Camping ordinance stirs emotional reaction from homeless advocates in Mobile


A proposed ordinance prohibiting camping on public property will be scrutinized and the homeless situation in Mobile will be studied before council members reconsider it on March 2.

That was a decision the Mobile City Council’s Public Health Committee made on Tuesday, following a lengthy discussion into the fate of an ordinance that sparked emotional reactions among advocates for the homeless in Mobile.


“The ordinance is just very inhumane,” said Elizabeth Chiepalich, a social justice organizer and homeless advocate for over 20 years who administers a Facebook page that has around 6,000 followers. “They are not animals. They are not cattle on public roads. These are human beings with no where else to go. It’s shocking.”

Others said called the ordinance that would fine people for camping outdoors “morally indefensible” and potentially fraught with constitutional concerns.

“And for those who follow the Christian faith, it’s biblical heresy,” said the Reve. Tonny Allgood, a pastor and a representative of the Alabama Chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. “How can we worship a homeless Jesus on Sundays and then criminalize the poor and the homeless all week long?”

‘Enough is enough’

The council committee’s decision to hold off on further discussions occurred despite persistent pleas by Councilman Ben Reynolds – the ordinance’s sponsor – who pushed for a vote on it within a week.

Reynolds, one of the council’s newcomers who was elected in August, said he is responding to concerns from his constituents over litter and trash-strewn roadways where encampments have popped up in and around the Tillman’s Corner area.

“When do we say that enough is enough?” Reynolds said. “It’s time to intervene on behalf of the people who hired us to represent them. We don’t want folks on our right of ways sleeping and camping. These encampments attract tons of litter.”

Under the proposed ordinance, camping or leaving personal property – bedrolls, clothing, backpacks, sleeping bags – unattended within the city of Mobile would be prohibited. Violators could be subject to fines of $100 to $500 per violation or face up to six months in jail.

Reynolds has declined to link the ordinance directly to the homeless, though he said on Tuesday that approving the ordinance would be the appropriate segue into an overall discussion about tackling Mobile’s homeless problems.

“This has drawn additional attention to the homeless problem that exists and once we get this baseline established that we don’t want camping and littering, then we can tackle the bigger and broader discussion that needs to be hand on the homeless issue,” Reynolds said.

Other council members argued there is no way the council can separate the ordinance from the homeless.

“I don’t think you were trying to affect a certain group,” said Councilman Cory Penn. “I do think it will affect a certain group.”

Councilman William Carroll said he was concerned with the “unintended consequences” of the ordinance criminalizing homeless people. He said that Mobile Metro Jail is at capacity, and asked, “Where do we put the homeless? The system is already stretched. Where do they go?”

Carroll said, “We are criminalizing people here for being poor. It’s not the right thing to do. We can rewrite (the proposed ordinance), and we can change it where it’s more palatable for everyone. But right now, it does not make sense to criminalize someone for being poor.”

Penn said he was concerned about homeless people being able to pay for the fines addressed within the ordinance.

Reynolds urged Carroll, Penn and others to put forth amendments if they wanted to make changes to his proposal.

“It’s time to take some kind of action,” he said. “And not sweep this under the rug and allow the status quo to continue.”

Councilman Scott Jones said he felt the ordinance was a springboard to a larger discussion but urged more “analytics” before the council could pursue with adopting a new ordinance.

He noted that Housing First Inc., also on Tuesday, was administering the annual point-in-time count of the homeless population in Mobile. The one-day count, which traditionally occurs every January, is a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and provides key data about a city’s homeless population that is submitted to the federal government.

“They are doing a count and it’s a great starting point,” said Jones.

‘Humanitarian issue’

Pensacola, Florida, homeless encampment

A homeless encampment at Hollice T. Williams Park under the I-110 overpass in Pensacola, Florida, as pictured on Sunday, January 23, 2022. (John Sharp/

Derek Boulware, CEO of Mobile-based Housing First Inc., said approximately 3,600 people in Mobile and Baldwin counties are considered homeless.

Chiepalich said she believes the number is much higher, at around 7,000 people. She said the annual point-in-time count is performed by well-meaning volunteers, but that it underestimates the true number of people who are homeless.

She also said the city doesn’t have enough alternative living accommodations to handle the number of people homeless within Mobile County.

“I would be comfortable in saying that in Mobile, for every one person in a bed at a shelter, there are 300 to 400 people who don’t have access to it especially out in the county in Citronelle,” Chiepalich said. “There is a big problem in Semmes and Irvington. People don’t have access (to transporting themselves to a shelter).”

She called the situation in Mobile a “humanitarian crisis” that few public officials have much of a clue about.

“Most middle-class working folks and those above that socioeconomic level don’t realize what is going on in these camps, behind the dumpsters or in the woods in Mobile,” Chiepalich said. “People are dying. Every year, when we have a deep freeze, men and women lose their toes and fingers in the cold. I’ve seen starvation.”

The lack of alternative accommodations could loom large in the debate over enforcing a proposed camping ordinance, and whether closing down an encampment without enough alternative housing could violate someone’s constitutional rights.

In nearby Pensacola, some city officials are concerned over potential lawsuits if the city moves forward with closing down a homeless encampment under I-110. The city is giving until Sunday for the encampment — which appears to be heavily populated — to be cleaned out.

In Ocala, Florida – north of Orlando – a U.S. District Court judge shot down the city’s camping ordinance over concerns about a lack of alternative sleeping accommodations.

The judge’s ruling in the Ocala case cited a 2019 appellate court decision in Martin vs. City of Boise, in which a judge in the Ninth Circuit ruled that if a person experiences homelessness and has no option of sleeping indoors, then a city cannot cite him or her for violating an ordinance that prohibits outdoor sleeping in a public space.

Chiepalich also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the Boise case, which was the last time the high court was positioned to take up a case involving the homeless.

She said that despite the ordinance, “a lot of good” has resulted from it. For the first time since “I can remember,” the issue of homelessness has surfaced in the public eye in Mobile.

“There are numerous members (of the City Council) who have a heart and understand it’s a humanitarian issue,” Chiepalich said. “I am encouraged.”


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