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Bynum puts forth ordinance advocates say 'criminalizes homelessness'

Tulsa Police Department
From file.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum presented a proposed municipal ordinance to the Tulsa City Council on Wednesday aimed at cracking down on people experiencing homelessness who camp and sleep on sidewalks and other rights-of-way.

Bynum told the council's urban and economic development committee he was bringing the ordinance at the request of the Tulsa Police Department in response to what the mayor called the "growing issue ... with people using sidewalks as campsites."

"There are areas in our city where the entire sidewalk is obstructed with tents and campsites, and that's my grave concern," Bynum said.

The ordinance in its current form would prohibit the erection of a tent or other structure across a "sidewalk, street or alley so as to interfere with the free passage over the same." It would also ban individuals from sitting, kneeling, reclining or lying down on any public right-of-way.

Those convicted would face a fine of up to $100 and a jail sentence of up to 5 days for the first offense. The fine amount and jail term would increase on subsequent convictions.

Several councilors indicated their support for the ordinance, including District 2 Councilor Jeannie Cue.

"I know homeless rights are important, but so are businesses' and citizens', and so many businesses that have been contacting me feel like they haven't had any rights lately," Cue said. "They have people invading their space of business, and they need some kind of protection."

"To be a beautiful city, we do need some kind of guidelines," Cue said.

Other councilors expressed concerns. District 7 Councilor Lori Decter Wright asked how the city would answer charges that the ordinance is "criminalizing homelessness," and whether the ordinance was even legal.

City Attorney Jack Blair responded that the matter of the ordinance's legality is "not an easy question," and that more information could be presented at a future meeting.

"I just want to make sure that we've done that due diligence and really make sure that we're staying within the bounds of what is not crossing the line and infringing on unsheltered citizens' rights, while still balancing the rights of people that, obviously, have businesses," Decter Wright said.

District 5 Councilor Mykey Arthrell-Knezek raised First Amendment concerns, noting that his reading of the ordinance suggests it could be used to criminalize things like demonstrations and gatherings in places like city parks.

"I like peoples' free expression and I know that that's happened a lot recently," Arthrell-Knezek said. "And the parks policy in general is to let that happen and not interfere and not make them get permits, but what if, you know, there's someone who wants to enforce this differently?"

Blair told councilors that local homelessness advocates and organizations had not been consulted in drafting the ordinance's language.

"We were taken aback," said Tyler Parette, special projects director at local anti-homelessness nonprofit Housing Solutions, reached by phone Friday. "We typically have a pretty collaborative relationship with the city... so, yeah, this was definitely a surprise."

Parette said the ordinance as written would punish people experiencing homelessness for circumstances outside their control and likely exacerbate the city's homelessness problem.

"We don't currently have enough shelter beds in our city to bring everyone experiencing homelessness inside, so it doesn't make sense to then punish people who can't get into a shelter," Parette said.

"Criminalizing homelessness is criminalizing aspects of just living their everyday life to try to get off the streets," Parette said. "Ticketing somebody for just existing in public ultimately just increases their involvement with the justice system and puts more barriers in place for them to be able to access available housing opportunities, ultimately prolonging their experience of homelessness.

"Creating ordinances that move and shuffle people around will probably only serve to increase the visibility of homelessness and increase the amount of interaction that people experiencing homelessness have with law enforcement."

Parette said Housing Solutions would advocate for the council to reject the ordinance should it come up for a vote, which has not yet been scheduled. The council is expected to hear from police representatives advocating for the ordinance at a meeting next week.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.