The Lamar City Council discussed several issues for consideration during a February 6th work session this past Monday. The council heard an update on the legalities pertaining to homelessness from Police Chief Kyle Miller who reviewed general crime statistics for the city since 1999 and the number of citations which have been served. He also discussed the legal status of being homeless in Lamar and the manner in which it is being dealt with by the department as well as entry level salaries for new police department officers.
Chief Miller referenced court rulings on how homelessness is defined and the manner in which police departments in two different cities enforced those rulings. The summation was that although both cities had homeless shelters, when they became full and turned away transients for lack of room, the police were not able to arrest someone on the streets as they literally had no place else to go other than a park or area of a city in which to sleep. When there was a known vacancy at the shelter, the police were able to make an arrest for illegal camping. He explained, “The homeless shelters could call the police dispatch center to let them know they were full and they would know that the people sleeping on the streets at that time would have no options, so they didn’t enforce their ordinances.” City Administrator, John Sutherland, told the council those rules would apply locally. “We can’t enforce sleeping on the streets unless we have someplace for these people to go. If we do, we can then say, ‘You can’t sleep on the streets or in the park. They can then sleep in the park or put up a tent.” That’s not a workable situation from the city’s point of view.
Several council persons asked if that would prevent the police from issuing them a ticket, or would it be reversed on an appeal. Chief Miller answered that with no place to go, the ticket would be for someone’s status, rather than the act. An analogy made by one of the court rulings was, you can arrest someone for being drunk in public, but not for being an alcoholic. Several discussions followed for a workable alternative, such as an area designated by the city where the homeless could camp for the night. One suggestion was the former transfer station tree dump on the outskirts of the city’s industrial park. The ideas become problematic as one place is always going to be next to an area that’s populated, whether it’s a manufacturing plant, the back area of motels or even Willow Creek or North Gateway Park. Some drawbacks include lack of water or sanitation facilities in those areas on the outskirts of the city limits. City Attorney Neischburg said there could be some ordinances regarding possession of alcohol or firearm ownership as a requirement of camping.
Lamar had a compassion center which re-opened in 2011 on West Cedar Street, but was eventually closed. Administrator Sutherland said the city has been in discussions with the county about finding some form of financing which would allow one to be in operation, but said no specifics about the cost of operation had been estimated. “I’ve approached the county about the idea of them running a homeless shelter. There are some grant documents that have been provided for the mayor. It’s not a primary function of the city, but it certainly would be for the county and we’d support them in their efforts to find funds or an area in the county which would work. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some money for transitional counseling or having a semi-permanent person who could manage the thing, perhaps on a part time basis,” he explained.
There is no timeline to accomplish this, but according to Mayor Stagner, “What we’re doing is trying to get ahead of any problem. We have seen a few in the city, but most we have right now, drift in for a while and then drift out, but no one that’s really settled in town.” Sutherland added, “One of my suspicious is, as we’ve been tearing down abandoned homes, we scare some people out. You start to see some different people on the street about the same time some of these buildings come down. There may be a sharing of information, perhaps the old hobo code languages where they all seem to know where the vacant homes are they can get into, but once those are gone, they have fewer options.”
By Russ Baldwin
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