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Local & Regional

Mayor bristles at criticism from homelessness services providers over proposed ordinance

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Tulsa City Council
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum addresses the Tulsa City Council at a meeting of the urban and economic development committee at City Hall on Wednesday, May 18.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum expressed disappointment Wednesday at the critical response from local advocates for people experiencing homelessness to an ordinance the mayor introduced last week meant to force homeless Tulsans from some public areas.

Speaking at a meeting of the Tulsa City Council's urban and economic development committee, Bynum touted what he considers his administration's bona fides with regards to addressing homelessness.

"It's been really disappointing to me when I see all that we have done as a city government in the last several years, that no previous city government has ever done, to assist the nonprofit community that's trying to help homeless Tulsans," Bynum said.

"And for us to be accused of trying to criminalize homelessness when we're doing everything we have been asked in the last several years to fund assistance for homeless Tulsans, I think it is creating — there has been created by some way too much of an extreme choice here," Bynum said. "We can assist those who are homeless in Tulsa while also protecting the rights of neighborhoods and business operators, and that's the intent of the ordinance."

Becky Gligo, executive director of Tulsa's homelessness services agency Housing Solutions, was among the critics who, following the mayor's introduction of an ordinance that would illegalize sitting or lying down on sidewalks, said the mayor was proposing to "criminalize homelessness."

In an emailed statement Thursday, Gligo said she stood by the use of the phrase. She also expressed alarm at the mayor's recent posture with regards to homelessness.

"As the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] funded coalition to address homeless in Tulsa that both [the Tulsa Police Department] and the City are a part of, we would look for open communication and transparency from all of our partners. We hope that we can continue to work together with the City on evidence based practices that support our shared strategic plan to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring," Gligo said.

"Since we meet regularly, I was surprised and disappointed not to be included in this discussion. The past two weeks have been a concerning departure from the successful collaboration that we have enjoyed since 2020," she concluded.

At City Hall Wednesday, Bynum defended his lack of consultation with Housing Solutions and other groups before proposing his ordinance last week.

"Someone is always going to ask you, 'How come you brought it up with them and not with me?' I felt that the most important people for me to talk with about how the city regulates our sidewalks and rights-of-way were the nine of you," Bynum told the nine city councilors.

"It wasn't any slight to A Way Home For Tulsa," the collective for dozens of housing and homelessness groups for which Housing Solutions serves as the lead agency, Bynum said. "Mark Hogan, who is my representative on that board, did not feel that he should be bringing it up in a vacuum before I had an opportunity to present it to the council."

Bynum said the ordinance was drafted at the request of the police department. In a new amended form presented Wednesday by TPD legal counsel Becky Johnson, the ordinance would no longer criminalize the acts of sitting or lying down on sidewalks and other rights-of-way, instead criminalizing "obstructing" such rights-of-way.

"I'm wondering how unreasonably 'obstruct' may be interpreted," responded District 4 Councilor Kara Joy McKee. "What's the wiggle room there?"

"There's obviously an element of officer and prosecutorial discretion in all of this," explained city attorney Jack Blair. "You can never account for every circumstance."

The ordinance as currently amended would require an officer to warn an individual before issuing a citation, which would come with a fine up to $100 and up to five days in jail for the first offense with penalties eligible to increase for subsequent convictions.

Council Chair Lori Decter Wright asked how the warning system would work.

"So if somebody gets a warning in front of David L. Moss [Criminal Justice Center], and then they move down to Iron Gate [food pantry] or one of the other — Like, how far does that warning go, right? If they were in one place, they moved it along, then is the second time not the warning?" Decter Wright asked.

TPD Deputy Chief Eric Dalgleish said the warning could follow an individual to other locations, and a person warned in one location could be cited days later for the same activity in a completely new location.

"That gives me heartburn," Decter Wright said.

District 1 Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper suggested the ordinance could cause some people experiencing homelessness to become entangled in the criminal justice system "ultimately because they don't have anywhere to live."

Decter Wright said she extended an invitation to Housing Solutions to address the council regarding their view of the ordinance, a presentation tentatively scheduled for June.

"There's a lot of nuance here, and it's regrettable that things just hit a headline or a social media post and then, you know, we all have big emotions and reactions to it," Decter Wright said. "It's really important that we as the leadership focus on the facts, focus on what we anticipate passing this would help solve and the things that you're still going to see."