BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — An ordinance that would ban camping on public sidewalks and rights-of-way was advanced by the Bristol, Virginia City Council on Tuesday.
If the measure passes on second reading, it will make it a misdemeanor for anyone “to camp on any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way.”
“To camp is defined as the use of any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way for living accommodation activities such as sleeping or lying down and making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding, sleeping bag, or other sleeping matter, for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tent or shelter or other structure,” the ordinance states.
There are exceptions, including if someone is suffering a medical emergency, watching a parade or attending a festival, or sitting while waiting at a bus stop.
The ordinance comes less than a month after a Tennessee law making it a felony to camp on public property went into effect. Bristol, Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum says the city is seeing an increase in homelessness and believes the new Tennessee law may be to blame.
“We have seen an increase in calls, our police department, regarding the homeless population in our city,” Farnum said.
City leaders say the homeless population has grown and they have to do something about it.
“These people experiencing homelessness are people,” Vice Mayor Neal Osbourne said. “Yes, they make people uncomfortable. They might not present the best face if someone was visiting the city, but you know, maybe they’re not from here originally, but they’re here now.”
However, some homeless advocates are wondering why the council didn’t reach out before the first reading of the ordinance Tuesday night.
“Don’t pass the first ordinance, and then invite us to the table,” said Jackie Nophlin of Bristol Area Ministerial Alliance. “Invite us to the table for a discussion.”
Members of the community working closely with the homeless say criminalizing homelessness is not the answer, and it could prevent people from getting out of homelessness.
“I get there’s a lot of frustrating issues for a lot of business owners, for tourism. But there has to be a more compassionate answer at the end of the day,” said Capt. Brooks Gilliam of the Salvation Army Bristol Corps.
Gilliam said the Salvation Army was not contacted by the city about the ordinance.
Nophlin also has concerns about how the ordinance could be interpreted by law enforcement. She said there could be confusion over what defines camping versus loitering on a sidewalk.
“In that scenario, how’s the law officer supposed to judge. What are they being told how to handle this?” Nophlin said.
Farnum said the matter of camping on public walkways is a public safety issue. But he said the city will better consider the impact on the homeless population in discussions with community leaders.
“My hope is in the next coming days and weeks, that we do have more discussions, just coming together as a community to figure out what’s best for us,” Farnum said.
Farnum did not say when or where those discussions would happen.
Some members of the public called the ordinance a bandaid approach to handling the homelessness in Bristol during public comment.
Gilliam said the city needs to incorporate the knowledge of Bristol’s homeless advocates before taking any further action.
“Hopefully inviting folks into a little bit more of a conversation to slow down and think through the repercussions of something like this,” Gilliam said.
Farnum said the second and final reading of the ordinance will happen at the next City Council meeting in two weeks.