Mobile’s proposed urban camping ordinance is unconstitutional and faces litigation in federal courts if adopted by the City Council, according to a letter submitted Tuesday by four leading civil rights agencies including the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
The letter also calls on the Mobile City Council to vote down or permanently withdraw consideration of the ordinance during its meeting later today. The council’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to consider discuss the ordinance during a 1:30 p.m. meeting at Government Plaza.
The SPLC, the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, all signed onto a letter that was issued to the council’s seven members and Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
“We ask that this body focus on solutions that will he homelessness in our communities, such as affordable housing for people who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness or housing instability,” according to the letter signed by Micah West, senior staff attorney with the SPLC and co-signed by representatives with the other organizations.
Under the proposed ordinance, camping or leaving personal property – bedrolls, clothing, sleeping bags, backpacks – 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.
Mobile City Councilman Ben Reynolds, who is sponsoring the ordinance, has repeatedly said it’s not intended to focus on the city’s homelessness situation.
Enforcing the ordinance would represent a violation to the U.S. Constitution, the letter states. S
Such violations include:
- The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment where there is “inadequate shelter for unhoused individuals.” Mobile County has 665 bed available for supportive housing, including 261 emergency shelters; 133 transitional housing; and 240 permanent housing beds, according to information included in the letter. Official estimates suggest there 550-650 unhoused people in Mobile and Baldwin counties, though homeless service providers believe the count “dramatically undercounts” the unhoused population. Estimates from those groups suggest the numbers are in the thousands.
- The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause by citing a previous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (which includes Alabama), that states a similar ordinance adopted in Ocala, Florida, “may well” violate substantive due process “to outlaw sleeping” in public where there are insufficient alternatives.
- The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments if it results in the unlawful seizure and destruction of an unhoused person’s property. The ordinance, the letter states, does not address what law enforcement should do with the property once it’s seized.
- The Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Cause for discriminating against people experiencing homelessness. As the letter states, they homeless would be the only people “who have no choice but to sleep or camp outside and have personal belongings with them in public places where they live.”
The letter also states the proposed ordinance is “inconsistent” with U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that frowns upon displacing people from homeless encampments without a plan to rehouse them. That plan, according to the CDC, should be developed in coordination with local homeless service providers and public health partners.
“We all want to end homelessness in our communities,” West said in the letter. “The most effective way to achieve that goal is not to criminalize homelessness but to provide access to adequate housing.”
This is the second time in the last five months that the SPLC has weighed in on a Mobile city policy matter. The SPLC, in November, wrote a letter with concerns about how the city planned to handle redistricting of city council boundaries, especially with an annexation plan looming.
The council has yet to finalize its redistricting plans, and an annexation proposal has yet to surface.
The SPLC and NHLC have joined together in opposition to city ordinances before in Alabama. After the Montgomery City Council voted in 2019 to criminalize panhandling, the two agencies challenged the city in federal court and got a preliminary injunction against the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) prohibiting them from enforcing anti-panhandling laws.