CHILLICOTHE— During their recent meeting city council members were scheduled to vote on a piece of legislation regarding criminal trespassing.
The issue brought many concerned citizens to council to give their opinions.
By amending Section 541.05: Criminal Trespass of the Codified Ordinances of the City of Chillicothe, city council was looking to essentially make it a misdemeanor crime for a person to sleep on public property. This penalty can carry up to 30 days in jail. The new legislation had leniency for those who have no other option. Those sleeping outside would not be charged if police found that the person had no other available resources. This includes homeless shelters and hotel vouchers from local non-profits.
This legislation has caused some citizens to be concerned. Many believed that by passing this piece of legislation city council would be punishing people who needed help.
One concerned citizen, Jim Bennet, was at one time homeless for six months after the place he was living caught fire. He stated that this legislation seems to be written by those in power and those who hold privilege. Bennet believes pieces of legislation like this should involve the opinions of those who know what it is like to be homeless.
"It's easy to diagnose what are the problems if the person has a home and has never tried to make it on the street," said Bennet.
Several members of the public were people who are currently homeless and live in shelters throughout the county. They mentioned that there are many other solutions and that putting people in jail would not help.
Dr. Stacy Saunders-Adams, one of the directors of the Ross County Recovery and Outreach Center, called the legislation "ill-advised" and "shortsighted." She believes instead of putting people in jail the city should be working to find a better solution. Saunders-Adams also pointed out that many who are unhoused are unable to stay in dorm-style shelters due to trauma and mental health issues.
Even Chillicothe mayor Luke Feeney voiced his concern on the issue during his report. While he believes everyone on council has the best intentions he notes that the legislation is flawed.
"I think that every person in this room wants the same thing for this community, that's for people to not be homeless, people to have resources and for people to have homes and be safe," said Feeney. "To me what this ultimately is, or feels like, is a step towards criminalizing being homeless. For me, in my heart, that just feels wrong."
He believes the legislation would work better if council talked with people in the community who have first-hand knowledge of the homelessness issue. This includes the police as they would be the ones having to put this legislation into action and determine if a person has no other available options.
The public used all the time available to talk about the legislation. Council however decided to vote on allowing more time for audience participation.
An Ohio public defender, Grant Wilson, also spoke during the meeting. He believes legislation like the one purposed will not work in the courts.
"The most likely outcome is that these individuals won't be taken to jail," said Wilson.
He also calls the legislation a "knee-jerk reaction" that treats people more like animals than human beings with real emotions.
Some speakers pointed out that adding to a person's criminal record will only make their situation worse as it will be harder to find a place to live and work.
Not everyone in the audience opposed the legislation, some audience members thought council was doing what they thought was best for the community and that they were coming from a good place. Others said council should help give police the legislation they need to address the problem.
After hearing opinions during audience participation council continued its meeting. When the trespassing came up during the meeting councilwoman Julie Preston asked that council not vote on the issue, but instead have it be returned to committee for further investigation. Council agreed and the issue was not voted on.
City Council holds regular meetings on the second and fourth Monday of every month starting at 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers. The public is welcome to attend meetings in person or stream them online.
Shelby Reeves is a reporter for the Chillicothe Gazette. You can email her at SReeves@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @Shelby_Reeves_
This article originally appeared on Chillicothe Gazette: City Council reconsiders legislation concerning homelessness