Ruta Smith file photo
A person sits near King Street.
Charleston City Council has approved a proposal to expand the city's current sit-lie ordinance, which allows officers to ticket people for sitting or lying down on two of downtown's busiest streets.
Council members unanimously approved the expansion's first reading on Tuesday night.
The current "promotion of civil sidewalks" law makes it illegal to sit or lie down on King Street (between Line and Broad streets) and on North and South Market streets (between King and East Bay streets) from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. — or for 18 hours a day.
"Sitting or lying on the sidewalks of the King and Market Street corridors during times of heavy use poses a threat to safe pedestrian passage, especially for the elderly, disabled, vision-impaired and small children," according to the law.
Now, the city is looking to extend that prohibition to include all streets crossing those sections of King and Market streets for one block in either direction.
"A few people have moved off of King and Market Streets around the corners onto the cross streets," wrote police chief Luther Reynolds in a letter to City Council on March 20.
The letter was required by the original ordinance, which stipulates that the police department must update the mayor and City Council on the effectiveness of the law.
"The same safety concerns that necessitated the ordinance exist with people sitting on the cross streets in this high pedestrian traffic area," Reynolds wrote.
The original law was passed on April 10, 2018, and police began enforcing it two months later. So far, Charleston officers have handed out 12 citations to seven people. Those found guilty are subject to a $25 penalty for a first offense and $50 for a second one. Subsequent offenses are subject to a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, or both.
The law is the latest example of policing that advocates say can be hostile to the city's homeless community.
"Sit-lie ordinances are another form of criminalization of homelessness," said Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "They’re not the best use of the city’s resources to give tickets that probably won’t get paid, which will probably turn into bench warrants and arrests."
In August, the City Paper
found that police officers routinely use trespassing and other charges to criminalize sleeping in public, a practice that is not supposed to be illegal in areas of Charleston not covered by the "sit-lie" ordinance. The citations run counter to Housing First, an approach that seeks to end homelessness by providing housing to those who need it without requirements. The city endorsed Housing First in a resolution in 2017.
Additionally, Municipal Court cases involving homeless individuals are not guaranteed to end up in the city's more lenient Homeless Court at the One80 Place homeless shelter.
"I think we’re trying to find the right balance and a fair or reasonable approach," Reynolds said in a phone interview with CP.
He points service providers like One80 Place and the "navigation center" at 529 Meeting St. as places that can help lift people out of homelessness or addiction.
"I think there's a tremendous systemic and collaborative partner effort to help find a good balance for the safety of the city and the homeless population here in Charleston, which we respect and want to help," Reynolds added.