Have something to say about homelessness?

The Sonora City Council is scheduled to meet and discuss the issue at 5 p.m. Monday, in City Hall, at 94 N. Washington St.

In response to growing complaints from the business community, the Sonora City Council will consider the possibility of reinstating a controversial camping ban that some say essentially makes being homeless a crime.

The council will discuss the ordinance at a public meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday in City Hall and consider putting it to a vote at a later date. Approving the ordinance would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in Tuolumne County Jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for camping on any public or private property without permission.

Anyone caught camping in the same area a second time within one year of their first conviction could face up to 120 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

Prior to any vote by the council, City Attorney Douglas White would first need to review the ordinance and make sure it doesn’t conflict with laws or court decisions that may have occurred since it was last in effect from July 21, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2014.

City Administrator Tim Miller said the topic was put on Monday’s agenda because it was suggested at a town hall meeting of downtown Sonora merchants on June 28 that the city should consider reinstating the ban.

“I think those that were there felt it’s another tool that may address some of the issues that are associated with the illegal camping in town,” Miller said.

Bourbon Barrel owner Doug Kennedy, who has been vocal about concerns related to homeless people in the downtown area, said he believed reinstating the ban would be a step in the right direction.

Kennedy added that he doesn’t view the potential ban as the ultimate solution, however.

“I hope they don’t ignore this once they have a Band-Aid on it, because it isn’t going to fix it,” said Kennedy. “There is a clear distinction between being homeless and being a vagrant and opportunists taking advantage of what’s offered downtown.”

However, people who work closely with the homeless to help them survive and ultimately get off the street see the ban in a far different light.

Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the nonprofit Give Someone a Chance, said she believes the ordinance is ineffective, unfair and makes those who are homeless resentful of the rest of the community.

The last time the ordinance was in place, Mitchell said many who got kicked out of their camps would simply return when the coast was clear. She also observed that it caused homeless people in the city to band together when they typically enjoy being mostly on their own.

“They would look out for each other and began teaming up more,” Mitchell said. “That made them start banding together against the community, rather than working with the community.”

Before a ban is put in place, Mitchell said she would like to see an open discussion on the issue among advocates like herself, business owners, city government, and the public.

Jeanette Lambert, volunteer coordinator of the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora, said that a ban would just be a quick fix to a complex problem. She added that she doesn’t know the answer, but believes there should be more thought put into it among the community.

“I would rather that we work together and came up with a better solution,” Lambert said. “It’s never going to be perfect, but I’m opposed to a really quick decision like that.”

Beetle Barbour, former housing resources director for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, said she believes the previous ordinance had some positive consequences while it was in effect, such as driving some people to get help through ATCAA who otherwise may have not.

Despite the acknowledgment, Barbour said she’s ultimately against reinstating the ordinance.

“In general, I think criminalizing homelessness is the wrong way to go,” Barbour said.

More homeless shelters would “absolutely” improve the situation, Barbour said. The only shelter in the county that allows men, women and families is operated in Sonora by ATCAA and has 25 beds.

The shelter was built in the late 1980s through a federal Community Development Block Grant, according to Barbour.

Sonora police have expressed support for the ban, both now and shortly after it expired on the predetermined sunset date of Dec. 31, 2014.

In January 2015, former Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson said petty thefts and property crimes at businesses at The Crossroads shopping center on Sanguinetti Road declined by as much as 42 percent after a nearby homeless camp was dispersed while the ban was in effect.

Acting Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said on Thursday that he supports reinstating the ban because it’s another resource for enforcing the law.

Councilman Matt Hawkins, who ran for election in 2016 on a platform to start a conversation about homelessness in the city, said he saw a noticeable decline in the number of homeless shoplifters while working as a manager at Walmart when the ban was in place.

Hawkins added, however, that 75 to 80 percent of shoplifters are typically middle-class or upper-class women ages 19 to 35.

The ban passed by a 4-0-1 vote when it was enacted on July 21, 2014. Former Mayor Ron Stearn, current Mayor Connie Williams, Councilman George Segarini and Councilman Jim Garaventa voted in favor, while former Councilman Bill Canning abstained.

When the ban came up for a renewal at a meeting on Jan. 20, 2015, it failed by a 2-1 vote because it needed at least three votes to pass. Garaventa and Canning voted to approve, while Williams was opposed because it hadn’t been reviewed by the city’s attorney at the time. Stearn and Segarini were absent from the meeting.

Although the council vowed to revisit the ordinance after more discussion, that never happened until now.

On March 7, 2016, the council stood in unanimous opposition to a bill proposed by State Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, that would have prohibited cities and counties that receive state funds from banning the act of camping or resting in public places.

Liu’s bill ultimately died from a lack of support in the state Legislature, with more than 100 California cities expressing opposition.

Hawkins, who was not on the council for any of the previous votes, said he never put together a promised discussion on homelessness after the election in June 2016 because business owners told him the situation had improved and asked him to the hold off.

Hawkins said he’s not yet sure how he’ll vote on the ordinance if it ultimately comes back to the council for consideration, but he would only vote in favor if it was temporary to make some urgency for hashing out a longer term plan that would also involve county leaders.

A ban on camping in the city would only push the issue out into the unincorporated area of the county, Hawkins said.

There are a number of homeless camps on the east side of Stockton Road, but those could easily migrate over to the west side where most of the land is in the county about 900 feet south of Ponderosa Lane to Highway 108.

A shopkeeper in Jamestown called the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office at 10:33 a.m. Thursday to get advice about homeless people who have started sleeping near his store, drinking in public, and urinating on sidewalks, according to incident logs.

The shopkeeper reportedly told the Sheriff’s Office that the situation with homeless people in the area was getting worse.

“If I vote in favor of a camping ordinance either now or down the line, I’ll only vote in favor of it if there’s a sunset clause for 90 days or 120 days because it’s not a be-all, end-all solution,” Hawkins said. “It’s shooting from the hip, and we need to plan something out.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.






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