ALTON - An ordinance which would ban public camping in Alton is on hold once again after 22 people gave public comments at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023.

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Overnight Warming Center volunteers, Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine, and more gave comments for and against the ordinance, with most asking the committee to table the item and seek more solutions to assist the city’s unhoused population.

“I see absolutely no reason why we should be rushing this ordinance through,” Nate Gnau said. “It makes zero sense to me that we’re just giving people no warning before we take their stuff, and then charge them at least $75 that they don’t have … we can do better than this, we have to do better than this.”

According to the “Penalties” section of the ordinance, each public camping violation is punishable by a fine of $75 to $750, and each subsequent violation within 30 days is punishable by a fine of $500 to $750. Several people at the meeting questioned the purpose of charging people with fines who have no way to pay them.

The ordinance also allows police officers to confiscate personal property without warning, whether or not an individual is cited with violating the ordinance, if an area is determined an “unauthorized encampment” and if that personal property is stored on public property, “creates a legitimate health and safety concern,” or “creates an immediate and substantial danger to the environment.” Confiscated materials deemed unsanitary or a danger to public health may be immediately disposed of, while other confiscated items may not be disposed of without the property owner’s consent.

Haine said as the Madison County State's Attorney, he fully supports the ordinance as written and urged for it to be passed immediately, calling it a “compassionate” and “common sense” approach to the city’s homelessness issue.

“It’s a common sense, practical, and respectful ordinance of all people - it recognizes the humanity of all,” Haine said. “These encampments are crime victim factories. The idea that we must do nothing to remove these deadly camps until sufficient subsidized housing or a perfect plan is available is not wise. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and this is a good ordinance.”

Martha Pfister disagreed with Haine, saying the ordinance lacks “common sense.”

“It’s not common sense, because we all know we’re not going to get $750 from someone who’s living on the streets,” she said of the fines mandated by the ordinance. “I’m only seeing this as a criminalization of homelessness … if there’s no place for people to go, it’s not common sense. It’s giving a record to someone, giving them a criminal record when they already have barriers to housing, they have barriers to employment, they have barriers to public services, and I just am not seeing any common sense here.”

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Others expressed concern that the lack of publicly available resources - and an outright ban on public camping - could push the city’s unhoused population onto residents’ private property. Some residents at the meeting said they have already experienced this, with one recalling three men who had been living in her lawn mower shed.

William Valyo shared the stories of three of his unhoused friends and said committee members should be ashamed for even considering the ordinance. He pointed out the few possessions homeless people have are often donated by community members.

“When you take away these things from homeless people who can't vote, you’re also stealing from many of your constituents who do, and we are angry at the thought,” he said. “No decent human being would take from them what little they have that keeps them barely alive on the street, and then I look into your eyes and I see people that are giving consideration to that very thing, that evil thing, that disgusting thing written in black and white in this ordinance, and it makes me ashamed that I live in Alton.

“The obvious solution to homelessness is homes. Other cities have done it, we can do it too … shame on you for even considering this legislation, shame on you all.”

Megan Tyler with Sacred Spaces of CARE said her organization would not have partnered with the Alton Police Department if they felt this ordinance was intended to criminalize people for being unhoused. Alton Police Chief Jarrett Ford later said his department is not actively “sweeping” for homeless camps, but if they receive a call about one, it’s their duty to respond.

Alderman Raymond Strebel said he was concerned about this winter approaching and wanted to approve the ordinance immediately so the Alton Police Department would have clear guidelines in place. Chief Ford said the ordinance as written was a good “starting place” and could always be amended as needed, but said his officers have been asking for guidance in such situations.

Alderman Nate Keener said if the ordinance isn’t intended to punish people without resources, then it shouldn’t be written that way, and asked to push the “pause button” to seek more collaboration on a solution.

Keener initially moved to delay voting on the item until Dec. 11, but that motion failed with “no” votes from Strebel, Alderwoman Carolyn MacAfee, and Alderman John Meehan (Alderwoman Stephanie Elliott was absent from the meeting). He then moved to table it until the committee’s first November meeting on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, which passed.

A full recording of the meeting, including even more public comments, is available at the top of this story, on the RiverBender.com Facebook page, or on RiverBender.com/video.

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