BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – The Bristol, Virginia City Council will decide on second and final reading if an ordinance to ban many forms of public camping will become law Tuesday night.
The ordinance would make camping on public streets, sidewalks, alleys and other public rights of way a Class 4 misdemeanor.
The council passed the ordinance on first reading two weeks ago.
Business leaders in Bristol said the law is designed to combat homelessness in downtown, which they said is becoming a public safety issue.
Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, said her office has received several calls from area business owners about homelessness.
“They’re calling and saying we need some relief,” Rhinehart said. “We have business owners who have never called about this type of issue before saying they have travel consultants coming in, who have been coming here for years, who now have said I have some concerns about leaving my hotel and walking to a restaurant.”
Rhinehart said the homeless population has grown, and it’s starting to cause problems for business owners.
“We have business owners who have had a lot of challenges, to be frank, with homeless people,” Rhinehart said. “Sleeping in their doorways or using the streets and doorways and alleyways as public restrooms. Folks who have been aggressive with visitors here.”
Rhinehart said she and a group of business leaders would be in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
South of State Street in Tennessee, camping on public property is a felony.
Brian Plank, executive director at Haven of Rest, a homeless shelter and food kitchen in Bristol, Tennessee, said that the law may play a role in Bristol, Virginia’s homeless population.
“We’ve heard numerous people at the evening meal say, ‘I’m going to get this meal and then I’m going to go over to Virginia, so I don’t have to worry about getting thrown in jail and have a felony on my record,'” Plank said.
Haven of Rest serves people like Matthew Carroll, who had been staying at the shelter for a week after a year on the streets.
Carroll said the law would improve public safety, but it may be difficult to inform the homeless population of the change if the ordinance passes.
He said Bristol, Virginia police need to point homeless people toward resources like Haven of Rest and The Salvation Army if people are in violation of the ordinance.
“Some of them don’t have cell phones or radios. They hear by word of mouth, and if officers would come up and tell them, ‘Well look, I apologize you can’t stay here, but this is what I can recommend,'” Carroll said.
At the first reading of the ordinance, several homeless advocates spoke against the ordinance saying it would criminalize homelessness.
Plank spoke in opposition then, and he has been in communication with some council members about the potential impact of the ordinance.
“We just don’t want to see these people who are marginalized anyway get records with the police that they don’t need,” Plank said. “You’re dealing with homeless folks that don’t have any money. How are they going to pay the fine?”
Plank also said the ordinance could drive homeless people to private property, which could create a bigger issue.
“You’re going to see a lot of them trying to find places on private property they can go, and just try to hide out,” Plank said. “It’s going to be a situation that you’re probably going to be running your police force ragged.”
In the long-term, Rhinehart said a coalition has been formed aiming to help people out of homelessness. The Bristol Homeless Coalition is compromised of churches, non-profits, local governments, business owners and other stakeholders to develop that long-term strategy.
“We do want to address those who are already in need, but also make sure that we have strategies, programs and the right resources in place to keep people from ever becoming homeless.” Rhinehart said.
Bristol, Virginia will hear the second reading of the ordinance at their meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.