CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) – A vote is expected next week on whether Charlotte should restore potential criminal penalties for camping on city property and bonfires in public spaces.
Such a change could put homeless people at greater risk of being arrested or charged and would, for example, apply to property like public benches. It’s one of many city ordinances that were decriminalized in December, when a sweeping North Carolina criminal justice reform law took effect.
Now, the camping ban is among nearly 20 ordinances that Charlotte City Council is considering changes to reinstate potential criminal penalties. Others include fire code violations, shooting firearms within city limits and noise violations. Most elicited little pushback from council members at a meeting in mid-February when the proposed changes were presented.
But two council members say they’re concerned that restoring criminal penalties for the camping ban will be used to charge people who are homeless.
Council members Renee Johnson and Braxton Winston raised concerns about reviving the potential for criminal penalties for the camping ban. Johnson asked if the city could work with local groups that provide housing services to avoid charges.
Adding a criminal charge to someone dealing with mental health or other significant issues without accessible treatment “magnifies the problem,” she said, calling it a “downward spiral” for people who need help.
Winston also said he was worried about how the camping ban could be used for protests.
“We know how those things can be used subjectively to deal with certain types of civil discourse,” he said.
Previously the city had the ability to enforce all its codes with civil or criminal penalties. For cities like Charlotte to reinstate misdemeanor enforcement of local ordinances, state law now requires municipalities to spell out specific criminal penalties for each ordinance.
The new state law began with “a fairly bipartisan group of state legislators that came together with the idea that that having that default, (where) everything is potentially criminally enforced, was not a good idea,” city attorney Patrick Baker told council members at a Feb. 14 meeting.
He added that “some local governments were using it may be more in ways that weren’t as equitable.”
In Charlotte, Baker said, the “vast majority” have been handled civilly — meaning a person accused of violating the ordinance would not go to jail or be criminally charged. City ordinances don’t cover more serious offenses like robbery or murder, which are governed by state law.
Baker said criminal charges for any city ordinance violation is “a last resort” after attempts to educate and seek voluntary compliance.
HISTORY OF ENCAMPMENT CLEARING
The move comes a year after the city’s largest outdoor homeless encampment, often dubbed “Tent City” was cleared from several properties just outside Uptown.
In that case, Mecklenburg County officials used a public health hazard order to clear the camps, citing a growing rat infestation. County officials worked with local nonprofits to move people without enforcing trespassing rules or making arrests.
But even after months of work to move people from the county-provided hotel rooms into permanent housing, many people have returned to unsheltered homelessness in scattered sites around the city, according to updates given to county commissioners.
Most of the land where encampments were cleared in 2020 and 2021 was owned by private businesses or NC Department of Transportation, though a small parcel was city property, the Observer previously reported.
Deborah Woolard, executive director of Block Love Charlotte, said most people who live outside are knowledgeable about where to camp “under the radar,” and local governments have historically leaned on voluntarily compliance rather than enforcement when moving people away from certain areas.
But, she said, reinstating criminal penalties for camping would be “an all-around bad move.” A criminal conviction, even a misdemeanor, can seriously inhibit someone’s ability to get housing, she said.
“If you start charging them with the crime for setting up campsite what is the point or purpose?” she said. “Are we really putting our best foot forward and making sure that our houselesss neighbors other options?”
HOW OFTEN ARE THEY ENFORCED?
Camping bans have been a contentious issue in cities like Austin and Los Angeles, where officials have cleared encampments despite opposition from advocates and housing groups. Opponents say they don’t address root causes of homelessness and increasing an individual’s involvement in the criminal justice system only makes finding housing more difficult.
A 2019 review by the National Homeless Law Center found 72% of 187 cities surveyed had at least one law restricting camping in public and 51% had at least one law restricting sleeping in public.
It appears Charlotte’s camping ban was not regularly enforced criminally during the last months city had the authority to so, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police data Baker provided to council members.
But, many of those months aligned with the period just after the uptown encampment was cleared and more people were living in hotels.
Other city ordinance violations were far more likely to see criminal prosecution before the state law change.
Criminal charges for city ordinance violations were brought 191 times in the 12 months before the new state law went into effect, Baker said. The majority — 122, or nearly 64% — were for discharging firearms.
The next most frequent charge was for possession of a firearm on city property, which had 21 charges, followed by 15 instances of loitering for drug activity.
The remaining ordinances were criminally charged fewer than 10 times in that yearlong period, Baker said. CMPD could not immediately provide enforcement data specifically for the camping ban in recent years.
A criminal violation of a city ordinance previously was a class 3 misdemeanor and while it did not include jail time, a person could be fined up to $500 if convicted, Baker said.
Baker said state lawmakers, as a way decrease criminalization of homelessness, mental illness and substance dependence, created several new acceptable defenses should someone be charged with a crime linked to those struggles.
The legal defenses include showing the person charged hasn’t had a new violation within 30 days of the first, or demonstrating the person is working to address the underlying problem such as homelessness or unemployment.
But Johnson questioned whether those defenses would be sufficient.
“If I’m sleeping on a bench tonight and I don’t have a place to live or I’m having a mental health episode, there’s a likelihood that I might sleep on the bench tomorrow or the next day,” she said.
Council members are expected to vote Monday on the recommendations to restore criminal enforcement authority of the ordinances.
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