With city parks taking on the look of a KOA campground and the river’s edge developing its own shanty town, the Oakdale City Council on Monday, June 20, took steps to enact four new ordinances targeting its vagrancy problem.
Over the past few years, business owners and residents have been outspoken regarding the various homeless and vagrant problems throughout Oakdale, requesting action as city officials sought answers.
“Our focus is to protect business owners and residents, not to criminalize being homeless,” said City Attorney Tom Hallinan when introducing the ordinances.
The four proposed ordinances include a ban on camping on property not owned by the individual, controlling aggressive panhandling, the removal of shopping carts, and prohibiting squatter camps.
With the controls in place, police can take a proactive stance to utilize the ordinance to attempt to stop a problem that plagues the city.
“At present without adopting the ordinance, we don’t have a tool in place to abate problems within the community,” said Interim Police Chief Michael Harden, who told the council that he has effectively used similar ordinances. “This is not a panacea – end all, cure all – it’s a tool we will use.”
Harden said there will be an education period to inform people of the ordinance prior to enforcement. He later added that during his tenure, enforcement will be a priority.
A majority of those that addressed the council applauded the proposed ordinances and the council for finally taking action.
Kevin Bertalotto said he is part of the river cleanup group that has collected over nine tons of garbage from the river area due to the homeless camps.
“As soon as we leave, they’re back again with what they could hang on to,” Bertalotto said.
He added the same problem was in the parks and criticized some of the faith-based feedings of the homeless at parks which contribute to the trash problem.
“Citizens should not be wary about visiting our parks because of homeless camps,” Bertalotto said.
Bonnie Jones-Lee also supported the action, stating she also assists with the river cleanup and stated the city needs unobstructed access points to the river free of “intimidating individuals.”
She said there is frequently human waste along the river’s edge from the encampments and when the water rises, the waste is swept into the river.
“There are places for campers to be,” resident Chris Hawkins said, citing official campgrounds and recreation areas, then pointing out that the current river site is rife with discarded furniture and garbage. “It’s not a place you would want to bring your children.”
John Halverson informed the council that the river cleanup is a sustained effort that requires coming back monthly due to the reoccurring problem of once it’s cleaned, the campers come back and treat it the way they did before.
“Our purpose is not about the homeless, it is about the quality of life that surrounds there,” Halverson said.
Offering a different view was Jonyce O’Neill of the Oakdale Rescue Mission, stating their organization was disappointed that the city hasn’t made an effort to gather groups together to discuss homeless solutions. She said that even though Oakdale Rescue Mission “basically agrees” with the ordinance, there was no system in place for the homeless to store their items or go to during the day.
“Laws are not a deterrent for the homeless,” O’Neill said, pointing out that a court imposed fine will just deter someone who is homeless from finding a job for fear of having their wages attached.
“The Oakdale Rescue Mission requests at the present time (that council) direct staff to bring together citizens for solutions,” O’Neill said. “We request the council to support a day center in the city.”
Sherri Cupps told the council she has friends along the river and has never been accosted. She felt the individuals need services and a shelter, adding that the new ordinances were criminalizing homelessness.
“I don’t believe our town is giving them any services or doing them any favors by running them out of town making them criminals,” Cupps said.
Prior to the council’s vote, City Manager Bryan Whitemyer stated that certain individuals with mental health or addiction recovery issues make getting help difficult.
“A lot of times when help is available, they don’t want to get the help,” Whitemyer said.
The council passed the proposed ordinances unanimously.
By law, there will be a second reading of the ordinance at the next council meeting followed by the ordinance taking effect 30 days after that.