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The garage at 93 Queen Street.
Charleston City Council is considering an ordinance that would ban sitting or lying in public parking garages, something that homelessness experts warn would disproportionally impact the city's homeless community.
The ordinance would prohibit people form using city-owned parking garages "for the purpose of housing or camping." It would prevent use of garage structures "in ways they were not intended to be used," specifically mentioning "sitting, standing, lying, kneeling, skating, or skateboarding."
The proposed law passed a first reading with no discussion on Tuesday and is poised to go up for second reading, third reading, and ratification on June 18.
It is the latest example of the city dealing with homelessness by narrowing the acceptable uses of public space. In April, Council approved an expansion of the city's "civil sidewalks" law,
which makes it illegal to sit or lie on popular stretches of King and Market streets for 18 hours a day.
The city says that the new ordinance simply codifies the existing rules of its garages. As of now, police officers use loitering, trespassing, and other charges to discourage people from seeking shelter in the public buildings.
"There’s always been a problem with some of these issues, and we have rules in place, but we had no means of enforcing it through a written citation," said city lawyer Steve Ruemelin. "This gives officers the ability to write a ticket if someone is found in violation of the rules of parking garages."
Homelessness advocates say there is no question who the ordinance is aimed at.
"Across the country, laws are being passed that criminalize the activities and behaviors of homeless people," said Stacey W. Denaux, the CEO of One80 Place, a downtown homeless shelter, in a statement. "The new ordinance being passed by the city is another example."
The city has pledged $3 million for a new women and families wing of One80 Place. The Meeting Street building, which will also feature affordable housing units, is being funded with money from an affordable housing bond that was approved by voters in November 2017.
The shelter initially requested $6 million from the city.
"If this is a safety issue, let’s see the statistics," Denaux said. "If this is a homelessness issue, let’s invest in affordable housing."
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, urges the city to look for other ways to address homelessness. Laws that criminalize the behavior of people without homes have gone up by 43 percent in the past 10 years, he says.
"Nobody wants to beg or sleep in a parking garage," he said in a statement. "Rather than criminalizing people for things as simple as sitting or lying down in a parking garage when they may have no other place they can shelter themselves from the elements, the city should be asking what’s driving the desperation that causes people to do these things in the first place."
Last year, the city transferred a lease on a building near One80 Place to We Are Family
on the condition that it be used as a resource center for the homeless. Less than three months later, We Are Family packed up and the lease was transferred to a nonprofit focused on veterans services.
Melissa Moore, the former executive director of We Are Family, told the City Paper
that more needed to be done to properly address homelessness in Charleston.
"We desperately need more funding for healthcare and mental health services for people surviving in poverty and homelessness," Moore said in a statement at the time. "They just get shifted around from system to system or left on the doorsteps of nonprofits that aren’t properly resourced to help them."