In what could result in the passage of a novel approach to regulating a community’s homeless population, Nevada City’s Council is poised to cast the final votes today on a camping ordinance that allows people to sleep on public land, if permitted.
If approved, the ordinance would give police legal ammunition to regulate anyone who puts up a tent, shelter or sleeps on public land without a permit.
“To me, it looks like another way to move them out of town,” said Thomas Streicher, who runs Divine Spark, a Nevada City homeless service organization that Streicher says helps 374 people in and around Nevada City, and recently expanded to Truckee.
Tonight’s vote is on the second reading of the ordinance. If adopted, a committee will be established to dole out permits.
Initially, the committee would only grant six to nine permits for a probationary 15-day period after a proposed campsite meets the health, safety and adequate shelter criteria, according to Police Chief Jim Wickham, architect of the ordinance.
“Once they pass this ordinance they will move more people out,” Streicher said.
Based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s classification, unsheltered homeless individuals as those living in a place not meant for human habitation, Nevada City police officers have gauged that the town has approximately 60 homeless residents, a “high percentage” of them have known criminal histories involving drugs and alcohol, Wickham noted at the council’s last meeting.
Of the seven homeless individuals The Union approached in downtown Nevada City, two were in favor of the camping ordinance, two had not heard of it and three would not give their names, but expressed mistrust of any regulation that affects their life.
Streicher expressed concern that many of the people he works with are unaware of the ordinance and its implications, he said.
“These people live day by day, moment by moment,” Streicher said. “They are in survival mode thinking about food and where to sleep.”
When approached downtown Tuesday, a homeless man in his 20s who identified himself as Robert said the ordinance would not apply to him because he doesn’t sleep within the city’s borders.
At least one homeless person, William Peach, was on the committee that helped craft the ordinance’s framework. Peach told The Union in November that he supports the effort.
“I am interested in it,” said Robert Bebout, a middle-aged Nevada City homeless man. “My goal is that this could show that we can police ourselves and live in a safe environment.”
Another nearby homeless man, who calls himself Mario, seconded Bebout’s optimistic support of the ordinance. The ordinance could entice other homeless folks not to litter or leave messes behind, Mario said.
If the permitted individual demonstrates compliance with the health and safety guidelines of the permit, such as waste disposal, it can be extended to 90 days, Wickham told the council in November.
Wickham has pushed a few other policies aimed at curbing vagrant behavior since he was hired less than a year ago. Some of those tactics include expansion of the city’s no-smoking ordinance and assigning a full-time foot-patrol officer to the historic downtown district.
“You looking to get a ticket?” Mario hollered at a couple of young men smoking on the public sidewalk Tuesday afternoon, before warning them of the city’s no-smoking ordinance.
Lacking any restrictions on camping on public property, Wickham initially set out to regulate it in July, but was sent back to the drawing board by the council.
“Then I recognized the homeless issue is the elephant in the room,” Wickham said to the council in November.
Since the council first tackled the revised camping ordinance at its Nov. 14 meeting, it has garnered the attention of reporters from the Bay Area to the nation’s capital, where the Washington Times’s website picked up on the story.
While Nevada City is by no means the first municipality to criminalize camping on public property, Wickham described the permit exemption process a “unique” approach.
The ordinance would also apply to vehicles on public property.
“If the ordinance says (homeless people) can safely park on some area in town, I would certainly be in favor of that,” Streicher said.
“I am in favor of anything that can help the homeless. Some of these people need some help into a transitionary period.”
People with RVs who are visiting residents, customers avoiding intoxicated driving and folks staying for special events may be exempted from needing a permit, according to Wickham.
The camping permit process itself would be on a six-month trial period, at the end of which it will be reviewed.
The council will take up the matter at its meeting today, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at Nevada City Hall, located at 317 Broad Street.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4236.
“My goal is that this could show that we can police ourselves and live in a safe environment.”
— Robert Bebout, Nevada City