Activists call for end to Johnson City's proposed 'camping' ban

Zach Vance • May 3, 2018 at 8:29 AM

“Solutions, not citations” was the message shared by members of the Washington County Democratic Party and the Northeast Tennessee Democratic Socialists of America during a Wednesday press conference at King Commons Park over a “camping” ban on public property being considered by city leaders.

Standing below the recently refurbished Johnson City sign, WCDP Chairwoman Kate Craig, WCDP Vice Chair Sydney Crowder and several others shared their concerns about the proposed ordinance, while roughly 20 members from both groups stood in a line behind them holding signs.

Opponents of the ordinance claim it unfairly targets the city’s homeless population, who often sleep on sidewalks, behind businesses and in public parks.

“We know that the Downtown Business Association has asked for this ordinance and we believe there are better collaborative solutions that we can move forward with that meets everyone’s needs,” Craig said.

“Possible solutions have been presented to city commissioners, including one modeled after a program in Austin, Texas, and still, the City Commission wishes to move forward on this ordinance.”

Under the ordinance, unauthorized camping on public property would be classified as a municipal offense, not a criminal one, and could carry up to a $50 fine.

The proposal, modeled after a 2012 state law, defines camping as using a temporary accommodation, tent or tarp for living accommodation activities, such as sleeping or making preparations to sleep. Other laws that have broadly prohibited sleeping in public have been ruled unconstitutional.

Former Johnson City Schools teacher Michelle Treece talked about three different students she worked with at Topper Academy who were homeless and found themselves sleeping on the streets.

Treece also argued, due to the way the ordinance is written, anyone who lays out a blanket in Founders Park or King Commons could technically be cited for “camping.”

“Heaven forbid I come here, lay a blanket out and try to work on my tan,” Treece said. “What are they going to do to me? We have to pause and step back. We need to have people come forward with solutions.”

In addition to their opposition, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness have sent letters asking city commissioners to reject the ban.

Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center, wrote that camping bans do not address underlying causes of homelessness, and instead injure homeless persons’ rights and waste taxpayer resources.

“Whether punished through civil fines or immediate incarceration, homeless persons usually cannot pay fines, and because they often miss notices to appear in court due to a lack of permanent address, those fines frequently turn into a bench warrant and a criminal arrest,” Tars wrote.

Tars also warned the proposal could result in costly legal fees, stating that 57 percent of lawsuits brought against municipalities for anti-sleeping or anti-camping ordinances between 2014 and 2017 resulted in a decision favorable to the homeless plaintiffs.

Craig said her group’s ultimate goal is to just get the City Commission to table the ordinance so they can begin discussing other solutions to the problem.

“Nobody here is proposing to just let the issue lay there, to just vote no on the ordinance and walk away. We all want to work to build a better community and that includes addressing the root causes of homelessness,” Craig said. “That is how you eradicate homelessness.”

The local Democratic group is also circulating a petition, which has already garnered more than 500 signatures, asking city officials to table the “camping” ban proposal.

The City Commission has already passed two readings of the proposed ban and will vote on the third and final reading at its Thursday meeting.

Craig said the WCDP and Northeast Tennessee will host a silent protest beginning at 5:30 p.m. on the steps of city hall, just before the City Commission’s 6 p.m. scheduled meeting.

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