Assembly to homeless: Sleep in the wrong place, pay a fine

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly sent a message to the town’s unsheltered at a Monday meeting: Go to sleep in the wrong place and you might end up in jail.

With a 5-4 vote at a regularly scheduled Assembly meeting Monday night, the Assembly allowed the Juneau Police Department to evict people sleeping on private property in a narrowly defined area of downtown. If they don’t move, they can be fined. If they still don’t move, they can be arrested for disorderly conduct.

The new rule will take effect April 15, after Thane Campground opens for the summer. It’s enforceable between midnight and 7 a.m. in a long, narrow band downtown below Fourth Street extending the entirety of South Franklin Street.

The vote is an amendment to the city’s existing policy against camping in urban areas.

Assembly members Jerry Nankervis, Mary Becker, Debbie White, Beth Weldon and Mayor Ken Koelsch voted for the amendment. Jesse Kiehl, Loren Jones, Maria Gladziszewski and Norton Gregory voted against it.

Before the amendment, JPD was required to contact the owner of a business before removing someone from its entryway. The new amendment assumes downtown businesses don’t want homeless people sleeping in their entrances.

After hours of contentious public testimony at a previous meeting, the final remarks of Assembly members were emotional.

In one pointed statement, Gregory said the amendment, pitched by proponents as a tool to help the unsheltered reach services, is actually an “impediment to that solution.”

“We haven’t really talked about the long-term solution for our homeless population, many of whom have substance abuse and mental health problems. They clearly need somewhere to live, and those are the discussions I wish we were having tonight instead of discussing an ordinance pushing people out of the downtown area,” he said.

The amendment could endanger federal grants, Gregory further noted. Juneau’s St. Vincent de Paul Society currently receives $130,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) while Juneau’s Housing First project has received $600,000, Gregory said.

Brian Wilson of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness manages these funds for Alaska communities outside Anchorage. In a Feb. 10 letter to the Assembly, Wilson wrote, “If the proposed ordinance is adopted, it will not only have a scoring impact on SVdP’s renewal application but also on future Juneau applicants looking to secure funding for new projects.”

The ordinance will make grant applications less competitive because it is seen as “criminalizing homelessness.”

“HUD cites very clearly on their resource website that ordinances banning camping not only are considered criminalizing homelessness but also have repeatedly shown to be ineffective and costly for municipalities,” Wilson wrote. “In addition, several municipalities nationwide are involved in costly constitutional lawsuits as a result of similar ordinances.”

Nobody testifying for the amendment called it a solution to the city’s homeless problem. Rather, it is one part of a “holistic” approach, said JPD Chief Bryce Johnson. Warming stations, year-round campgrounds and an increase in charitable housing were all discussed as important measures to pursue.

None of those will be ready by April 15, city manager Rorie Watt said.

“This ordinance is one small piece of a larger puzzle; to be effective it must be accompanied by other measures,” Watt wrote in recommending the amendment. “Absent other measures, this ordinance would likely only serve to move the problem camping to different areas.”

White trusts that the Assembly will take further action to help the homeless. She said she could feel the business community’s eyes “burning into the side” of her head at the meeting.

“To me, this is pushing the problem onto private property owners in our business community,” White said. “In one case, a business owner had $10,000 worth of damage to their building. … The police chief and the city manager have made it clear that this is one piece of the puzzle and I have to have some faith in what these people tell me.”

“While this may in some ways sound like it’s cruel, it isn’t because it gives them a tool to get these people to services.”

The amendment could put CBJ in legal hot water. A “very similar” ordinance in Los Angeles was struck down by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014, City Attorney Amy Mead noted, but that ordinance didn’t refer to private property.

“No one has a constitutional right to be on somebody else’s private property, so that is a very big difference between this case and the Ninth Circuit Court case,” Mead noted.

She went on to say that whether or not the amendment would hold up in court depends in part on housing availability. The camping ordinance is only constitutional if enacted where problem campers have alternative places to go, otherwise, it could be deemed as discriminating against the poor.

“One of the reasons the LA ordinance was struck down was that it was being applied to people who have no alternative,” Mead said. “That’s why it’s pretty important that as you consider what you are going to do, it’s important to tie it to other things, it’s important to tie it to making other places available.”

Prosecuting one of those cases, which banned sleeping in cars in L.A., cost the city more than a $1 million in legal fees, the L.A. Times reported.

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