Assembly presses ahead with plan to keep homeless from sleeping in doorways downtown

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly is pressing ahead with a plan to keep the city’s homeless from sleeping in businesses’ doorways downtown at night.

In an informal vote Monday night, the Assembly — meeting in a work session —agreed to schedule ordinance 2016-44 for the Jan. 23 Assembly meeting. There, residents will be allowed to comment on the proposal, which would then come up for a vote at a later meeting.

Downtown business owners have repeatedly complained that homeless Juneauites are vandalizing their property and deterring people from shopping downtown.

Speaking Monday, Juneau Police Department Chief Bryce Johnson said he sees the ordinance as a way to force the homeless into services and shelters.

“Our goal is to drive them to services, but we need a tool to be able to do that,” Johnson said.

He said the police department conducted a voluntary outreach program in which officers and social service agencies talked with people sleeping in the doorways of downtown businesses.

Only one person voluntarily agreed to get up and move into a shelter.

“We had all the services lined up, but it was much easier to just lie there and stay,” Johnson said. “I would suggest that giving us a tool to help move people into services is a good thing.”

Without a way to coax people into services, he warned that crime could rise, and thieves will continue to prey upon the homeless.

“I think we need to get a handle on this is my opinion,” he said.

Technically speaking, the ordinance bans camping on private property in a downtown district stretching from Fourth Street to the edge of the Rock Dump district.

If implemented, police would be able to legally order someone sleeping in a doorway to move along. If they refuse, it becomes a more serious crime.

“It would be a failure to follow a lawful order of a police officer,” said city attorney Amy Mead.

Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski asked city officials to “connect the dots” and explain how the homeless will be helped by being forced out of a sheltered location.

The city’s “housing first” shelter has 32 beds but will not be complete until later this year. Other options include opening the city’s Thane Campground year-round.

According to surveys and anecdotes shared Monday evening, many (if not most) of Juneau’s downtown homeless are homeless because of addiction or mental illness that make it impossible to maintain stable employment.

“Homelessness and substance abuse go hand in hand,” said Paula Rohrbacher, who asked the Assembly to create an emergency shelter to help the homeless when conditions warrant.

Rohrbacher and more than a dozen other people signed up to give public testimony about the proposed ordinance during a regular Assembly meeting that followed the work session.

Mandy Cole, chairwoman of the Juneau Commission on Housing and Homelessness, told the Assembly that it shouldn’t expect one ordinance or one shelter to solve every homeless person’s problem because the cause of homelessness is different for each person.

“We’re going to have to keep trying, different things every day,” she said.

Several urged the Assembly to remember compassion.

“Where are they supposed to go?” asked Cynthia Dow. “These are humans here.”

Some homeless aren’t able to go to the Glory Hole because of alcohol, drug problems or mental illness that causes them to act violently around others.

She reminded the Assembly that they shouldn’t just think of the homeless as “homeless.” They’re people with names and stories.

“Do you know any of their names?” she asked.

Mary Bailey is one of Juneau’s homeless residents. She lives at the Glory Hole shelter right now, but she’s had to sleep in a doorway before.

“If you’re off the sidewalk, you’re in the snow,” she told the Assembly. “You’re in the wind.”

“I’m not a vandalist person,” she told the Assembly. “I’m not trying to mess up anyone’s place. I’m just trying to survive.”

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