The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council is taking another month to consider a proposed ban on camping in public spaces after round of robust discussion Wednesday about the city-parish’s growing homeless situation.
Tabling the item, yet again, came after an unsuccessful attempt by the council’s five Democrats to drop the effort to adopt the proposed legislation.
“I think it’s a bad policy when throughout the country there is a housing shortage (and) the amount of rent right now is astronomical,” said Councilwoman Chauna Banks. “This is a systemic problem. Why is our focus on this versus how do we get people into sustainable housing?”
Councilwoman Carolyn Coleman later added, “This is not something you’re going to eradicate overnight. There’s not enough shelters and not enough money given to these shelters.”
The measure was proposed by Council members Dwight Hudson and Laurie Adams.
Although Banks was supported by fellow Democrats Coleman, LaMont Cole, Cleve Dunn Jr. and Darryl Hurst, her effort to delete the item was blocked by opposition from Republicans Hudson, Adams, Aaron Moak, Rowdy Gaudet, Denise Amoroso, Brandon Noel and Jen Racca.
“Having this item on the agenda is what’s causing this discussion right now,” Moak said before Wednesday night’s vote. The proposed ban “is causing us to look at, evaluate and see what we have out there and open our eyes.”
The item was deferred last month after being picked apart by homeless advocates who said the measure would impede their efforts to address the needs of the city-parish’s homeless population. They had noted the homeless wouldn’t be able to pay the fines associated with violating such an ordinance. Instead, they said, the city-parish should be doing more to provide shelter and resources instead of criminalizing homeless people, which could also impact their ability to secure federally-funded housing.
The proposal would basically prohibit camping in any publicly owned area, with fines up to $200 and/or jail sentences of up to 15 days should they set up temporary shelter for more than 12 hours within a public right of way.
Language in the proposal would give law enforcement the authority to determine if a pop-up tent is an imminent health or safety hazard and, if so, proceed with citing a fine and/or arresting the person.
However, if that’s not the case, law enforcement would have to explain to the person that it’s prohibited to set up a camp within public areas, advise the person of resources and shelter to the best of the responding officer’s knowledge, and contact a city-parish representative with the authority to transport and connect the homeless person to those resources.
But at last month’s meeting, an official with the Baton Rouge Police Department said such an ordinance would basically be unenforceable since it would be a misdemeanor offense that wouldn’t result in jail time and that offenders would need a physical address for officers to issue court summonses.
There has been opposition from officials with the Southern Poverty Law Center who argue the proposed ban would also violate certain constitutional rights.
Since then, advocates for the homeless have been meeting with the measure’s sponsors on tweaking the language in the proposal. Moak is asking that homeless shelters and agencies provide more concrete numbers regarding shelter space in the meantime.
“The idea behind this ordinance is not to criminalize homelessness,” Hudson said. “We’re banning camping in the (public) right of way, which is not a safe place to be housing folks.”