month jail term, Municipal Court Manager Vicki Stanwix said the penalty typically assessed for illegal camping would be a $200 fine and no jail time. She said that only one person was convicted of illegal camping in 2019.

City code regarding park hours does not specify a fine, so those violations fall under the city’s general penalty for code violations, according to Arneill. The penalty calls for a fine of not less than $1 or more than $1,000 and/or not more than 180 days in jail. Stanwix said there were two convictions for being in a park after hours in 2019, each assessed a $100 fine, and another charge that was amended to jaywalking and assessed a $100 fine.

Potential changes

The city’s camping ordinance would not be the first to be scrutinized for how it affects homeless people. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case from Boise, Idaho, which had found local laws against homeless camping violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, according to national media reports. That action let stand a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that struck down laws against camping on public grounds when no shelter is available at homeless shelters.

Kuhl noted the Ninth Circuit decision and said that she agreed with assertions that anti-camping ordinances were cruel and unusual punishment.

Though the Ninth Circuit is not binding on Lawrence’s local ordinances, Finkeldei said the case was pretty persuasive in arguing that cities might have to make exceptions to their camping rules. Though city staff has been making administrative exceptions to the illegal camping ordinance, Finkeldei noted that the ordinance does not actually include any exceptions for the weather or a lack of shelter space citywide.

“And I certainly think, given the Ninth Circuit case and the issues with the shelter, we do need to look at (possibly) some exceptions or amendments to the ordinance as it’s written now to take those factors into account,” Finkeldei said.

Regarding the penalties for illegal camping and park-hours violations, Finkeldei said commissioners needed to decide how they would like the code enforced and whether the penalties should change.

The City Commission is scheduled to discuss the city’s illegal camping ordinance as part of its study session on Feb. 11.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A seemingly abandoned campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A seemingly abandoned campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Garbage near a seemingly abandoned campsite near the Kansas River is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

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