City leaders discuss homelessness with residents

Removing beggars and homeless people from public rights of way is not an option, the city says.

“Vagrancy doesn’t really exist,” Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough said earlier this month at District 5 Manager Karen Garcia’s neighborhood meeting for residents. of the Beverly Hills subdivision.

He was referring to a federal court’s invalidation of the state’s loitering law and the city’s two attempts to ban begging. The Hot Springs Board of Directors repealed the 2016 ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from soliciting anything from motorists after the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sued the city on behalf of a man arrested for begging under the state loitering law in 2015.

A federal judge has ruled that the city’s second attempt to regulate begging unduly burdened what the courts have called a constitutional right to beg. Preventing traffic hazards was the stated goal of the 2017 ordinance, but the judge ruled the city singled out beggars and failed to address other pedestrian-vehicle interactions, such as those involving the maintenance of streets or level crossings. The city had to pay the ACLU of Arkansas $30,702 in attorney fees.

City Attorney Brian Albright said the group having a resource center or homeless shelter would give the city recourse to combat loitering on public property.

“If you have enough beds for all these homeless people, you can say they can’t sleep in public, but until you have a bed in a shelter to take them to, you can’t take them out. of the public,” he said.

Albright was referring to the 9th decision of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise, Idaho, a 2018 ruling prohibiting Boise from enforcing its anti-camping orders without providing shelter beds to people it has removed from public rights-of-way. The precedent prevented the removal of a homeless man who lived outside Hot Springs City Hall for more than a week, the city said.

The city has considered using part of its $11.37 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation to build a 30-bed or more resource center, but is struggling to find an operator. The city said local nonprofits were hesitant to commit their resources given the lack of affordable housing in the area. The scarcity of reasonably priced housing would put people back on the streets after leaving the resource center, the nonprofits told the city.

Housing is one of five priorities the city council has established for 2023. A general budget adjustment of $40,000 the council passed earlier this month will fund an affordable housing strategy.

The city is seeking proposals from groups interested in operating a resource center. Burrough said the town of Pine Bluff recently learned it would cost $600,000 a year to operate such a facility.

“What we’re seeing is a very large expense when it comes to operating them, and none of our nonprofits have those funds,” he said. “There aren’t enough federal funds to do that, so we also need a benefactor to try to cover some of those expenses.”

Several residents of the housing estate said homeless people begged at the central avenue entrance to Cornerstone Market Place during the day and entered the neighborhood at night. Burrough said the city suspects a homeless camp has sprung up south of the neighborhood near Files Cemetery.

Police Chief Chris Chapmond told the group that people could be evicted from private property and prosecuted under the state’s criminal trespassing law.

“If it’s on private property, we actually have a lot of leeway to fix it, as long as we have your cooperation,” he said. “Once you tell them not to be there, or it’s posted and they know they shouldn’t be there, we can fix it.”

Burrough told residents to call police if they see unauthorized people on private property.

“If you see someone breaking the law, the number to call is 911,” he said. “When they’re in your yard. When you see them trying to get into a house. When you see a crime being committed, don’t call (Garcia). Dial 911.”

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