The Aberdeen City Council has passed the first reading of an amendment to its public camping ordinance that would subject campers to a misdemeanor infraction if they aren’t camping in areas where it is already allowed by current city code.
“This does not affect the areas on the map given out the last couple of years that shows areas people are allowed to camp,” said Council member Tawni Andrews. It will, however, give the city more authority to clear camps in areas that are already closed to camping by current city ordinance.
When Aberdeen planned to close the temporary alternative shelter location (TASL) next to City Hall in May 2019, the city produced and provided the maps referenced by Andrews to the homeless showing where in the city overnight camping was allowed. There are several blocks within the downtown corridor where camping is allowed.
As explained in a report to the City Council from Aberdeen Police Department Chief Steve Shumate, an amendment to the city’s camping ordinance was passed by the City Council in 2019 in response to the Martin v. Boise case — which basically stated a city can’t enforce camping laws if there is no other place for the homeless to go.
That court decision forced the city to keep the TASL camp operating; the 2019 amendment states that “law enforcement shall not enforce the camping ordinance on portions of any street right-of-way that are not expressly reserved for vehicular or pedestrian travel, when there is no available overnight shelter for individuals or family units experiencing homelessness.”
That would not change under the amendment passed by the council on Oct. 13.
That ordinance “decriminalized the rest of the public camping ordinance,” read Shumate’s letter. “Because of this change, the city has not been able to properly manage public camping through various areas of the city. Examples include the former site of the temporary alternative shelter location (TASL), which is now growing in size, the former site of the museum, the Telsa parking lot, etc.”
The amendment is “a little more specific” in detailing areas where camping is allowed and where it is not, said Andrews, who said she and the city had done a great deal of research to draft a specific amendment that would still allow for camping in certain areas of the city but not in others.
Jeff Myers, who is the acting city attorney, said, “This proposed ordinance does not change where it is illegal to camp, it would simply make it a misdemeanor in certain areas.”
Later, Myers said, “And that’s necessary in order to have accountability for those people who are refusing to leave areas where camping is not allowed, such as publicly owned property to which they are not allowed access, public buildings, water storage tanks, well sites, stormwater ponds, and other secure properties. That’s an example of a place where you could not remove them without having a misdemeanor sanction,” which the amendment provides.
Myers added the amendment would bring the Aberdeen city code code into line with most other cities, which continue to have misdemeanor sanctions on the books but don’t enforce them in all areas of the city when shelters aren’t available.
The city is currently without a cold weather shelter. If one were to open this winter — the county is considering proposals this week and at least one has been submitted — and that shelter were to reach its capacity, would that change the enforcement part of the amendment, asked Council member Liz Ellis.
Shumate offered an example of how his department currently handles calls regarding illegal camping.
“Officers will contact the individuals and say, hey, you’re not allowed to be here, it’s trespassing, you need to move along, and normally they move along,” he said. “If they don’t, then officers have the discretion to issue a citation for that individual for not leaving the private business or private property. We don’t currently have that tool for us on public property at this time, and that is really the challenge.”
The amendment would provide that tool to possibly clear the TASL camp.
Council member Tiesa Meskis said she understood the idea behind the amendment, but thought the timing was wrong.
“Without having any kind of alternative shelters or anywhere from our unsheltered people to go, making a change to the ordinance like this is just the wrong time,” she said. “I am really uncomfortable changing this.”
The council passed the report 8-4 and moved on to the first reading of the ordinance itself. Ellis said, “I just see this as an effort to criminalize homelessness without providing reasonable options.”
A roll call vote was requested and granted on the first reading of the ordinance. Voting yes were Andrews, Frank Gordon, Kati Kachman, Alan Richrod, Deborah Ross, Dee Anne Shaw, Margo Shortt and Melvin Taylor. Voting no were Ellis, Joshua Francey, John Maki, and Meskis.