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Trespassing laws are regularly used to criminalize sleeping in public, undermining Charleston's 'Housing First' approach to homelessness

Sleepless in Charleston

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On August 8 at 6:40 a.m., 59-year-old Leneth Jenkins and two other men were cited for trespassing by a Charleston police officer. Their crime? Sleeping, side by side in the center of the city parking garage at 63 Mary St.

At almost the exact same time a day later, Jenkins was ensnared in yet another sleeping sweep. He was cited for trespassing again — along with two men and one woman — after an officer caught them snoozing on the benches and ramps leading to the Visitor's Center on Meeting Street. Beverly Singleton, 54, was among the violators. A person by her same name has been found guilty in at least 39 different cases from July 2014 to July 2018, according to Municipal Court records. More than half of the charges involved some form of trespassing.

Earl Wilson, Jr., another man cited along with the rest of the group, has been found guilty in at least 46 different cases from March 2006 to January 2017, with charges including trespassing, aggressive peddling, open container, and public intoxication.

A City Paper review of Charleston Police Department incident reports issued between March and August 2018 reveals that police officers regularly cite individuals struggling with homelessness, sometimes repeatedly, for actions that are hard to avoid for those with no shelter: sleeping in public garages or benches, asking for alms on public streets, and drinking alcohol outside when outside is where you live. Officers will sometimes use descriptors such as "deep slumber" to describe the nature of their crimes, and might even identify a repeat offenders as a "known vagrant." Officers may or may not provide violators with an outdated homeless resource sheet before advising them of their court dates and dispersing them from the area.

The most common charges are trespassing, loitering or vagrancy, open container, and public intoxication.

According to city law, trespassing citations require prior notice, though police reports show two instances in which "no trespassing" signs were enough warning for officers to issue a citation.

The city's civil sidewalks ordinance, a new rule that prevents people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk on portions of King and Market streets between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 a.m., is also rearing its head in incident reports. Charleston City Council passed the ordinance in April, and the police department began enforcing it in May.

A 2016 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which tracks the use of the criminal justice system to punish the poor and homeless, lists Charleston as a city that doesn't prohibit people for sleeping in public areas. That may be true in theory, but ordinances against loitering and trespassing are effectively used to police outdoor dozing.

"Cities are endlessly creative as they look for ways that haven't been deemed unconstitutional yet to criminalize homelessness," said the law center's senior attorney Eric Tars.

In a report last year, the center issued a glowing review of the city's dismantling of the 115-resident encampment under the I-26 overpass, praising that no citations or arrests took place in the process, and highlighting city officials' "constructive and non-criminalizing approach."

"Frankly, I'm very disappointed to hear this is going on in Charleston," Tars said when the ongoing citations were brought to his attention.

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

City officials and the police department view the criminalization of homelessness with a sort of tough love mentality, and readily point to services such as the One80 Place shelter, the Homeless Court process, and the All of Us daytime resource center that opened in June as remedies that help individuals deal with the legal fallout of these citations.

Lt. Heath King of the Charleston Police Department, whose officers routinely work the night shift near King and Market streets — where the civil sidewalks ordinance is enforced — says that although officers engage in public contact at their discretion, citing people for violating the city's rules, even if those people happen to be homeless, ultimately helps deter illegal behavior and encourages people to seek help.

"It doesn't bode well for a city to have the same people, years and years, to be sitting outside sleeping in benches," King said. "A lot of times, those tickets should be a catalyst for people to be moving in the right direction."

Lt. King also emphasizes that his officers have only cited three different people in violation of the civil sidewalks ordinance, despite the fact that his officers have noticed "plenty of folks" in violation of the rule.

"I feel the shelter is open at night and people have the ability to go there, we also have the day center that's open," Lt. King added.

But the 160 beds at One80 Place are full every night, according to One80 spokesperson Amy Wilson. The Homeless Court held at the shelter once a month since March 2017, which was established to provide a more forgiving alternative to Municipal Court, has only been successfully completed by eight participants since its launch, though 45 people have been referred to the program by either a sitting judge or a service provider. The eight defendants whose cases were heard at Homeless Court had their charges dismissed after proving that they are actively working to obtain and maintain housing, according to Wilson.

The majority of Homeless Court referrals come from the judge on the bench in Municipal Court, who is under no obligation to route the cases to the less punitive route.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he was not previously aware of the low completion rate at Homeless Court during a phone interview with CP.

"I'm curious at some of the sidewalks violations going to the Homeless Court," he said. "I'd be happy to look into that. We'll certainly try to drive some more folks to the court."

On May 17 at 5:46 p.m., 46-year-old Susan Hess was slapped with a civil sidewalks citation for sitting cross-legged in front of the vacant Morris Sokol furniture store. She was provided with a homeless resource sheet, a document that contains information Wilson says "shouldn't be on the list." One80 Place is not mentioned, with its address at 35 Walnut St. described as a "Legal Clinic," though legal services are primarily offered to those who live, or have previously lived, at the shelter. The sheet also doesn't list the newly-opened All of Us center, which offers on-site laundry, internet, mental health services, and housing placement assistance.

The officer advised Hess of her Municipal Court date, where she was found guilty on June 7th.

That conviction added to a long string of guilty sentences. From October 2017 to July 2018, she was found guilty in at least 20 different cases, including three different charges of civil sidewalks violations.

Of the 16 cases of homeless citations reviewed by CP, only four were confirmed to have been routed to Homeless Court. The rest were, or will be, tried in Municipal Court, where the sentences can deal a crushing blow to those already struggling with homelessness. Municipal ordinance violations allow the judge to impose a fine of up to $500, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, or a combination of both. The penalties for civil sidewalks violations are the most lenient, with a fine limit of $25 for the first violation and $50 for the second, though any subsequent violations are subject to the typical penalty limits.

"Traditionally, when an individual gets a citation from the city for an ordinance violation, the consequence is either a fine or jail time," said One80 Place staff attorney Mary Vosburgh.

Fines, she says, are hard to pay when you have no money, and any amount of jail time can cause a person to lose their job, undoing any progress they might be making to secure permanent housing.

"If they build a record, that can be seen by employers, by renters, so any of that is a dark stain on their background that can prevent them from obtaining the housing or employment to help end that homelessness," Vosburgh said.

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

These repercussions work against the goals of the Housing First approach that city leaders committed to last year. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a Housing First model recognizes stable, permanent housing as the most important first step in addressing homelessness and creating opportunities for employment. A core component of the program is that policies and regulations "do not create needless barriers to housing."

"If you can show me a community where they banned sleeping and homelessness doesn't exist anymore, I'd be happy to see it," said Tars, the NLCHP attorney. "The cities that have shown a decrease in homeless people in the streets are cities that have take affirmative strategies to put people into housing."

Mayor Tecklenburg says that the city is still committed to the Housing First model, and points to Council's recent passage of a spending plan for the $20 million affordable housing bond approved by voters in November. He also says that One80 Place has been working with city officials on plans for a multi-story building that will be used, in part, for affordable housing.

When asked whether criminalizing aspects of homelessness undermines the city's Housing First approach, Tecklenburg defended the city's rules.

"I would say those ordinances are there for good reason," he said. "They do give us the opportunity to try to move someone towards some assistance. Other than that, we gotta enforce the existing ordinances. I think they're there for good reason."

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