Roanoke will now prohibit people from sleeping on downtown sidewalks with police action.
The city council voted 5-2 Monday to declare camping or sleeping on public sidewalks and rights of way a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine in the downtown district.
People without housing have since summer frequently occupied certain sidewalks protected by overhangs and overpasses at night and, in some locations, also spent the day in semi-permanent camps with tents and seating. Habitation without bathrooms or garbage cans produced predictable results. Downtown residents and merchants complained in droves to the city.
Speaker after speaker urged officials to try harder to find solutions to homelessness and not, as several said, “criminalize” it. The counterpoint, also voiced multiple times at a public hearing, declared that the problem must be cleaned up or else the city would risk losing business activity and tourism in downtown, where, according to Downtown Roanoke Inc., 15,000 work and 3,000 people live.
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“This isn’t about being anti-homeless. This is about being pro-Roanoke,” said downtown resident John Wiley, who lives on Norfolk Avenue near the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
“Something’s gotta change,” said Matt Bullington, owner of Texas Tavern. His eatery is across the street from a popular nighttime camping spot.
There are more than 300 shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, while 250 people were found to be homeless in January, either living in a shelter or living outside, officials said. That statistic enabled officials to argue that there is adequate nighttime space indoors available for all homeless people not currently sheltered who will need to leave the sidewalks when the new law takes effect, likely in January.
Some members of the audience pushed back, calling those claims inflated or incomplete. For one, the city has a dire need for a shelter and housing friendly to LGBTQ people, a speaker said. For another, Roanoke lacks adequate indoor daytime space for people without housing, council members were told.
Councilman Joe Cobb voted against the measure after describing himself as “conflicted.” He said a suggestion that Roanoke open a low-barrier homeless shelter resonated with him. A low-barrier shelter has few or no requirements for entry.
Councilwoman Stephanie Moon-Reynolds also voted no.
Lee Clark, who directs the Roanoke Rescue Mission, was invited to the podium to speak to a concern that his facility required attendance at a Christian religious service to gain entry. No such requirement has been in effect during the pandemic, he said. In addition, it is not necessary to be sober to get a night’s shelter there. Clark added that members of his staff had recently undergone training to better relate to people who identify as LGBTQ.
City officials said they are putting money — and millions of dollars of it — into expanding affordable housing, job training and access to mental health care and drug treatment to tackle causes of homelessness. A regional count of homeless people found a decline of 55% between 2012 and 2021.
The law adopted by the council Monday prohibits the use of any downtown, city-owned street, sidewalk, alley or other public right-of-way “for living accommodation activities such as sleeping or lying down and making preparations to sleep ... or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tent or shelter or other structure.”
The law won’t apply to a person having a medical emergency, watching a parade, sitting at a bus stop or sleeping in a vehicle.
City Manager Bob Cowell has predicted that those found sleeping on sidewalks in violation of the law will leave when authorities ask them to and not receive a ticket. Cowell said he knew of no one ever being cited for sleeping in a city park or on the greenway, where a sleeping ban has been in effect.