A bill introduced to the Charleston City Council earlier this week would prohibit “camping” on city-owned or leased property.
Bill 7930, as introduced by Councilman Adam Knauff, would subject anyone who resides in temporary shelter, including a tent or sleeping bag, in public places within the city to a fine of $500 or up to five days in jail.
Knauff, who represents Ward 7, declined an interview. In a written statement, he said the bill’s purpose is to “ensure equal access for everyone to our public parks and public spaces.”
“If you have ever camped at a state or federal park, you know that you can’t set up a camp just anywhere within a state or federal park and that campers are regulated to designated areas,” Knauff wrote. “I don’t think what the city should be doing should be any different to what the state and federal governments do with their spaces.”
Area service providers, including the city of Charleston’s homeless services coordinator and Coordinated Addiction Response Effort office, say they were not consulted about the legislation prior to it being introduced.
Knauff said he didn’t consult with service providers because “the bill is about camping, not homelessness.” He said he had talked with city police officers, who would enforce the legislation, and they support it.
“Anyone who thinks the bill [is] about homelessness, or thinks that every camper is homeless, is making assumptions and not using demonstrable facts,” Knauff wrote. “And I suggest they should support the bill so the city can begin to collect data about campers.”
Traci Strickland, director of the Kanawha Valley Collective, a homeless services continuum of care program serving Kanawha, Boone, Clay and Putnam counties, said the bill “doesn’t solve anything.”
Strickland said that, by and large, Charleston’s current homeless encampment policy works. The policy requires the city to notify residents of an encampment at least 14 days before they intend to dismantle the camp, and notify the Kanawha Valley Collective and Mountain State Justice within two days.
“I know that encampments and people sleeping on the street is an issue, it is a visual issue, and, by all means, we don’t need large encampments of people on our city streets,” Strickland said. “But somewhere between large encampments in our streets and potentially arresting somebody for sleeping at a park, there has to be something in between that, in my opinion.”
The legislation’s punishments are “hefty,” even for someone who is housed, Strickland said, but unlikely to keep someone from sleeping on the street if they don’t have anywhere else to go.
When an encampment is taken down, people often don’t immediately go into housing, they move somewhere else to sleep, she said.
“[This bill is] not about punishing someone who’s choosing to sleep outside; it’s about punishing someone who doesn’t have somewhere to sleep,” Strickland said, “which is, to me, part of the most frustrating part. It’s just not an ordinance that has a positive outcome.”
Not every homeless services provider opposes the bill.
Jessica McGuire, chief executive officer of the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center, said she hopes the bill could motivate people who are “squatting” to get into housing. Beds are available at shelters, she said. Several people in the community have been offered shelter, but they refused, she said.
Roark-Sullivan requires its residents “be motivated to set up a treatment plan with a case worker” for substance abuse, she said.
“They simply refuse, and they want to revoke using that shelter because we do have a standard of practice,” she said. “We are encouraging you to get on your feet, we are encouraging you to do some job service training, we are encouraging you to build a resume.”
Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said that, for decades, homelessness and mental health issues were ignored and shoved to the back burner.
“What this ordinance does is once again try to hide and criminalize being poor, homeless and suffering from mental illness,” Goodwin said. “Fundamental change needs to happen, the hard work at the CARE Office needs to be supported, and the state and federal government need to put this issue on the front burner.”
The bill has been referred to the City Council’s Rules and Ordinance Committee, which, as of Friday, had not announced the date of its next meeting.
It will then go to the Planning, Streets and Traffic Committee.