Editorial: Homelessness IS topic of meeting

This week, it was troubling to hear Mayor Steve Lawrence lambast the Chronicle for reporting that Monday’s town hall is to address possible regulation of homeless behavior when that is the exact reason for the exclusion zone proposal as stated by City Manager Julie Krueger and Police Chief Pat Ashmore.

This is what Lawrence posted on The Dalles Happenings Facebook page: “Be aware that the Feb. 5 meeting is only about the exclusionary ordinance, not a general forum on homelessness as the Chronicle erroneously stated once again.”

Councilor Darcy Long-Curtiss replied to his post with these remarks: “Interesting. I thought the consensus of the council was to have a town hall on homelessness to figure out how the citizens we represent would like us to deal with the problems that led to the draft exclusionary zones ordinance being put on the agenda in the first place.

“They weren’t allowed to speak, but it was pretty clear to me that the people who attended the last meeting (Nov. 13) felt strongly that we should explore alternative ways to solve our repeat offender problems. This meeting was supposed to allow for public input on solutions up to and including exclusion.”

She got it right. The mayor appears to be backtracking on the reality of the issue, but the Chronicle will continue in its watchdog role by listing the facts:

The Nov. 13 council meeting agenda, when the exclusion zone issue arose, includes a report by Krueger. She states that the discussion item was brought forward after “The city manager, police chief and Councilor McGlothlin met in August to identify issues regarding the homeless impacts in the community. Approximately a dozen issues were discussed, and then condensed down to a focus on the issues the city could address. Other categories identified improving programs and working with partners.”

Krueger then laid out the issues the city has the ability to address, including “aggressive panhandling and loitering in tourist and shopping areas.”

She stated that “in order to create a safe environment, we can create a zone that will not allow repeat offenders to be in a specific area. The ordinance to create the zone must include penalties that will be enforceable and strict.”

Krueger then noted: “The city attorney has also drafted proposed amendments to the city’s nuisance ordinance that will address camping on public property within the city limits.”

She concluded by saying: “These two proposed changes would greatly help manage the nuisance and criminal concerns around homelessness. Beyond these issues, staff would like to work with the Municipal Court Judge to determine if a program can be developed similar to the mental health court model, which would provide resources such as employment and housing opportunities, and the opportunity to participate in the work crew program as an alternative to paying fines.

“There may be other areas where the City can assist or partner to help reduce homelessness that could be considered on a case by case basis, once we have our ordinances in place.”

Clearly, Krueger is urging action to help city law enforcement officials deal with problems caused by the homeless.

Let’s move on to the report by Police Chief Pat Ashmore, printed in the Chronicle on Nov. 24, regarding the need for exclusion zones, which he referred to as “safety zones.”

Here is how Ashmore’s column opens:

“Everyone has seen them. They are the men and women walking and talking to themselves, or yelling obscenities at no one in particular. Or sitting quietly in doorways, rocking back and forth, or sprawling on nests of dirty blankets on our sidewalks.

“So intertwined are homelessness and mental health patients that it is impossible to focus on one without addressing the other. We are cycling the people in greatest need between the street, hospital emergency room, mental health out-patient programs, warming shelter, and jail at a great expense and often without real progress.

“Many of our homeless population also have substance/alcohol issues that contribute or directly caused them to be homeless…”

Ashmore further described challenges surrounding the homeless population before stating: “So as your law enforcement, we recognize that homelessness itself is not a crime, but we do have a fundamental responsibility to deal with any persons who violate our laws and ordinances.”

He notes that the safety zones would apply to anyone committing a set list of offenses and then concludes with this appeal: “We are asking you, our citizens, to please get involved, help us with the many homeless that may be mentally ill, fallen on tough times, or chose to be homeless, but don’t break the laws.

“That is where we should be focusing our attention and resources as a community. We as your law enforcement simply want better tools to keep our downtown safe and more abilities to deal with the criminal element, whether homeless or not.”

The Chronicle rests its case.

Monday’s town hall at the Mid-Columbia Senior Center begins at 5:30 p.m. and regards a proposal by city staff to ban anyone who commits one of a list of 24 crimes for 90 days from two zones.

If approved, people cited for these crimes would face arrest for trespassing if they returned within the three-month period.

The two proposed civil exclusion zones are contiguous and take in the downtown blocks, from Taylor Street on the east, to East Third Street on the south, and continues westward along West Second, and West Sixth, ending at Webber on the west end. Its southerly border is West Eighth Street.

By the way, the Chronicle has come out against this plan out of the belief that it is wrong to criminalize the homeless and treat them like commodities.

The root causes of this growing societal problem need to be examined and we, as a community, state and nation, need to get serious about finding innovative ways to care for people who have lost everything and struggle to survive.

We simply cannot, no matter how inconvenient it is, take punitive action against those who already suffer. We, as a community, are better than that.

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