Tucker City Council members split the vote, urban camping ordinance deferred

FILE PHOTO: People walk past a portable toilet set up in front of the Decatur Library as they make their way to begin the process of boarding a van for a local hotel.

Tucker, GA — Resident experts on homelessness and food insecurity showed up to Tucker’s City Council meeting on Feb. 8, voicing strong concern over a proposed ban on urban camping.

The City Council presented the urban camping ordinance at a work session in November 2020, then held a first read in January which garnered no public comment. Last night, time ran out for the large number of residents who came to speak in opposition.

A motion by Councilmember Noelle Monferdini to table the ordinance until March 22 was split in a 3-3 vote. In favor of deferral were council members Monferdini, Pat Soltys and Matt Robbins while Mayor Frank Auman, and council members Anne Lerner and Michelle Penkava were against it.

The second read of an ordinance to curb urban camping on public property was ultimately pushed to the City Council’s next work session on Feb. 22.

Urban camping is defined as any living arrangement, sleeping, cooking, or storage of personal property in a public place.

Experts in attendance against the ordinance were Tucker residents Alexis Weaver of Atlanta Community Food Bank, David Fisher of Networks Cooperative Ministry, Shawn Duncan of Focused Community Strategies, Cliff Gates of Map to HOPE and volunteers in the homeless community.

Weaver, who holds an advanced degree in urban planning and has worked for a decade on poverty, homelessness and hunger, asked council members to reframe the way Tucker plans to respond to homelessness. She suggested creating a coalition of diverse stakeholders including service providers, business community, city staff and people experiencing homelessness.

“A community-based framework allows for a compassionate, well-informed response so it works with those impacted, rather than against them,” Weaver said. “Starting this process with criminalization is wrong.”

Chris Brennaman, co-owner of Infinite Realities comic shop, presented a list of concerns he has heard from customers including how the city is addressing the root cause of homelessness, minority and civil rights issues and results of being incarcerated while homeless.

“A lot of us would like to know why this is being considered during the pandemic, when we’ve seen over 460,000 people killed from this virus, and it seems to keep rising,” said Brennaman. “I love Tucker. I love the people of Tucker. I believe in our leadership, but I also believe in the power of compassion.”

During the meeting, Penkava asked for attendees to focus on speakers rather than using the virtual meeting’s chat feature. Residents continued to bombard council members via text and email throughout the meeting. City staff read the ordinance with two minor changes, and showed photographs of homeless camps across the city.

Rosie Mafe, Tucker city planner, said enforcement would be in coordination with DeKalb County Police Department mobile crisis unit, DeKalb County Community Development Department, HUD Continuum of Care Program and Resident Services Corporation of DeKalb County, as well as other nonprofits in Georgia.

“We just want to note that help has been offered several times – even up to 10 times – but that help is often refused,” Mafe said.

Other cities with a similar urban camping ordinance in place include Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Chamblee, Decatur, Peachtree Corners, Atlanta and Sandy Springs. Mafe said the goal is to protect the health, safety and welfare of urban campers due to inhumane and unsafe living conditions.

“Arresting is not the goal of this ordinance,” Mafe said. “This ordinance, again, is really a tool to get assistance to these individuals who find themselves in this situation.”

After the public hearing, councilmembers debated the ordinance before voting.

Echoing the concerns of a resident, Monferdini asked how violations and warnings are tracked by the city or DeKalb County Police Department. The answer remained unclear.

Courtney Smith, Tucker’s director of planning and zoning, said other jurisdictions see evidence that after one warning, people move on to another location. If the ordinance is adopted, she said, the city will roll out a coordinated effort to educate urban campers on the new regulations and give people time to accept help.

Smith continually emphasized, “Assistance is at the root of this.”

Lerner, who has been working on the ordinance with city staff and talking with other municipalities, said officers with crisis intervention training are eager to strengthen relationships with the homeless population in Tucker.

Mayor Auman said the ordinance just one piece of the puzzle to address homelessness. He said the question remains: Should the City of Tucker have the power to arrest someone who violates an ordinance, or should the city abrogate that power?

Penkava said the City Council could implement the ordinance and continue to work with local experts.

“It’s a high-risk, very volatile situation. Especially for some of our female homeless. It’s treacherous,” she said, adding that local police officers show great empathy and compassion toward the homeless population.

Monferdini proposed to wait on a vote, pull in community leaders and experts to form a task force and reconvene at a future meeting.

“I don’t want to see this ordinance go away in totality; I want to see it better,” she said. “I have a community on fire right now to help people.”

Soltys agreed to lead a task force of experts which plans to meet on Feb. 10.

“I’d rather have our community working with us toward a solution,” Soltys said.

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