The city’s homeless problem was at the forefront of discussions Monday night at the Oakdale City Council meeting on Monday, Sept. 21.
The transient-vagrant problem is one of the city’s prevalent issues of conversation and complaints by residents and business owners with no solution appearing soon.
During public comment, resident Annette Halverson advised the council of a recent river cleanup effort near the Cost Less Foods Center where over two dumpsters of trash, rubbish, discarded items of a makeshift shanty town were removed by volunteers.
Halverson urged the council and city officials never to allow the conditions that existed, which included rotten food, crude portable toilets, and human waste, to get as bad as they were. She requested regular police sweeps and more owner-enforced responsibility.
Burchell Hill resident Mike Hancock echoed Halverson’s concerns with his own observations of the problem, asking why police couldn’t make contact and remove the transients in the middle of the night to cause more of a disruption to get them to move.
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins responded, stating his department has been very active in enforcement but pointed out certain legal hurdles that were in place.
Jenkins said that the property in question was not city property but private property and the department needed owners to request enforcement for police to intervene. He added that officers couldn’t “willy-nilly” go to the area and “roust” those staying on the river.
In addition, any property seized by the department as part of a sweep had to be retained for a minimum of 15 days to allow it to be claimed.
“We’re going to get sued (if not followed),” Jenkins said. “There’s a process to follow.”
Shortly after, during the discussion of agenda items, the council heard about making the city’s temporary ban of park alcohol to be made permanent.
In September 2013 the Oakdale City Council enacted a two-year ordinance to study the effectiveness of banning alcohol due to the homeless-transient problem in the parks, especially Wood and Meyer parks.
Jenkins told the council that since 2012, Oakdale has experienced a nearly double increase of the amount of transients encountered in the city. With the alcohol ordinance as another tool for officers to use, the department has experienced a slight decline in the number of complaints in the parks.
“Prior to the enactment (of the ordinance), the police department was dealing with complaints at Wood Park and Meyer Park on a daily basis of transients fighting, passed out in the grass, and public urination,” Jenkins said. “After the city code took effect, officers began daily checks on transients in those two parks and cited or arrested many of them for drinking, possession of alcohol, and other unlawful behaviors. This increased level of enforcement resulted in a gradual reduction of the numbers of complaints and the severity of intoxication of transients in the parks and in the city overall.”
Since the enacting of the ordinance, police have issued 34 citations.
Councilman J.R. McCarty questioned the number of citations, stating he felt it was low for a two-year period.
“I know it’s not a top priority, but it (transients) is happening consistently,” McCarty said. “This should be addressed more.”
Jenkins explained that the drinking ordinance was only one violation that officers enforce, stating there were “a couple hundred” citations issued to violators in parks at that time.
Councilman Tom Dunlop, who admitted he was one of the last holdouts for the alcohol ban two years ago, stated the ordinance was a tool the police needed to “pressure them (vagrants) into doing the right thing.”
The item passed unanimously 5-0 by the council.
In recent months in response to the problems caused by homeless-transients-vagrants, the city has removed a portable toilet from Meyer Park that many residents felt encouraged the gathering of homeless, enacted ordinances that banned adults from park play areas and another prohibiting going through trash containers.
The city also at one time removed park benches from downtown areas due to them being used as focal points for transients.